The Early Edition: December 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. 

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou has been granted bail of 10 million Canadian dollars (about $7.5 million,) while awaiting extradition to the U.S. from Canada, a judge ruled yesterday. The decision was handed down on the third day of Meng’s bail hearing, in a case that has complicated the relationship between China and the U.S. in the context of ongoing trade negotiations, Kate Conger reports at the New York Times.

President Trump has claimed that he is willing to intervene in Weng’s case if it would benefit U.S. national security or help secure a significant trade deal with Beijing. In an exclusive interview with Reuters news agency, the president claimed he would do “whatever’s good for this country,” adding “if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made, which is a very important thing, what’s good for national security, I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary,” Reuters reports.

China’s Foreign Ministry said today that Meng’s arrest was a mistake from the outset, and welcomed any efforts to push the case towards a correct resolution. Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang made the comment at a regular press briefing, Reuters reports.

U.S. government investigators are increasingly of the opinion that Chinese state hackers were the prime suspects responsible for the cyber intrusion into Marriott’s Starwood chain hotel reservation system reported last month, in a breach that exposed the private information and travel details of up to 500 million people. Sources familiar with the investigations have warned that the probe has not been completed, but the scope and nature of the hack – only discovered four years after the event – has prompted immediate speculation that it was carried out by a nation state, Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg report at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn has asked a federal judge to spare him from jail time and instead sentence him to a maximum of one year’s probation, according to a new memo from his defense attorneys.  Flynn’s request comes about one year after he pleaded guilty to one count of lying to F.B.I. agents about his links with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., and agreement to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The court filing cites Flynn’s “substantial assistance” in the ongoing investigation, adding “as the Government has made clear, his cooperation was not grudging or delayed … rather, it preceded his guilty plea or any threatened indictment and began shortly after he was first contacted for assistance by the Special Counsel’s Office,” Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

Earlier yesterday lawyers for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort suggested they might not contest Mueller’s conclusion that Manafort lied to investigators and breached a plea agreement. Manafort faces a custodial sentence of eight to 10 years in prison based on a conviction in a federal trial in Virginia, and up to 10 years on additional charges to which he pleaded guilty in Washington, D.C.; Manafort’s attorney Richard Westling said in court it was possible that no hearing about the evidence of Manafort’s alleged lies would be required —meaning Manafort could be sentenced without credit for cooperation, Byron Tau and Shelby Holliday report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan yesterday postponed a plea agreement hearing for accused Russian agent Mariia Butina until tomorrow, without specifying a reason for the delay. Reuters reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed yesterday that he had never heard of Butina until her July arrest, telling a meeting of the presidential human rights council that he asked Russian intelligence services for information about the detained 30-year-old after he heard about the “poor girl” who faces 15 years in prison, the AP reports.

An updated list of substantive documents in Russia investigation-related cases is provided at Just Security.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Google C.E.O. Sundar Pichai testified yesterday in front of a House oversight committee, but rather than the long-awaited discussion around data privacy, antitrust, the abuse of market power or China – Republican questions about political bias at the tech giant reportedly dominated the House Judiciary session. “A significant portion of this hearing was a waste of time because the First Amendment protects private individuals and corporations’ free speech rights,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif), seemingly frustrated by the fact that Pichai was asked repeatedly about allegations that Google was biased against conservatives, Jason Abbruzzese reports at NBC.

Hackers are increasingly able to access and exploit vulnerabilities in cloud services, according to a new Palo Alto Networks report published yesterday, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

The new National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence should aim to increase “awareness of A.I. safety and reliability concerns,” as well as work with other agencies to fill policy gaps, Paul Scharre and Michael C. Horowitz comment at Foreign Policy.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump yesterday insisted that he is having no difficulty finding a new chief of staff to replace John Kelly and that he is in “no rush” to fill the job, despite top contenders Mick Mulvaney and Nick Ayers taking themselves out of the running in recent days. “We have a lot of great people for chief of staff, a lot of people want the job,” Trump told reporters while sitting alongside Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office, adding: “a lot of people wanted to have it, and a lot of friends of mine want it, a lot of people that Chuck and Nancy know very well want it, I think people you’d like … and we have a lot of people who want the job chief of staff, and so we’ll be seeing what happens very soon,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Any candidate for the White House chief of staff role must win the approval of Trump special advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Gaby Orr writes in an analysis at POLITICO.

YEMEN                                                                       

House Republicans are moving to block members from forcing a vote on U.S. backing for Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni conflict. Last night the House Rules Committee advanced in a party-line vote a rule for floor debate of the Farm Bill that includes a provision stripping War Powers resolutions related to Yemen of their privileged status – intended to enable lawmakers to force vote on such bills – for the rest of this Congress; the rule, yet to be approved by the whole House, states: “the provisions of section 7 of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1546) shall not apply during the remainder of the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress to a concurrent resolution introduced pursuant to section 5 of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1544) with respect to the Republic of Yemen.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Yemen’s warring parties have agreed terms on a large-scale prisoner swap with more than 16,000 detainees expected to be released early in 2019. After a closed-door meeting at U.N.-brokered peace talks in the rural Swedish town of Rimbo – concluding with handshakes, embraces and kisses – Yemeni government-in-exile delegation member Askar Zouail claimed that his side had submitted the names of 8,576 detainees to the U.N. while the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels had submitted the names of some 7,487 individuals, Al Jazeera reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

President Trump said yesterday that he stands by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman despite a C.I.A. assessment that bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and appeals from U.S. senators for Trump to condemn the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Trump refused to comment on whether bin Salman was complicit in the murder, but did say: “he’s the leader of Saudi Arabia … they’ve been a very good ally,” Reuters reports.

Time Magazine has selected as its “Person of the Year” for 2018 a group of reporters led by Khashoggi, in recognition of their quest to seek truth around the globe in the face of persistent persecution and silencing by governments and extremists. “It’s a fascinating choice, and one meant to send a message … especially when you consider that whatever you may think of the concept of Time’s person of the year … Donald Trump cares deeply about it,” Chris Cilliza comments at CNN.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A four-year-old Palestinian boy has died after suffering injuries by Israeli gunfire at a routine protest near the fence with Israel, according to Gaza’s health authorities. Al Jazeera reports.

The head of the U.N. peace mission in Lebanon (U.N.I.F.I.L.) – Major General Stefano Del Col – has appealed for an end to “rumors and speculations” over tunnels discovered along the frontier with Israel. After a meeting with the Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Del Col said that the mission was “working in close coordination” with all parties to ensure that all related facts are “objectively determined and diligently addressed” in line with relevant Security Council resolutions, the U.N. News Centre reports.

SYRIA

The Iraqi military claims its jets have bombed two Islamic State group (I.S.) positions inside Syria used as meeting places for the militant group. Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement yesterday that at least 30 I.S. members were present in one of the locations targeted and another 14 members in the other, also stating that information was gathered from intelligence sources, the AP reports.

The Russian Defense Ministry says it will host an Israeli military delegation for discussions focusing on the situation in Syria. The ministry said the meeting scheduled for today follows a weekend phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 185 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov.25. and Dec. 1. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The death toll from a suicide bombing targeting a security forces convoy outside Afghan capital of Kabul has risen to 12, according to officials, with eight civilians killed in the latest Taliban-claimed attack near the city, Al Jazeera reports.

Soldiers from North and South Korea crossed into each other’s territory peacefully for the first time today, Seoul announced, as the troops began checking the dismantlement of guard posts in the Demilitarized Zone. AFP reports.

French authorities detained five people today as they hunt for a suspected extremist who launched an attack yesterday at the famous Christmas market in the eastern city of Strasbourg, killing three and wounding at least 13. The AP reports. 

About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

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