The Early Edition: January 30, 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.

SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE

U.S. spy chiefs yesterday broke with President Trump in their assessments of the threats posed by foreign powers including North Korea, Iran and Syria. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that China and Russia pose the most significant risks to the U.S., and are more aligned than they have been in decades as they target the 2020 presidential election and U.S. institutions to expand their global influence, David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

“China … Russia … Iran … and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways,” Coats said, adding that the various powers use these methods “to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.” Flanked by the directors of the C.I.A., F.B.I and National Security Agency, Coats warned the panel that “Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is closer than it’s been in many decades,” Reuters reports.

“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities,” Coats told the Committee, adding that Pyongyang “is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.” Trump is due to hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un late next month and as recently as last week maintained that the two sides are making progress in efforts to fully denuclearize the Korean peninsula, Rebecca Morin and Nahal Toosi report at POLITICO.

The officials offered “stark” warnings regarding the threats posed by Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.,) in contrast with Trump’s former declarations that the militant group has ben defeated. The report overseen by Coats and C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel argues that any lifting of pressure on the movement in Iraq and Syria could allow it to regroup; “the group will exploit any reduction in [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations,” the report states, adding that I.S.I.S. is still likely to try to attack the U.S., Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

“Point by point … the country’s top intelligence leaders demolished some of the key national security claims Trump has made since he took office,” Ken Dilanian writes in an analysis of the developments at NBC.

We should be concerned about the proximity between Russia and China, Graham T. Allison and Dimitri K. Simes caution at the Wall Street Journal, writing that “a sound U.S. global strategy would combine greater realism in recognizing the threat of a Beijing-Moscow alliance … and greater imagination in creating a coalition of nations to meet it.

Change in leadership of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence offers opportunities for great reform. Daniel Schuman explains at Just Security.

HUAWEI

Two units of Chinese tech giant Huawei will be arraigned on Feb. 28 in Seattle on a 10-count indictment on charges they conspired to steal T-Mobile trade secrets, according to court filings yesterday. The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) alleges Device Co Ltd and Huawei Device U.S.A. Inc committed wire fraud and obstructed justice by stealing robotic technology from T-Mobile in order to test smartphones’ durability, Reuters reports.

A second indictment obtained by prosecutors in Brooklyn, N.Y. reveals excerpts from a file obtained from Huawei C.F.O Meng Wanzhou’s electronic device at J.F.K. airport. The file includes “suggested talking points” about Huawei’s relationship with Skycom Tech Co.; prosecutors allege that Skycom was a Huawei subsidiary operating in Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions, Dan Strumpf reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. has formally requested Meng’s extradition, officials in Canada announced yesterday. She appeared briefly in court yesterday and is set to return for another court date next week, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said yesterday he expects to see significant progress in trade talks with Beijing, adding that charges against Huawei are separate issues, and that’s a separate dialogue.” Mnuchin commented that “forced technology issues are part of trade discussions, but any issues as it relates to violations of U.S. law or U.S. sanctions are going through a separate track,” Reuters reports.

The outcome of the U.S.-Huawei fallout and the Meng extradition case will have huge implications for the world’s two largest economies, Jethro Mullen and Ben Westcott comment at CNN, in an analysis of why “the dispute will shape ties between Beijing and Washington for years to come and could make or break China’s aim to become a global technology power.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone yesterday pleaded not guilty to charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian election interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Stone was arrested Friday morning having been indicted on one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of making false statements and one count of witness tampering, later released on a $250,000 signature bond, Aruna Viswanatha and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Stone said little during the 13-minute hearing, with his attorney entering Stone’s “not guilty” plea. Stone only addressed the court to say he understood the conditions of his release, which remain unchanged: he will not be allowed to contact potential witnesses in the case, his passport remains seized and his travel is restricted to his home in Florida, the D.C., Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area, and New York, Elisha Fieldstadt and Charlie Gile report at NBC.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday that he wants Mueller’s report to be as “open” as possible, telling reporters: “obviously I would like for as much as possible of the Mueller report to be open. I don’t know enough about Justice Department regulations to know what part of that, you know, might make sense not to be disclose … I think it ought to be as fully open and transparent, whatever the recommendation is, as possible,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

An account of Stone’s hearing yesterday, picking up on many of the behavioral similarities between Stone and president, is provided by Dana Milbank at the Washington Post.

Stone claims his right to free speech has been compromised, but he would do well to remember that “threats to a witness with intent to influence or prevent testimony is not protected speech,” and “lying in testimony to and concealing documentary evidence from congressional committees is not protected speech,” Jennifer Daskal comments us at Just Security.

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government yesterday fought to keep its grip on power, opening an investigation into what it called the “violent acts” of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, freezing his assets and banning him from leaving the country. The announcement came just hours after the Trump administration announced that it had handed control of Venezuela’s bank accounts and property in the U.S. to Guaidó, hoping to give him the necessary tools to start governing, Ana Vanessa Herrero and Clifford Krauss report at the New York Times.

Maduro reiterated today that he is ready to hold talks with the opposition to resolve the escalating political crisis, making comments in an interview with Russian media broadcast today. Guaidó has rejected previous calls from Maduro for talks, labeling them invitations to a fake dialogue, and has demanded that the opposition receive guarantees that Maduro would implement any promises he made in talks, Thomas Grove reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Maduro told reporters he was grateful for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic and military help over the years, and asked for the Kremlin’s support to defend the Venezuelan leadership diplomatically. “Putin is giving us support on all levels and we have received it with much pleasure and gratitude,” Maduro commented, Reuters reports.

Maduro also accused President Trump of ordering neighboring Colombia’s government to kill him, but claimed he remains open to the possibility of talks with the U.S. leader as well as his domestic opposition, Reuters reports.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan yesterday would not say whether the Pentagon is considering sending 5,000 U.S. troops to Colombia. Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon that he had not discussed such a plan with national security adviser John Bolton, spotted Monday holding a yellow notepad in the White House briefing room that appeared to include the phrase “5,000 troops to Colombia,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The State Department yesterday warned Americans to travel to Venezuela, citing crime, civil unrest and the arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens. “Security forces have arbitrarily detained U.S. citizens for long periods,” the travel advisory stated, adding “Venezuelan authorities may not notify the U.S. Embassy of the detention of a U.S. citizen, and consular access to detainees may be denied or severely delayed,” Sasha Ingber reports at NPR.

Trump’s Venezuela sanctions could serve to undercut his Iran policy. Keith Johnson explains at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is slated to use a foreign policy bill to break with President Trump over U.S. policy in Syria and Afghanistan, stating yesterday that he will offer an amendment that would warn against a “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from either country. Speaking from the Senate floor, McConnell claimed that his proposal would “acknowledge the plain fact” that al Qaeda, Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and their affiliates “pose a serious threat to us here in home,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Pentagon’s internal watchdog is set to investigate military refueling missions in the Middle East and Africa after the U.S. undercharged allies by $331 million for its support in the Yemeni conflict. The Department of Defense Inspector General announced yesterday that it will audit the energy reimbursement process for the Defense Logistics Agency – the body that purchases, stores and ships much of the U.S. military’s supplies, Joe Gould reports at DefenseNews.

The government of the Palestinian Authority tendered its resignation yesterday, in a move that reflected “rising public discontent” and the failure of efforts to reunite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – currently controlled by the militant Palestinian Hamas group. Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

The Pentagon suddenly adjourned a 9/11 pretrial hearing yesterday because the judge in the case had an undisclosed health emergency, defense lawyers announced yesterday. Court personnel declined to describe Marine Col. Keith Parrella health emergency, citing privacy; the abrupt recess has presented another stumbling block in the effort to try the five men accused of plotting al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The U.S. has slipped out of the top 20 countries thought to have the lowest levels of corruption, according to an annual report released yesterday by corruption watchdog Transparency International. Daniella Cheslow reports at NPR. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate 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).