The Early Edition: October 12, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE

The Turkish government has told U.S. officials that it is in possession of audio and video proving that Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul earlier this month. The material reportedly indicates that a Saudi security team detained, killed and dismembered Khashoggi in the building after he entered on Oct 2. to obtain an official document ahead of his upcoming wedding, Shane Harris, Souad Mekhennet, John Hudson and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

“Turkish investigators have sound from inside the consulate which makes it clear they killed him,” one individual familiar with the matter commented, though Saudi Arabia maintains it has nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance. Turkish officials may release the evidence in coming days, with the audio evidence described as particularly graphic, Farnaz Fassihi, Vivian Salama and Warren P. Strobel report at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkish authorities believe 15 named Saudi men who arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 2 are connected to Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder, with at least some amongst them appearing to have high-level connections in the Saudi government. Gul Tuysuz and Tim Lister report at CNN.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. is travelling to Riyadh and the U.S. government expects him to provide information on Khashoggi’s disappearance when he returns to Washington, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced yesterday, Reuters reports.

President Trump rebuffed calls from Congress to show more resolve in standing up to Saudi Arabia, claiming that halting arms sales “would not be acceptable … they are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs.” The president did, however, appear to strike a more forceful tone in his call for answers from the kingdom, claiming in an interview on “Fox and Friends” that “we can’t let it happen … and we’re being very tough and we have investigators over there and we’re working with Turkey and frankly we’re working with Saudi Arabia,” AFP reports.

Senators from both parties are preparing to force a vote on scrapping U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) saying yesterday that he plans to introduce a resolution of disapproval once Congress is notified of the next potential U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. Along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Murphy fell four votes short of blocking a Saudi weapons deal last year — and has told reporters that prospects of blocking weapons transactions are now improved: “I don’t think that a military sale could pass the Senate today … I don’t think that it could pass the House,” Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

“If it turns out to be what we all think it is today but don’t know … there will have to be significant sanctions placed at the highest levels,” Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters at the Capitol yesterday. Reuters reports.

“I’ve already seen the intel. It was very unnerving … you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) commented yesterday, adding “they put us in a bad spot, the Saudis did, and they need to pay a heavy price because I don’t want anybody to be confused about how we feel about stuff like this … if it turns out that this man was killed or mistreated by the Saudi government, we expect stuff like this from [Russian President Vladmir] Putin and we come down hard on him when he does it …so, everything we did to Putin, I want to do to Saudi Arabia.” Al Jazeera reports.

“I think the burden of proof is now on the Saudis to demonstrate that they were not participants in any way in harming, killing or kidnapping Mr. Khashoggi,” Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tim Kaine (D-Va.) commented yesterday while pushing for a tougher stance toward Saudi Arabia, adding that “the burden of proof is on them …they got to show it, and if they don’t show it, I think it will fundamentally change the nature of the relationship.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Turkey has reportedly accepted a Saudi proposal to form a joint working group to investigate the Khashoggi’s disappearance, Turkish Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin was quoted as saying yesterday by Anadolu agency, Reuters reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have until now kept their relations “cordial in the interest of stability.” Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, has sparked tension between the two leaders, with Erdogan repeatedly challenging Saudi Arabia to explain the dissident journalist’s disappearance, while the crown prince and his spokesperson have insisted – without providing evidence – that Khashoggi left the consulate freely and that they too are concerned about him, David D. Kirpatrick and Ben Hubbard report at the New York Times.

Several journalists and media organizations are starting to pull out of the “high-profile” Future Investment Initiative conference in Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s disappearance. Dylan Byers reports at NBC.

Updates on the Khashoggi case are provided at Al Jazeera.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“A full investigation must occur without delay … with transparent support from all involved parties,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) comments at the Washington Post, adding that “concurrently, the United States — the historic standard-bearer for human rights and press freedom — should ready action in response …” and that “if the men who have now been identified publicly are found to be complicit in a crime against Khashoggi, Global Magnitsky sanctions can be applied to them and, importantly, to any higher-ups in Saudi Arabia who directed their action.”

“Business as usual is not an option … however high the cost,” the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that Saudi Arabia must come up with a “credible explanation” regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance and the U.S. should lead in pressuring the kingdom to do so.

A breakdown of the manifold criticisms leveled at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia from abroad is provided by Greg Myre at NPR.

Khashoggi’s disappearance spotlights the staffing problem in the Trump administration precipitated by allowing “dozens of ambassador posts and senior State Department positions [to] sit empty.” Robbie Gramer explains at Foreign Policy.

A fact-checker on President Trump’s “fanciful” assertion that Saudi Arabia is “spending $110 billion on military equipment” is provided by Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The White House expects detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the U.S. in the coming days, two years after he was imprisoned, according to two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter. The North Carolina pastor’s internment sparked a major diplomatic rift between the two N.A.T.O. allies, Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube report at NBC.

Brunson is due to appear in court today near the coastal town of Izmir, at a hearing where the judge is reportedly expected to drop some charges against him and – at most – sentence him to time already served. Officials on both sides urged caution, warning a previous deal between the two nations for Brunson’s release had collapsed at the last minute, Alan Cullison, Peter Nicholas  and David Gauthier-Villars report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented Wednesday that “I am very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson … and his wife will be able to return to the United States,” making the remarks to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel yesterday destroyed a cross-border tunnel running from the Gaza Strip 200m into Israeli territory, which it claimed was dug by Palestinian militant Hamas group that is in control of the strip. An Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) statement said: “in the past few hours our forces have neutralized a terrorist attack tunnel belonging to the Hamas terrorist organization, which penetrated Israel from the central Gaza Strip;” there has been no immediate comment from Hamas, Reuters reports.

U.S. 22-year-old graduate student Lara Alqasem has appealed against her detention at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport over her alleged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement. Alqasem appeared in a Tel Aviv court yesterday, and will remain in detention until the court delivers a ruling, for which no date has been fixed, Al Jazeera reports.

The I.D.F. claims it has grounded its fleet of F-35 warplanes after a similar aircraft crashed in the U.S. Although the U.S. reportedly shared the findings of its investigation into the F-35 crash two weeks ago, I.D.F. air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin apparently wants to conduct additional tests on Israel’s F-35s, with Israel yesterday announcing that the testing will take several days, the AP reports.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed fighters weathered a sandstorm to battle Islamic State group fighters in eastern Syria yesterday, with the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces claiming it was fighting to recapture the village of Sousa. British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group reported that the fierce clashes started Wednesday and killed 18 Islamic State group fighters and at least 10 U.S.-allied fighters – with the fate of 35 others unknown, the AP reports.

Thousands of Syrians stranded on the Syrian-Jordanian border with Syria are running out of food as routes to their camp are closed off by the Syrian army and Jordan is preventing aid deliveries, relief workers and refugees said yesterday. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 70 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Oct. 1 and Oct. 6 [Central Command]

CHINA

China says U.S. accusations against alleged spy Yanjun Xu of attempting to steal trade secrets from U.S. aviation and aerospace companies were “made out of thin air.” Xu was charged Wednesday after having been extradited to the U.S. from Belgium; Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang yesterday dismissed the allegations and appealed to the U.S. to deal with the matter “fairly in accordance with law” and ensure Xu’s “legitimate rights and interests,” the AP reports.

The U.S. government announced yesterday that it will sharply restrict exports of civilian nuclear technology to China – technology that officials claim is being diverted to power new generations of Chinese submarines, aircraft carriers and floating nuclear power plants. The announcement combined security warnings with longstanding complaints that Beijing is continuing to steal nuclear-related technology from U.S. firms to benefit Chinese state-owned companies, David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Australia has assigned a guided missile frigate to the East China Sea to bolster international efforts in enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang, Australian Defense Force Chief of Joint Operations Air Marshall Mel Hupfeld said today. Hupfeld claimed that the 230-crew strong warship will be supported by two Australian A.P.-3.C. Orion surveillance aircraft stationed in Japan, explaining to reporters that “despite the easing of tensions on the Korea Peninsula, Pyongyang continues with its nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons programs in defiance of … U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Rod McGuirk reports at the AP.

U.S. officials are reportedly preventing American aid workers from making humanitarian trips to North Korea, slowing the flow of food and medical assistance to the impoverished, isolated nation. The decision was reportedly made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and is allegedly part of an effort to increase pressure on North Korea in response to perceived foot-dragging on denuclearization, Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea has shown no signs of curbing its aggressive cyber tactics, despite a Department of Justice (D.O.J.) complaint last month accusing the Pyoangyang of several high-profile cyberattacks. Jacqueline Thomsen and Olivia Beavers provide an analysis at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s legal team is reportedly preparing answers to written questions provided by special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The questions are apparently focused on matters related to the investigation of possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians seeking to meddle in the election, with Trump’s lawyers in part relying on documents previously provided to the special counsel to formulate their answers, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger and Evan Perez report at CNN.

U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis II – who oversaw former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s criminal trial this summer – complicated Manafort’s plea deal yesterday by characterizing a plan to seek the dismissal of deadlocked charges only once Manafort has finished cooperating with Mueller as “highly unusual.” Ellis ordered Manafort, his attorneys and Mueller’s prosecutors back to his Alexandria courtroom for a hearing Oct. 19 to resolve the situation and to set a sentencing date for Manafort, Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump is considering up to five candidates to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the assumption that Sessions will leave his post in 2018, according to White House officials and outside advisers. The potential candidates include Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; Transportation Department general counsel Steven Bradbury, former Attorney General Bill Barr; Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; and retired appeals court judge from the District of Columbia Circuit Janice Rogers Brown, Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s aides are reportedly urging him to replace departing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley with another woman, in the hope that the move will reinforce support among female voters ahead of the upcoming midterm elections, according to three people familiar with the matter. The development comes after top pick Dina Powell withdrew her name from contention, Gaby Orr reports at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Russian military claims it conducted a “massive” test of Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces yesterday. The Russian defense ministry said the maneuvers featured launches of ballistic missiles by the navy’s nuclear submarines from the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, with long-range bombers also firing cruise missiles – all missiles purportedly hitting their designated practice targets, the AP reports.

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators yesterday introduced legislation that would block individuals from foreign adversaries from owning or having control over vendors administering U.S. elections. Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

G.O.P. lawmakers yesterday pushed through 15 judicial nominations, in a deal with Democrats aiming to free up senators through Election Day. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has snubbed several human rights organizations, sending out through her deputy an invitation to attend a briefing today on the U.S. plans before the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee, but excluding several groups that attended a similar meeting last year – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Colum Lynch reports at Foreign Policy.

“Across the spectrum of military technologies … the U.S. is losing its edge as competitors gain ground,” Mark Helprin comments in an Op-Ed at the Wall Street Journal. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).