The Early Edition: January 31, 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.

U.S. INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING

President Trump yesterday launched a broadside against his intelligence chiefs for being “wrong” about their new assessment on Iran’s nuclear developments. Trump’s response comes a day after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel offered testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee seeming to contradict a number of the president’s foreign policy positions, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Trump reacted angrily to the footage of the his intelligence chiefs testifying on Capitol Hill – singling out Coats by name during his “morning rant,” two people with knowledge of the outburst have told reporters. Kaitlan Collins and Caroline Kelly report at CNN.

“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” Trump claimed in the first of two messages sent on Twitter, adding “they are wrong! When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different,” the BBC reports.

“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” the president opined in a second message, claiming that “[Iran remains] a source of potential danger and conflict … they are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge … There [sic.] economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back,” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is urging top intelligence officials to meet with Trump following the president’s furious reaction. Schumer yesterday sent a letter to Coats saying that it was “incumbent” that Coats, Haspel and F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray “insist on an immediate meeting” with Trump in the wake of his remarks. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“You cannot allow the President’s ill-advised and unwarranted comments today to stand,” Schumer wrote, adding “he is putting you and your colleagues in an untenable position and hurting the national interest in the process … you must find a way to make that clear to him.” A meeting with the president is necessary “to educate him about the facts and raw intelligence underlying the Intelligence Community assessments,” Schumer wrote, Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

The intelligence chiefs left “one serious threat off their list: that of a president mired in his own delusions who refuses to hear the truth,” the Washington Post editorial board comments.

A breakdown of the contradictions between the assessments of the national security establishment and the policies of the White House, and the remaining areas of alignment, is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR.

VENEZUELA

“The transition will require support from key military contingents … we have had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces,” leader of Venezuelan opposition and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó writes in an Op-Ed published yesterday at the New York Times. Guidó adds that “the military’s withdrawal of support from [incumbent president Nicolás] Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government, and the majority of those in service agree that the country’s recent travails are untenable.”

Thousands of opposition protesters led by Guaido yesterday called on the armed forces to abandon Maduro and allow humanitarian aid into the crisis-wracked country. People took to the streets in the capital Caracas and various other cities, equipped with banners reading: “armed forces, regain your dignity,” Maduro usurper,” “Guaido, president” and “no to the dictatorship,” AFP reports.

Maduro yesterday warned the U.S. that intervening in his country “would lead to a Vietnam worse than they can imagine.” Maduro made the comments in a video posted to his social media accounts yesterday, although he also made more conciliatory remarks in interviews with Russian media, stating “I am ready to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition” and naming Mexico, Uruguay, Bolivia and Russia among possible mediators, Ana Vanessa Herrero and Austin Ramzy report at the New York Times.

President Trump reportedly congratulated Guaidó Tuesday over the phone for “his historic assumption of the presidency.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that “President Donald J. Trump spoke today with Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó to congratulate him … and to reinforce President Trump’s strong support for Venezuela’s fight to regain its democracy,” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

U.S. military intervention could provide a lifeline for Maduro, Lindsey A. O’Rourke comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that “if diplomacy fails and U.S. policymakers escalate their attempts at regime change, they may besetting themselves up for disaster. Within Venezuela, there is little domestic support for foreign intervention.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump said yesterday that he would not intervene with the Department of Justice’s (D.O.J.) decision-making process regarding whether to release the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian electoral interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. “They’ll have to make their decision within the Justice Department … they will make the decision as to what they do,” Trump said in an Oval Office interview with the website The Daily Caller, adding that he had not spoken with acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker about the final period of the probe, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

“I’ve chosen to stay out of it,” Trump stated, although he claimed that “I had the right to, as you know, I had the right if I wanted to to end everything … I could’ve just said, ‘That’s enough’ … many people thought that’s what I should do.” Reuters reports.

Suspected hackers obtained and leaked confidential information about Mueller’s investigation as part of a pro-Russian disinformation campaign apparently aimed at discrediting the inquiry, Mueller’s office disclosed yesterday. Mueller’s office had turned over the documents to a Russian firm fighting federal charges – Concord Management & Consulting LLC – as part of the disclosure process ahead of trial; the leaked documents were not sensitive but “demonstrate the risks” involved in the case, prosecutors claimed in a court filing, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Mueller filing alleges that the Twitter handle @HackingRedstone posted a message in late October 2018 claiming access to the special counsel investigation’s database, with the message reading “as we hacked Russian server with info from the Russian troll case Concord LLC v. Mueller … you can view all the files Mueller had about the I.R.A. [Internet Research Agency] and Russian collusion … enjoy the reading!” Mueller’s office claims that an unidentified reporter contacted the special counsel on the same day as the message was sent, who explained the receipt of a direct message via Twitter from an individual “who stated that they had received discovery material by hacking into a Russian legal company that had obtained discovery material from [Concord’s legal representatives] Reed Smith,” Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Mueller’s office claims that with the assistance of the F.B.I. it determined that more than 1,000 of the 300,000 files on the website linked from the @HackingRedstone tweet included markings unique to materials that it had shared with Concord during earlier rounds of discovery. The F.B.I. also ascertained that the website was registered roughly a week before the tweet in question, with an I.P. address in Russia, Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wants the F.B.I. to explain why Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone was arrested in an early morning raid last week. Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sent a letter to President Trump Tuesday offering him reduced costs for keeping U.S. troops in his country. The letter, confirmed by three officials and described by one who had seen its contents, is among the most explicit signs to date that Ghani is concerned about the consequences of an abrupt U.S. pullout from the “intractable” Afghan conflict that has lasted nearly two decades. Mujib Mashal reports at the New York Times.

The Afghan security forces continue to lose grip over parts of the country while the Taliban are holding their ground, despite an increase in the U.S. air attacks against the insurgents, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.) has found in a quarterly report published today. The latest report shows 53.8% of the country’s 407 districts are government-held, covering 63.5 %of the population by October 2018, with the rest of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S.’ desire to withdraw from Afghanistan may in fact be stronger than the Taliban’s desire for peace, Sami Yousafzai comments at The Daily Beast.

YEMEN

Congress is set for a second showdown with President Trump over his administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni civil war. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.,) Mike Lee (R-Utah,) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) along with Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.,) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) yesterday introduced updated versions of their Yemen war powers resolutions, with Sanders telling a press conference: “today we are coming together to address one of the great humanitarian crises facing the planet and also in a historical way to make certain that that U.S. Congress reasserts its constitutional responsibilities in terms of war making … the U.S. should not be supporting a catastrophic war led by a despotic Saudi regime with a dangerous and irresponsible military policy,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The kingdom yesterday released seven prisoners from Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who were flown to the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa by the Red Cross – a day following the return of a Saudi prisoner freed by the Houthis to Riyadh. The apparent swap comes as Yemen’s warring parties are still finalizing out details of a larger prisoner exchange agreed last month as a confidence-building gesture at the first major peace talks of the nearly four-year-old war; U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths welcomed the release and said he hoped it would encourage the rapid implementation of the larger swap, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian and U.S. officials reportedly held “last-ditch” talks over the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (I.N.F.) in Beijing—but the discussions have apparently ended without any agreement being reached. The U.S. is now expected to begin pulling out of the accord this weekend unless Moscow agrees to destroy a missile Washington says is in violation of the agreement; “unfortunately, there is no progress,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian media, The Daily Beast reports.

“Huawei’s governance is a mixture of obfuscation and opacity,” The Economist comments, in an Op-Ed on the Chinese tech giant that has become embroiled in controversy. 

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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).