The Early Edition: February 14, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort breached his plea agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office by lying to prosecutors about matters material to its probe on Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled yesterday. The ruling concludes weeks of disagreement between Manafort’s legal team and Mueller’s office over whether Manafort had intentionally lied to prosecutors and obstructed their investigation after having pledged to cooperate with it, Sharon LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

Judge Jackson – overseeing the Manafort case in a Washington court – found there was a “preponderance” of evidence that Manafort lied on three different topics, including his contact with his former associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who prosecutors allege has ties to Russian intelligence – ties that Kilimnik has denied, Reuters reports.

Jackson cleared Manafort of allegations that he deliberately lied on two other subjects: Kilimnik’s role in an obstruction of justice charge and statements Manafort made about his contacts with members of the Trump administration. However, the ruling will almost certainly sink Manafort’s hopes of avoiding significant time in custody, with Mueller’s team now released from obligation to back a more lenient sentence, Tom Winter reports at NBC.

Manafort will be sentenced March 13. The order from Jackson notes that she is not addressing “the question of whether the defendant will receive credit for his acceptance of responsibility” with regard to sentencing guidelines, Carrie Johnson and Jessica Taylor report at NPR.

Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone yesterday asked a federal judge to examine whether Mueller publicized his indictment last month ahead of his court docket being unsealed. In a court filing, Stone’s legal team claims that CNN proffered a copy of the indictment from Mueller’s office without a time stamp from P.A.C.E.R., a federal courts database; Stone has suggested the lack of a time stamp shows CNN had advance knowledge of his arrest, and the filing reads: “a person with privileged access to a ‘draft’ of Roger Stone’s Indictment, identical to that which had been filed under seal…had — in violation of the Court’s Order — publicly distributed the Indictment prior to its release from the sealing ordered by the Court,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Two teams of federal officials convened to combat foreign election interference are being dramatically downsized, according to three current and former Department of Homeland Security officials. The sources claim that they fear the department will not prepare adequately for election threats in 2020, with one stating: “the clear assessment from the intelligence community is that 2020 is going to be the perfect storm … we know Russia is going to be engaged … so it’s very curious why the task forces were demoted in the bureaucracy and the leadership has not committed resources to prepare for the 2020 election,” Erin Banco and Betsy Woodruff report at The Daily Beast.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

President Trump yesterday would not commit on whether he will sign a bipartisan border security deal reached this week but floated the possibility that he would move to unilaterally secure funding for his long-promised border wall, telling reporters that “regardless of what I do … I have a lot of options.” The president reiterated that he wants to avoid another government shutdown, saying that “I don’t want to see a shutdown …a shutdown would be a terrible thing,” and later adding that “there’s no reason” for a second shutdown within two months, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLTICO.

Lawmakers worked toward finalizing a significant spending bill and border security compromise yesterday, preparing to get it passed and sent to the president in time to avoid the possible shutdown Friday. Lawmakers finalized the 1,159-page bill just before midnight yesterday, with votes expected in the House and the Senate today; although the outcome remains uncertain, the legislation is expected to pass and Trump is expected to sign it, Erica Werner, John Wagner and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Former U.S. air force intelligence officer Monica Witt has been charged with espionage in addition to giving away the identity of a U.S. agent and other secrets. Witt (39,) was a cryptologist and a counter-intelligence investigator for the U.S. air force for over 10 years before working as an intelligence analyst for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton; according to charges unsealed yesterday by the Department of Justice (D.O.J.,) she defected to Iran in August 2013, taking along details of U.S. counter-intelligence agents she had worked alongside who were then targeted by Iranian hackers, four of whom are named in the indictment and charged alongside Witt, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Witt allegedly conspired with Iranian associates to provide “documents and information relating to the national defense of the United States … with the intent and reason to believe that the same would be used to the injury of the U.S. and to the advantage of Iran,” in the period from around January 2012 to around May 2015, the indictment reads. Witt also “created target packages for use by Iran” against U.S. government agents and counterintelligence officers, the indictment alleges, Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

“It is a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said yesterday, adding “it is sadder still when this person, as a member of the American armed forces, previously invoked the aid of God to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the U.S. and to defend her country against foreign enemies … Monica Witt is alleged to have done just this,” Nicole Gaouette and Tammy Kupperman report at CNN.

“If there’s a silver lining to be found in Wednesday’s blockbuster indictment … it’s that the court papers detail how astonishingly bad Monica Witt was at espionage,” Spencer Ackerman and Kevin Poulsen write in an analysis at The Daily Beast.

Twenty-seven members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard were killed yesterday in a suicide attack in the southeast of the country. At least 10 members of the Guard were also wounded in the suicide car-bomb attack, which targeted a bus transporting the security force, Al Jazeera reports.

The Revolutionary Guard pointed finger at “apostate terrorists and mercenaries of intelligence services” for carrying out the bombing “to ruin the celebration of the 40-year-old Islamic revolution,” which the country marked earlier this week. Jaish al-Adl militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack, Aresu Eqbali and Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Our response in defense of the Islamic Revolution will not be limited to our borders… the enemies will receive a very firm response from the Revolutionary Guards,” Guards commander Ali Fadavi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency, Reuters reports.

The International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) yesterday ruled that Iran has the right to recover two billion dollars in frozen assets in the U.S. The 15-member tribunal in The Hague ruled that Tehran may proceed with its bid to recover the assets, which Washington says must go to victims of attacks blamed on Tehran. The Justices rejected U.S. claims that the court has no jurisdiction and that the case should be thrown out as Iran has “unclean hands” from alleged ties to “terrorism,” Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump White House has allegedly stepped up a secret U.S. program to sabotage Tehran’s missiles and rockets, according to current and former administration officials, who described the plan as part of a growing campaign by the U.S. to undercut Tehran’s military and isolate its economy. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad explain at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin will today host a summit with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi. Today’s meeting between Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will reportedly focus on the long-term settlement of the Syrian crisis, the Kremlin said in a statement Monday, although the three leaders are also set to discuss projects and coordination on the international arena, Al Jazeera reports.

Germany has announced it has arrested two former Syrian intelligence officers alleged to have been involved in torturing opponents of their President Bashar al-Assad. Both men seem to have sought asylum in Germany after leaving Syria some years before the migrant influx in 2015, the BBC reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 199 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Jan. 27 and Feb. 9. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The House yesterday easily passed a bill that would require the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. military support from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen. In a 248-177 vote largely along party lines, the House sent the war powers resolution to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass – confronting Trump with the possibility of issuing the first veto of his presidency, Catie Edmonson and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

“The only patriotic thing to do is to vote for this resolution,” main resolution sponsor Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the resolution’s chief House sponsor, said ahead of the vote, describing it as the only option “if you care about our troops … if you care about American interests … if you care about the outrage that the Saudis are inflicting on Americans and on the world.” The resolution passed by the House would direct the president to withdraw U.S. military forces in or “affecting” Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda militants or associated forces, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Key Trump ally and real state developer Tom Barrack yesterday apologized after he appeared to defend Saudi Arabia against criticism for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Barrack – former Chair of the Trump inaugural committee now under investigation by federal prosecutors for possibly misusing donations – earlier this week told an audience at the Milken Institute M.E.N.A. Summit in Abu Dhabi that “whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal, or worse,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Barrack apologized yesterday for not being more clear that Khashoggi’s murder “was atrocious and is inexcusable,” claiming that he had been trying to make a broader point that about a disconnect when it comes to Western democracies’ understanding of “the rule of law and monarchies across the Middle East,” the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Democratic lawmakers yesterday said Congress would oppose U.S. military intervention in Venezuela and challenged the credibility of President Trump’s special envoy Elliott Abrams over his former stance on U.S. covert action. Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Tuesday that the U.S. would “hold Russia accountable” for its role in the poisoning of former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K. last year. Deputy State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino claimed in a statement that Pompeo informed Lavrov that the U.S. would impose penalties as required by the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has sought to reassure fellow N.A.T.O members about the U.S. commitment to the alliance, which has been unsettled by President Trump’s mixed messages and the breakdown of 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. N.A.T.O. secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference yesterday that Shanahan gave “a very strong and a very clear message about the U.S. ironclad commitment to N.A.T.O.” on the first of two days of meetings, and that “we are encouraged by his strong message today,” James Marson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Taliban militant group will hold a previously unexpected round of peace talks with the U.S. in Pakistan Monday, ahead of scheduled meetings in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar a week later, the insurgent group said in a statement yesterday. The talks are geared toward finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s 17-year war and the Qatar meeting is expected to include a collection of prominent Afghan figures; U.S. Peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is expected to head the U.S. team there, having met earlier this week with N.A.T.O. and European Union officials, Kathy Gannon reports at the AP.

Huawei Chair Eric Xu has launched a broadside against the U.S., citing a “coordinated, tactical political campaign”.  In a set of “extraordinary” comments yesterday, the tech giant Chair highlighted Washington’s large-scale surveillance programs as a possible motive for the U.S. campaign against Huawei, asking “is [the U.S.] truly thinking about cyber security and protecting the privacy of other countries’ citizens, or do they have other motives?” Aliya Ram reports at the Financial Times. 

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).