The Early Edition: December 18, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A Russian influence campaign ahead of the 2016 presidential election exploited a range of social-media platforms to suppress black voter turnout and boost then-candidate Donald Trump’s bid, according to two Senate Intelligence Committee-commissioned reports published yesterday. The new research offers “granular” detail of attempts by Russian actors – including Kremlin-linked troll farm, Internet Research Agency – to impersonate U.S. citizens on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest and other platforms, infiltrating U.S. political discourse with divisive content, Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The reports suggest that months after Trump took office – the Russian disinformation teams attempted to target special counsel Robert Mueller – currently investigating Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion by the Trump campaign – hoping to keep Trump in post having worked to get him into the White House. Russian operatives “unloaded” on Mueller through fake social media accounts, falsely claiming that the former F.B.I. director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election amounted to “crackpot conspiracies,” Craig Timberg, Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dowskin report at the Washington Post.

The data in the reports “demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race … religion and ideology,” according to committee’s chairman Richard Burr (R- N.C.,) as well as showing “how the I.R.A. actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions.” The panel’s top Democrat Mark Warner (Va.) claimed that the reports indicate that “these attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed,” Ryan Lucas reports at NPR.

This should stand as a wake-up call to us all that none of us are immune from this threat … and it is time to get serious in addressing this challenge,” Warner continued in a statement. An account of the reaction to the new reports from U.S. lawmakers is provided by Allan Smith at NBC.

The Kremlin has denied allegations of electoral meddling through social media, dismissing the charges as “totally unfounded.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented: “judging from what I have read about this report in public sources, it evokes nothing but incomprehension … it makes general claims and accusations, and some of them are completely unclear to us,” also telling reporters that the committee’s report does not make clear “what Russia has to do with this,” Henry Foy reports at the Financial Times.

An F.B.I. document published by Mueller’s office late yesterday offers fresh details of how former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to federal investigators about his discussions with the Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak during the presidential transition. Prosecutors filed the document — an account by F.B.I. agents of their Jan. 24, 2017, interview with Flynn — on the night proceeding of Flynn’s sentencing for lying to F.B.I. agents about his talks with Kislyak; Flynn faces up to six months in prison for the felony, The Daily Beast reports.

Former presidential adviser and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone admitted in federal court papers filed yesterday that he has spread false information online, in a defamation case involving outspoken critic of the Chinese government Guo Wengui. Yesterday’s settlement with Guo comes as Stone awaits an indictment from Mueller’s office over his connection to WikiLeaks and hacked Democratic emails released by the whistleblowing site in 2016, Tim Stelloh reports at NBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is attempting to dampen down impeachment chatter, as part of an effort to “give Mueller space and time to finish his work … while satisfying the Democrats’ burning desire to aggressively investigate … Trump in the meantime,” Darren Samuelsohn and Kyle Cheney explain at POLITICO.

Mueller’s team is now reportedly “zeroing in on Trumpworld figures who may have attempted to shape the administration’s foreign policy by offering to ease U.S. sanctions on Russia.” Erin Banco provides an analysis of the special counsel’s evolving strategy at The Daily Beast.

“Republicans have protested over the past year that election interference is neither unusual nor important … this week’s reports comprehensively put both arguments to rest,” the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that there can now be no question that Russia interfered in the presidential election on Trump’s behalf.

“It’s mortifying and preposterous that fake news ruined America … that doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” Michelle Goldberg comments at the New York Times, arguing that despite Republican skepticism as to the impact of Russian cyber-interference, “it should be obvious that what happens online influences our perceptions of, and behavior in, the offline world.”

The paralysis of the executive branch is the most disturbing feature of yesterday’s Russia disclosures, Joshua Geltzer comments at Just Security, stressing that “the very issuance of these reports and the novelty of what they still reveal serve as an indictment of the White House’s persistent inaction.”

Five takeaways from the new reports on Russian social media operations are explored by Scott Shane at the New York Times.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia’s online disinformation campaigns aimed at U.S. voters has accused assorted tech giants of impeding the investigation. The analysis claimed that amongst others, Facebook, Google and Twitter submitted incomplete datasets to the panel and may have misled lawmakers about the efforts of the Internet Research Agency troll farm; “regrettably,” the report states, “it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress; one platform claimed that no specific groups were targeted (this is only true if speaking strictly of ads), while another dissembled about whether or not the Internet Research Agency created content to discourage voting (it did … it is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion,” Harper Neidig and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

Cybersecurity lapses leave the U.S. vulnerable to deadly missile attacks, the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General says in a new report, dated Dec. 10 but not made public until Friday. The report, summing up eight months of investigation of the nation’s ballistic missile defense system, cites errors as basic as neglecting to encrypt classified flash drives and failing to put physical locks on critical computer, Alex Johnson reports at NBC.

Social media represents “the terrain on which our entire political culture rests … whose peaks and valleys shape our everyday discourse … and whose possibilities for exploitation are nearly endless,” Kevin Roose writes at the New York Times, cautioning that “until we either secure that ground or replace it entirely, we should expect many more attacks, each one in a slightly different form, and each leaving us with even more doubt that what we see online reflects reality, or something close to it.”

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The White House has announced that President Trump did not commit to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in talks with Turkish President Reccep Tayip Erdoğan at the G-20 summit two weeks ago. Turkey has long sought the extradition of Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed U.S. exile for nearly two decades, and is blamed by   Erdoğan for a failed 2016 coup – a charge Gulen denies, Al Jazeera reports.

Two former business partners of ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn have been charged with failing to register as foreign agents as they covertly lobbied on behalf of Turkey. A former partner at Flynn’s former lobbying firm Flynn Intel Group – Bijan Rafiekian – is being charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy for his efforts to get Gulen extradited; Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin has also been charged with conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent, as well as with lying to investigators. Caitlin Opryski reports at POLITICO.

Five things to know about the connection between Flynn and Turkey are set out by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

SYRIA

Turkish President Tayyip Reccep Tayip Erdoğan said yesterday that Ankara might start a new military operation in Syria at any moment, “touting support” from President Trump despite the fact that the Pentagon has issued a stern warning to Turkey regarding such unilateral military action. Erdoğan suggested that Trump was more receptive to Turkish plans to move east of the Euphrates river than his own U.S. Department of Defense, stating “we officially announced that we will start a military operation to the east of the Euphrates … we discussed this with Mr Trump and he gave a positive response,” Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 251 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec 2. and Dec. 8. [Central Command]

YEMEN

A U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Yemen’s strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeidah and its surroundings will start today, according to officials, after renewed fighting looked set to undermine the hard-won accord struck in the rural Swedish town of Rimbo. The deal announced on Thursday between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government-in-exile and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels included an “immediate ceasefire” at the port, which serves as a crucial gateway for humanitarian aid, AFP reports.

People currently in Hodeidah confirmed that there had been no fighting between the parties since 3am. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon announced yesterday that two of the four tunnels discovered by Israel and allegedly dug by the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group are in violation of the cease-fire agreement that ended the 2006 war. “This is a matter of serious concern and U.N.I.F.I.L. technical investigations continue,” the peacekeeping force said in a statement, the AP reports.

A negotiated end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan “has never been more real…than it is now”, Head of the U.N. peace mission in the country Tadamichi Yamamoto told the Security Council yesterday, highlighting a series of “important milestones” achieved over recent months, the U.N. News Centre reports.

President Trump will order the establishment of a new military space command in the coming days, as Vice President Mike Pence plans two high-profile visits related to the space program, according to three U.S. officials. Ryan Brown and Elizabeth Landers report at CNN.

A long-read on “the reality of American empire … and the injustice that pervades society at home,” based on experiences of training at bases in California and Afghanistan, is provided by former U.S. Marine Lyle Jeremy Rubin at the Guardian. 

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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).