The Early Edition: December 4, 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 KILLING AND The G-20

C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel will brief Senators this morning on what the agency knows about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, following his disappearance at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2., according people familiar with the matter. Haspel’s planned briefing follows criticism leveled at the Trump administration from several lawmakers last week, after Haspel failed to join an earlier briefing on Saudi policy conducted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. intelligence officials reportedly concluded that the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman must at the least have known of the plot, though President Trump has been unwilling to directly condemn bin Salman. Haspel is set to meet Senate leaders from both sides, as well as the chairs and ranking senators on the key national security committees, on Tuesday at 11.30am E.T., the AP reports.

The C.I.A. would not confirm or deny whether the briefing would take place, Al Jazeera reports.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said lawmakers are trying to determine an “appropriate” response to Khashoggi’s killing – warning against a “complete fracture” with the kingdom. Asked at a Wall Street Journal event last night whether Senate Republicans wanted to “punish” the country, McConnell answered: “no response is certainly not appropriate … looking the other way is not appropriate but a complete fracture with Saudi Arabia in my view is not in our best interest long term,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Montreal-based Saudi dissident and friend of Khashoggi –  Omar Adbulaziz – has filed a lawsuit this week against Israeli cybersecurity firm N.S.O. Group, alleging that the Saudi government used the company’s software to spy on conversations with Khashoggi. Abdulaziz claimed he had exchanged hundreds of text messages with Khashoggi through encrypted messaging apps, commenting further: “Jamal was killed two months later … for sure the conversations between us played a major role in what happened to Jamal,” Shannon Stant reports at NPR.

N.S.O. group rejected the accusations from Abdulaziz. The group has faced previous claims that its products were used to stifle dissent in other countries, but the alleged connection to the Khashoggi murder is the most high-profile case so far, “drawing new attention to the secretive company’s business practices and the Israeli government’s oversight of private defense contractors,” Josef Federman reports at the AP.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has defended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “high-five” with Crown Prince Bin Salman at the G-20 summit last weekend, commenting that “good personal relations are the basis for effective bilateral cooperation.” Reuters reports.

Bin Salman’s scheduled visit to Jordan has been postponed by at least two days, according to sources who did not elaborate on the reason behind the delay, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S.’ “power as well as its principles depends on an international system in which strongmen can’t act on their violent whims and the rule of law enables social stability and the free flow of trade,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing further that “the recent vote should show Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration that Congress isn’t mugging for the cameras or ‘caterwauling.’”

Trump’s relatively quiet appearance at the G-20 summit last weekend meant that the U.S. “ dodged another blow to our national honor,” former national security adviser Susan E. Rice writes at the New York Times.  

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump yesterday encouraged the courts to give his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen the harshest possible punishment, seeking to distance himself from Cohen’s guilty pleas and practically erasing any possibility of a presidential pardon. In a pair of messages on Twitter, Trump wrote: “‘ Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time’ … you mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get … his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free … he lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence,” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

In a pre-sentencing pitch to the court Friday – Cohen’s lawyers asked that he is given no jail time, noting his ongoing cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, AFP reports.

Trump also tweeted in praise of longtime political adviser Roger Stone, under scrutiny for having allegedly made contacts with whistleblowing website WikiLeaks in an effort to help the 2016 Trump campaign, with Republican activist Jerome Corsi  as his intermediary. “‘I will never testify against Trump’,” the president wrote in a message on Twitter, adding that “this statement was recently made by Roger Stone, essentially stating that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about ‘President Trump’ … nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’” Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

Corsi has lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) accusing Mueller’s office of misconduct. Corsi alleges Mueller’s team of prosecutors tried to pressure him into admitting that he lied about his attempts to learn of WikiLeaks’ plans ahead of the release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s stolen emails in October 2016; Corsi claims that he forgot about messages he had sent Stone and others looking to find out what damaging information WikiLeaks had on the Clinton campaign — and later modified his testimony after he found the relevant communications, Anna Schecter and Rich Schapiro report at NBC.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered to help Ecuador’s then-incoming President Lenín Moreno arrange for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be handed over to the U.S. last year, according to sources. The talks reportedly ended without a deal, as Mueller was appointed to head the Russia probe at the relevant time and Manafort was immediately seen as a major target in the investigation, Kenneth P. Vogel and Nicholas Casey report at the New York Times.

An analysis of the developments leading to Cohen’s guilty pleas is provided by Benjamin Weiser at the New York Times.

A series of court filings in the coming weeks may shed substantial light on what Mueller has learned from people formerly in Trump’s inner circle, in a series of developments that may leave the president “rattled,” Ken Dilanian and Tom Winter write at NBC.

“We soon should know who Manafort tried to protect … what crimes those people committed with Manafort … and what proof Mueller has of those crimes,” Elie Honig writes at CNN, adding “this is going to get interesting, and soon.”

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Russia has partially unlocked Ukrainian sea ports on the Azov Sea, according to Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan, who was quoted as saying today: “yes, Berdyansk and Mariupol ports are partially unlocked. Vessels make their way to the entrance and exit through the Kerch strait towards Ukrainian ports … the movement is partially restored,” Reuters reports.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko yesterday announced a partial call-up of reservists for training amid tensions with Russia, saying the country needs to bolster its defenses to counter the threat of a Russian invasion – following the Nov. 25 incident in which the Russian coast guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian naval off the Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin dismissed Poroshenko’s statement as an “absurd” attempt to inflame tensions, Yuras Karmanau and Vladimir Isachenkov report at the AP.

The naval clash in the Kerch strait looks set to dominate a N.A.T.O. foreign ministers meeting starting today, with members on both sides of the Atlantic “grappling to craft a robust response.” The escalating Moscow-Kiev spat looks set to overshadow a separate debate on Russia’s alleged violation of the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces in Europe (I.N.F.), Daniel Michaels and Jessica Donati report at the Wall Street Journal.

Foreign policy spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political bloc – Juergen Hardt – said yesterday that the G-20 summit failed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for Moscow’s actions toward Ukraine. Hardt commented that “Putin escaped nearly unscathed with his renewed aggression against Ukraine,” Reuters reports.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“I am certain that, at some time in the future … President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia … will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race,” President Trump wrote in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding: “the U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year … Crazy!” Reuters reports.

N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has claimed that time is running out for Moscow to comply with the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces in Europe (I.N.F.,) stating yesterday: “we all know that … that this is not tenable, that we have an arms control agreement that is only respected by one party.” Washington has argued that Russia’s new 9M729 missile system contravenes the accord, the AP reports.

“Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities, or those of our allies,” the Head of the U.K.’s international spy service (MI6) Alex Younger commented yesterday, citing the Novichok nerve agent attacks in the Western town of Salisbury earlier this year. Jack Guy reports at CNN.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Moscow tomorrow, Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying today, Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

President Trump is reportedly making a personal appeal to Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan to help end the war in Afghanistan as U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad returns to the region in an attempt to lay the ground for substantive peace talks with the militant Taliban-led insurgency, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials yesterday. Saeed Shah in Islamabad and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon has identified Sgt. Jason Mitchell McClary (24) as the fourth U.S. soldier who died Sunday from injuries sustained from an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) in eastern Afghanistan on Nov 27. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Taliban seems to be in no rush to reach a peace settlement in Afghanistan. Pamela Constable provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

YEMEN

U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths today sought to press forward planned peace talks for the country’s warring parties in Sweden, following yesterday’s evacuation of 50 wounded Houthi rebel fighters for treatment in neutral Oman.
An official from the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) – a key member of the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels – commented “we believe Sweden offers a critical opportunity to successfully engage in a political solution for Yemen,” AFP reports.

Griffiths yesterday arrived in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa to escort Houthi negotiators to Sweden for the U.N.-sponsored talks, Reuters reports.

“As foreign powers circle like predatory hawks over Yemen’s shattered land … vying for advantage … children will continue to starve and die,” Simon Tisdall writes in an Op-Ed at the Guardian.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.) has launched what it describes as “an operation to expose and neutralize” tunnels between Lebanon and Israel, allegedly dug by Iran-backed Lebanese militia group. Israeli military spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan claimed that the operation would only take place on the Israeli side of the border and would not extend into Lebanon, adding: “we see the Hezbollah activities as a flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli authority,” Al Jazeera reports.

A military court in the Gaza Strip has sentenced six Palestinians to death for allegedly collaborating with Israel, sentencing other eight defendants to various prison sentences and hard labor, Al Jazeera reports.

An explainer on the various corruption investigations involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is provided at the Economist.

Netanyahu met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels yesterday to discuss Iran and other regional issues, Reuters reports.

IRAN

A U.S. aircraft carrier strike group will arrive in the Persian gulf within days, according to U.S. defense officials, ending the longest period in two decades that a military presence has been absent from the region. The U.S.S. John C. Stennis and accompanying ships will arrive by the end of this week exhibit a show of force against Iran, in the context of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran over renewed Trump administration sanctions on the country, as well as the role of Iranian-backed groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

France and the UK have echoed the Trump administration’s warnings that Iran may be in breach of U.N. obligations by testing medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in commented today that a visit to Seoul by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remains “a possibility” and that such a trip would help to improve Pyongyang’s relationship with the U.S., Reuters reports.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday urged Kim to take concrete steps toward complete denuclearization, Kaori Hitomi and Mari Yamaguchi report at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 185 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov.18. and Nov. 24. [Central Command] 

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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).