The Early Edition: November 16, 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.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has reportedly prepared an indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in a move signaling a “drastic escalation” of the administration’s prolonged battle with Assange and his whistleblowing anti-secrecy website. The indictment came to light late yesterday through by way of an unrelated filing in which prosecutors inadvertently cited charges against Assange; “the court filing was made in error … that was not the intended name for this filing,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia commented, Charlie Savage and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

The D.O.J. is allegedly increasingly optimistic it will be able to force Assange – holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012 – into a U.S. courtroom, according to people in Washington familiar with the matter. The sources could not say whether discussions were under way with the U.K. or Ecuador about Assange’s case, but the developments come in the context of deteriorating relations between Assange and his hosts, with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno describing Assange as a “stone in our shoe,” Aruna Viswanatha and Ryan Dube report at the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook’s board and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg yesterday defended the social media giant over its handling of Russian interference, including allegations that it spread misinformation to discredit critics. Zuckerberg commented that neither he nor Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg knew about Facebook’s relationship with Republican-leaning communications consultancy Definers Public Affairs – accused of attempting to smear Facebook’s opponents and competitors as well as draw attention to their links with philanthropist George Soros, Shannon Bond reports at the Financial Times.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday Zuckerberg doubled down on the consulting firm’s messaging, stating that “the bottom line is the intention was not to attack an individual but to demonstrate that a group that was presenting itself as a grassroots effort was in fact funded by … was not in fact a spontaneous grassroots effort,” although he claimed that “I have tremendous respect for George Soros,” Julia Carrie Wong reports at the Guardian.

“I think it would be good for the world if [Zuckerberg] stepped aside,” virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier commented yesterday, suggesting that the fact “that [Facebook] is a one-man shop… is really, really not okay … it’s not okay for the world … it’s not even in the spirit of capitalism. I think it’s really anti-market, anti-democratic.” Al Jazeera reports.

An in-depth look at the workings of communications consulting firm Definers Public Affairs and its relationship with Facebook is provided by Kevin Poulsen and Will Sommer at The Daily Beast.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia will seek the death penalty against five men suspected of killing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom’s top prosecutor announced yesterday, as the U.S. imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials in its harshest measure against Riyadh since the crisis began on Oct 2. The prosecutor’s announcement marked an attempt to quell the global outcry over Khashoggi’s death and distance the kill team’s operation from the Saudi leadership – in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – but analysts have argued that an operation of the kind that led to Khashoggi’s death could not have taken place without the prince’s knowledge, Aya Batrawy reports at the AP

The Crown Prince had “absolutely nothing to do” with Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir stated yesterday following the prosecutor’s announced. When asked about possible international sanctions in response to the case, al-Jubeir told reporters there was a difference between sanctioning individuals and holding the Saudi government responsible, Reuters reports.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded to the developments by stating that the prosecutor’s announcement fell short of Turkey’s expectations, insisting that the suspects detained in Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing should be put on trial in Turkey. “I want to say that we did not find some of his explanations to be satisfactory … those who gave the order, the real perpetrators need to be revealed … this process cannot be closed down in this way,” Cavusoglu remarked, the AP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the freshly imposed sanctions represent “an important step in responding to Khashoggi’s killing” and vowed to “continue to seek all relevant facts, consult Congress, and work with other nations to hold accountable those involved.” Targets of the sanctions include former adviser to the crown prince Saud al-Qahtani; Istanbul consul-general Mohammed Alotaibi; and Maher Mutreb – who the treasury department alleges “coordinated and executed” the operation, the BBC reports.

A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators introduced a bill yesterday aimed at forcing “meaningful accountability” for Khashoggi’s killing, also seeking to push the parties in Yemen’s civil war toward a peace process at a time when U.S. support for the Saudi -led coalition in Yemen has come under scrutiny. “While the Trump administration’s announcement today of sanctions on 17 Saudi individuals is a welcome step, it is far from sufficient,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement, adding that “there must be a transparent, credible investigation into Khashoggi’s murder and with this bill Congress is demonstrating its commitment to accountability and human rights,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Funeral prayers have been held in absentia for Khashoggii at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in the Saudi city of Medina, Al Jazeera reports.

“The account of Jamal Khashoggi’s death offered by Saudi Arabia on Thursday was shocking in its audacity,” the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that the Saudi regime’s stonewalling highlights the need for a genuinely independent U.N.-led international investigation into Khashoggi’s death.

A profile of the five men who may face the death penalty over Khashoggi’s killing is provided at Reuters.

An analysis of how the Saudi narrative of Khashoggi’s killing has changed over time is provided at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Turkey has ruled out any deal with the U.S. to scale down its investigation into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in return for the expulsion of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara claims was behind a failed coup two years ago. NBC News reported yesterday that the Trump administration was looking at ways to remove Gullen as a means of persuading Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan to ease pressure on the kingdom over Khashoggi’s killing; The White House has said the story is “not accurate” and a senior Turkish official avowed that the two issues remain separate, Reuters reports.

The U.S. Defense Department has delivered a report to Congress detailing implications of Turkey receiving 100 F-35 fighter jets, according to five people familiar with the report, removing a key obstacle to the deal’s conclusion. Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system had raised concerns in the West, as it was said to provide an opportunity for Moscow to gain deep insight into the vulnerabilities of the most advanced U.S. warplane, Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump yesterday asserted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is in complete disarray and a “disgrace to our Nation,” while adding that the White House is running smoothly despite news of a series of shake-ups amongst senior staff. “The inner workings of the Mueller investigation are a total mess,” Trump claimed in a series of messages on Twitter, adding “they have found no collusion and have gone absolutely nuts … they are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want … they are a disgrace to our Nation and don’t…care how many lives the ruin;” it was not immediately clear how Trump came to his conclusions about the Mueller probe’s inner workings, Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Judge Dabney Friedrich yesterday upheld Mueller’s indictment against a Russian troll farm charged with using social media to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The federal judge rejected Russian firm Concord Management and Consulting’s request to dismiss the Mueller indictment, according to court documents, with the firm having pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government and interfering in the 2016 election, Olivia Beavers and Brett Samuels report at the Hill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) claimed yesterday after a meeting with acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker that he was confident that Whitaker would not interfere with Mueller’s probe. “He’s seen nothing out of bounds or no concerns at all about Mr. Mueller,” Graham commented, Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has overseen the testing of a “newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon,” Pyongyang’s state media reported today, in a move regarded by analysts as “more of a political message than a serious provocation.” The announcement represents the first official report of a weapons test by the North since it embarked on a diplomatic process with Washington over denuclearization, AFP reports.

Pyongyang has announced that it will deport a U.S. citizen who entered the country illegally from neighboring China last month — in a move seen as a conciliatory gesture aimed at maintaining ties with Washington. North Korean official K.C.N.A. news agency identified the American as Bruce Byron Lowrance and said that he had told his captors that he was controlled by the C.I.A., Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

U.S. MILITARY

The Defense Department has failed its first full-scale audit. Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Shanahan told reporters of the result in a news briefing yesterday, adding that the agency’s accounting issues could take years to fix, but cautioning that “we never expected to pass [the audit]” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

The number of U.S. troops at the Mexican border may have peaked at about 5,800, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan told reporters yesterday, adding that he would start looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home or perhaps shifting some to different border positions. Reuters reports.

“Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door … leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers,” Lara Seligman explains in an analysis of the Department at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition has ordered a temporary halt to its offensive against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels occupying the strategic Yemeni port of Hodeidah, according to officials, in a move raising hopes that a more permanent ceasefire can be reached in the conflict-riven nation. Saudi and U.A.E-backed militias were instructed on Wednesday night to pause the 12-day-old assault until further notice, according to several Yemeni officials, who added that the assault would resume if the rebels attacked coalition positions, Bethan McKernan and Patrick Wintour report at the Guardian.

The two most senior Khmer Rouge leaders alive have been found guilty of genocide, almost 40 years since the fall of Pol Pot’s communist regime fell in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s former second-in-command Nuon Chea (92) and former head of state Khieu Samphan (87) were both sentenced today to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979, in “a landmark moment” for the Khmer Rouge tribunals, Hannah Ellis-Peterson reports at the Guardian.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 150 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov. 4. and Nov. 10. [Central Command]

An analysis of the role of Vice President Mike Pence in the international arena – as President Trump focuses on concerns closer to home – is provided by Kevin Liptak at CNN. 

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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).