The Early Edition: January 29, 2019

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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.

HUAWEI

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday announced criminal charges against Chinese tech giant Huawei and its affiliates, accusing the firm in two indictments of violating intellectual property law and lying about its compliance with U.S. sanctions against Iran. Huawei was charged with breaching confidentiality agreements with T-Mobile by photographing, measuring and stealing part of a T-Mobile-developed robot, as well as misleading banks about the its ties with Iranian affiliate Skycom, Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

The actions included charges against Huawei’s C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou, currently detained in Vancouver following a U.S. extradition request. Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker – flanked by the heads of several other cabinet agencies – said the U.S. will continue to seek Meng’s extradition, David E. Sanger, Katie Benner and Matthew Goldstein report at the New York Times.

U.S. officials have warned that China’s corporate pillaging of secrets represents a pre-eminent national- and economic-security threat, with some government estimates valuing the associated damage into the hundreds of billions of dollars in damages annually. “The criminal activity in this indictment goes back 10 years and goes all the way to the top of the company,” Whitaker commented, Kate O’Keeffe, ArunaViswanatha and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

China today hit back against the “political manipulations” behind the indictment. “For some time, the U.S. has used state power to discredit and crack down on specific Chinese companies in an attempt to strangle the enterprises’ legitimate and legal operations … there are strong political motivations and political manipulations behind the actions,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement attributed to spokesperson Geng Shuang, AFP reports.

Senior information and communications officer at the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (M.I.I.T.) Wen Ku described the indictments were “unfair and immoral,” making comments at a news briefing in Beijing. Reuters reports.

Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freedland commented yesterday that the country’s former ambassador to China John McCullum was fired because he expressed views contrary to the federal government’s position on Meng’s detention. Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have both stressed that the legal proceedings relating to Meng are not politically motivated; McCallum had told Chinese-language media in the Toronto area last week that the extradition of Meng to the U.S. “would not be a happy outcome,” Rob Gillies reports at the AP.

The U.S. has been concerned about Huawei’s state links since at least 2010, Dominic Rushe and Lily Kuo explain in an in-depth analysis of the developments at the Guardian.

Huawei has already taken a series of preemptive steps to defend itself against U.S. penalties. Louis Lucas and Emily Feng provide a breakdown at the Financial Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said yesterday that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign is “close to being completed.” Whitaker claimed that he has been fully briefed about Mueller’s work and that he is looking forward to reviewing a final report, adding “I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as possible,” Philip Ewing reports at NPR.

Whitaker has previously condemned the Mueller investigation – a central contention for those who criticized his appointment. When asked at a D.O.J. news conference yesterday whether he maintained his concerns after being briefed on the report, Whitaker said: “I am comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed either through the various means we have,” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

President Trump’s nominee for attorney general William Barr told U.S. lawmakers that he has discussed the substance of Mueller’s investigation in broad terms with Vice President Mike Pence, although he has never spoken about it with the president. The Senate Judiciary Committee is due to vote today on whether to endorse Barr’s nomination and send it to the full Senate for a confirmation vote; in written answers to questions posed by committee members released yesterday, Barr said he has discussed the issue of recusing himself from overseeing Mueller’s with D.O.J. officials and that “if confirmed, I will consult with the Department’s career ethics officials, review the facts, and make a decision regarding my recusal from any matter in good faith,” Reuters reports.

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is making changes to the composition of his criminal defense legal team, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis announced yesterday. Davis said in a statement that Cohen will no longer be represented by Guy Petrillo and Amy Lester, with Michael Monico and Barry Spevack newly appointed to represent Cohen in his work with Mueller’s office, federal prosecutors and congressional committees. “We look forward to helping Mr. Cohen fulfill what he has told us is his only mission – to tell the truth as he knows it and to turn the corner on his past life and taking ownership for his past mistakes by cooperating as best as he can with all governmental authorities in search of the truth,” Monico and Spevack commented in a joint statement, Jacqueline Thomas reports at the Hill.

Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone is set to appear in Washington D.C., federal court today. Stone was indicted last week on seven charges, including five counts of lying to Congress about his interactions regarding WikiLeaks, obstructing an official proceeding and witness tampering. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described rumors of a potential presidential pardon for Stone as “ridiculous,” although she did not rule out such a move. “I’m not going to talk about hypotheticals that are just ridiculous,” Sanders said, adding “I’m not aware of a conversation regarding [a pardon] or a need for it,” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

VENEZUELA

The U.S. yesterday announced sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company P.D.V.S.A. in a coordinated effort with main opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó aiming “to cripple embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s power base.” The measures were presented as a way of preventing Maduro from raiding the coffers of his economically struggling country before he is replaced; “the purpose of sanctions is to change behavior,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House, AFP reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton announced that $7bn of P.D.V.S.A. assets would be immediately blocked as a result of the sanctions while the company would also lose an estimated $11bn in export proceeds over the coming year. The sanctions – marking the U.S,’s toughest economic move against Maduro to date – come five days after Guaidó’s dramatic declaration sparked a political crisis in the country, Tom Phillips reports at the Guardian.

Bolton said yesterday that President Trump believes “all options are on the table” when it comes to Venezuela, including military action. In the minutes after the announcement, “eagle-eyed” reporters spotted cryptic jottings on Bolton’s notebook appearing to read: “Afghanistan -> Welcome the Talks,” and “5,000 troops to Colombia;”

when asked about Bolton’s notes, a White House spokesman reportedly replied: “as the President has said, all options are on the table,” The Daily Beast reports.

Bolton’s notes have raised further questions about the potential for military action in Venezuela, Eli Rosenberg and Dan Lamothe write at the Washington Post, commenting that “if enacted, the troop movement would mark a major escalation of U.S. involvement in South America, though it is unclear what exactly the service members’ roles would be.”

“The Western left does need to take a serious look at itself over Venezuela—not least because of what it says about the health of leftist elements that … are close to attaining real power,” James Bloodworth argues at Foreign Policy.

The only route to Maduro’s fall from power is desertion by the military, Omar Lugo comments at the Guardian.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. and the Taliban militant group have drafted the framework for a deal that could lay the ground for peace talks with the Afghanistan government, U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters in comments published yesterday. The comments mark the clearest signal yet from a U.S. official that talks between Washington and the militant group are progressing, sparking hopes of a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict, Mujib Mashal reports at the New York Times.

A burst of activity culminated in an “unprecedented” six consecutive days of talks in Qatar last week, with both the U.S. and the Taliban claiming progress had been made. “We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement,” Khalilzad was quoted as saying, after arriving in Kabul Sunday to update Afghan authorities on the talks, Al Jazeera reports.

Khalilzad told Afghan media that Washington and the Taliban “agreed to agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues,” adding that Afghans must “seize the opportunity,” according to comments released by the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan described the talks as “encouraging,” Rahm Faiez reports at the AP.

“There could be much to celebrate in such an agreement … which may … perhaps … end America’s longest war,” Peter Bergen writes in an analysis of the developments at CNN, asking whether Trump’s negotiators have managed to pull off a “diplomatic coup.”

SYRIA

A suspected Islamic State group suicide attack on the governing council of insurgent-held Idlib in northwest Syria today killed one person and injured three others, U.K.-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has announced. The target was the National Salvation Government in Idlib city, linked to the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance that controls much of the enclave in northwestern Syria, Reuters reports.

Iran yesterday struck economic and trade deals with Syria, as it expands its role there after assisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim most of the country. Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri commented from Damascus that Tehran has reached “very important agreements on banking cooperation” with Syria, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 575 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12. [Central Command]

YEMEN

U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has appealed to the country’s warring sides to withdraw their troops from the port city of Hodeidah, which serves as a lifeline for millions of starving Yemenis, after aid agencies warned conditions in the impoverished country are rapidly deteriorating. Griffiths, who arrived yesterday in the rebel-held capital Sanaa for his third trip to the country this month, said while there had been “changes in timelines” regarding both the proposed troop pullout and a prisoner swap, the “momentum is still there,” Al Jazeera reports.

The shelling of a camp for displaced people in Yemen’s northwestern Hajjah province killed eight civilians and wounded 30 others, the U.N. announced Sunday. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.N. Special Rapporteur on executions Agnes Callamard – currently on a week-long visit to Turkey to investigate the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – will today meet Istanbul’s chief prosecutor, having met Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu yesterday. “We have made a request to the Saudi government for access to the consulate as well as meetings with Saudi authorities here … we’re waiting for their response,” Callamard told reporters today, Al Jazeera reports.

The Senate voted yesterday to advance legislation affirming the right of local and state governments to break ties with companies that boycott or divest from Israel, with Republicans attempting “to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its traditional allies in the American Jewish community,” Catie Edmonson reports at the New York Times.

A coordinated global cyber attack spread through malicious email could cause economic damages anywhere between $85 billion and $193 billion, a hypothetical scenario developed as a stress test for risk management has indicated. Reuters reports.

The U.S. Department of Energy has reportedly started manufacturing a new low-yield nuclear weapon designed to counter Russia. The National Nuclear Security Administration claims that production of the weapon, known as the W76-2, has begun at its Pantex Plant in the Texas Panhandle, Geoff Brumfiel reports at NPR.

The attorney for alleged architect of the 9/11 plot – Khalid Sheik Mohammed – yesterday threatened to refuse to participate in his client’s pretrial hearing this week, claiming that he was disturbed by the F.B.I. questioning a former 9/11 defense team paralegal at an Army base in Texas. Defense attorney David Nevin has suggested that the questioning by federal agents raised a new challenge to attorney-client confidentiality in the terrorism trial, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The U.S. sought to derail Michelle Bachelet’s Bid for her role as U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Colum Lynch explains at Foreign Policy.

“The Trump administration is not prepared for a foreign policy crisis,” former deputy secretary of state Antony J. Blinken write in an Op-Ed at the New York Times. 

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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).