The Early Edition: February 8, 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.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) reportedly told a senior aide he would go after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi “with a bullet,” a year before the dissident journalist was murdered inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. U.S. intelligence understood that MBS was ready to kill the journalist, although he may not have literally intended to shoot him, Mark Mazzetti reports at the New York Times.

The conversation was intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies, as part of routine efforts by the National Security Agency and other agencies to capture and store the communications of global leaders, including allied ones. Julian Borger and Bethan McKernan report at the Guardian.

Evidence collected in Turkey indicates that Khashoggi was the victim of “a brutal and premeditated killing … planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard has found following her visit to Turkey from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. “The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the sheer brutality of it has brought irreversible tragedy to his loved ones,” Callamard commented, adding that the killing “is also raising a number of international implications, which demand the urgent attention of the international community including the United Nations.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Kingdom “seriously curtailed and undermined” Turkey’s ability to investigate Khashoggi’s murder, Callamard claimed, finding in her preliminary report that it was 13 days before Turkish officials were allowed inside the Istanbul consulate, the BBC reports.

Saudi Arabia quietly held a second court hearing for 11 people facing charges over the killing, Callamard disclosed, criticizing the kingdom for its lack of transparency in the proceedings over the slaying. “Given the importance of the case, we should be expecting a greater presence of representatives of the media, of civil society, of a range of other governments, not just those hand-picked by the Saudi authorities,” Callamard commented, Jamey Keaten reports at the AP.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is renewing an effort to penalize Saudi officials for Khashoggi’s death, yesterday reintroducing a bill that would require sanctions on those responsible. “Seeing as the Trump administration has no intention of insisting on full accountability for Mr. Khashoggi’s murderers, it is time for Congress to step in and impose real consequences to fundamentally reexamine our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Senate Foreign Relations committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has given in to the wishes of acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker that a subpoena is not issued while Whitaker testifies before the committee as scheduled for today. Yesterday, the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) sent the committee a letter demanding a commitment in writing that any subpoena would not be used during the hearing, a promise that Nadler was initially not prepared to give; after evening negotiations, however, the committee agreed verbally and in writing not to issue a subpoena on or before Feb. 8, according to D.O.J. spokesperson Kerri Kupec, Katie Benner and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

Democrats have pledged to press Whitaker about a number of issues – namely whether he has revealed anything about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. “Based upon today’s action, it is apparent that the Committee’s true intention is not to discuss the great work of the D.O.J., but to create a public spectacle,” Whitaker said yesterday in a statement that accompanied a five-page letter to Nadler, arguing that the acting attorney general has no legal obligation to discuss his conversations with the president. Sadie Gurman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) yesterday said his panel has still found no evidence to suggest that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Burr told C.B.S. news that “based on the evidence” his committee has seen so far, there is no reason to suggest that members of the Trump campaign and the Russian government were working together during the election, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s team has accused former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort of continuing to try to minimize the conduct of an associate with alleged ties to Russian intelligence, even after Manafort agreed last year to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, according to a newly released court transcript. The partially redacted transcript suggests that when Manafort was debriefed by prosecutors and F.B.I. agents, he seemed to be trying to avoid providing information that could be damaging to Kremlin-linked associate Konstantin Kilmnik; “I think Mr. Manafort went out of his way in this instance … to not want to provide any evidence that could be used with respect to Mr. Kilimnik,” deputy special counsel Andrew Weissmann told U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson during a court session yesterday, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Mueller is reportedly focused on a meeting at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign between Manafort and Kilimnik. Kilimnik, indicted last year on charges of witness tampering in Manafort’s case, has denied having ties to Russian spy agencies, Reuters reports.

A legal analysis of today’s Whitaker hearing, unpicking the difficult issues around subpoenas and executive privilege, is provided by Founding Editor and Senior Fellow Andy Wright at Just Security.

VENEZUELA

The head of U.S. Southern America Command (Southcom) yesterday said the military is prepared to protect Americans and U.S. diplomatic facilities in Venezuela “if necessary,” with the Latin country in the midst of turmoil as incumbent president Nicolás Maduro faces a challenge from leader of the opposition Juan Guaidó. “Southcom is supporting diplomatic efforts, and we are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary,” Navy Adm. Craig Faller stated in his opening remarks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Trucks bearing aid are poised at Colombian frontier, with the food delivery rejected by Maduro and summoned by Guaidó.  Dylan Baddour provides an account of the situation at the border at the Wall Street Journal.

What appeared to be a carefully calibrated policy to outst … Maduro was actually a big gamble by a small group of opposition leaders acting on a hastily assembled plan,” David Luhnow, Juan Forero and José de Córdoba comment at the Wall Street Journal, in an analysis of how the group managed to take control of the country’s opposition.

SYRIA

The Pentagon is preparing to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria by the end of April, even though the Trump administration has yet to come up with a plan to protect its Kurdish partners from attack when they leave, according to current and former U.S. officials. With U.S.-backed fighters set to seize the final Syrian sanctuaries held by Islamic State group in the coming days, the U.S. military is turning its attention toward a withdrawal of forces in the coming weeks, Dion Nissenbaum and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga leaders claim that Islamic State group still presents a genuine threat and the U.S. must not withdraw its forces from Syria. Jennifer Glasse provides an account at Al Jazeera.

“We don’t get to choose when the war ends … but we do get to choose where it is fought,” Marc A Thiessen comments at the Washington Post, arguing against a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. The war, Thiessen claims, “can either be fought over there, in the deserts of Syria and the mountains of Afghanistan, or it can be fought over here — on American streets and in American cities, as it was on Sept. 11, 2001 … it’s up to us.”

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 645 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Jan. 13 and Jan. 26. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Yemen’s warring parties reached a preliminary compromise on a plan for the redeployment of opposing forces from the key port of Hodeidah, the U.N. announced yesterday. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the preliminary accord was reached by representatives of Yemen’s government-in-exile and the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels, who met on a U.N. vessel in Hodeidah’s inner harbor during U.N.-mediated talks between Feb. 3-6, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Top Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulovm has met with Taliban representatives and expressed Moscow’s support for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The meeting came after two days of talks between prominent Afghan figures and Taliban representatives in Moscow and contradictory statements about an immediate U.S. forces withdrawal from the country, Al Jazeera reports.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has defended the fact that “Death to America” chants are commonplace at anti-U.S. rallies across Iran, although he qualified that the chanting is aimed at U.S. leaders and not its people. Khamenei’s website today quoted him as saying the chant means “death to U.S. leaders, death to [President] Trump and [national security adviser] John Bolton and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo,” the AP reports.

The choice of Vietnam as the venue for a second U.S.-North Korea summit later this month highlights the possibility of moving beyond conflict and division towards a thriving partnership, the U.S. State Department said yesterday. State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino told a news briefing that U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun is in Pyongyang to prepare the Feb. 27-28 summit and seeking progress on commitments made at the first meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last June, Reuters reports.

Navy and intelligence veteran and former television news correspondent Lea Gabrielle will take up a key position at the State Department to tackle foreign propaganda efforts, reportedly as a plank of the U.S. government’s response to Russian disinformation, terrorist group messaging, and Chinese propaganda. Robbie Gramer and Elias Groll report at Foreign Policy.

“Counting the bodies in conflicts is a necessary … confusing and too often sordid business,” Peter Beaumont writes at the Guardian, explaining that although necessary, body counting “becomes sordid … when the process becomes political and weaponized for a purpose; that is, when it is in hock to competing agendas.” 

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).