The Early Edition: May 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 AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS           

Attorney General William Barr has assigned Connecticut-based prosecutor John Durham to examine the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Durham was reportedly tapped to look into how the probe began, following calls from President Trump for an investigation into the probe that he has described as an “illegal takedown that failed,” Adam Goldman, Charlie Savage and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Barr picked Durham in recent weeks to work on the review, reportedly designed to ensure the U.S. government’s “intelligence collection activities” related to the Trump campaign were “lawful and appropriate,” according to a person familiar with the decision, Matt Zapotosky and Felicia Somnez report at the Washington Post.

Durham’s appointment comes about a month after Barr told members of Congress he believed “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign in 2016. Barr later clarified that he did not mean anything pejorative, although he was gathering a team to look into the origins of the special counsel’s investigation, the AP reports.

Durham’s inquiry is the third publicly known investigation focused on the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign. Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz is reviewing how investigators used wiretap applications and informants as well as whether political bias motivated decision-making, while Utah-based attorney John W. Huber is also examining aspects of the investigation, Justin Wise reports at the Hill.

Other details of Barr’s review are scarce, and the D.O.J. did not immediately comment on the development. Durham was nominated by Trump in 2017 after a long career as a federal prosecutor in both Republican and Democratic administrations, focusing on organized crime, public corruption and financial fraud, Sadie Gurman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr. agreed to sit for voluntary interviews with the Senate Intelligence Committee twice in recent months – only to back out later, panel Chair Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) has stated, according to two people familiar with Burr’s remarks. Burr said at a senators-only lunch last Thursday that Trump Jr.’s evasions had left the committee no choice but to issue a subpoena on April 8 to give senators a chance to directly question him as they seek to finalize details on their Russian election interference investigation. Nicholas Fandos and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

In the event that Trump Jr. does not comply with the subpoena – the chamber is preparing for the possibility it could vote on enforcing the order, according to sources from both parties. The chamber has several options if it chooses to force the issue, including contempt and a special option “as an alternative to both the inherent contempt power of each House and the criminal contempt statutes,” according to the Congressional Research Service, Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein quoted Mueller in remarks at the University of Baltimore School of Law commencement yesterday. “As Robert Mueller once said, ‘there [may] come a time when you will be tested… you may find yourself standing alone, against those you thought were trusted colleagues …you may stand to lose [all that] you have worked for …and [it may] not be an easy call,’” Rosenstein stated, in his first public appearance since stepping down from his previous post which involved overseeing Mueller’s work, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Rosenstein slammed former F.B.I. Director James Comey, describing him as a “partisan pundit” whose firing was justified. “I do not blame the former director for being angry,” Rosenstein said, adding “but now the former director is a partisan pundit, selling books and earning speaking fees while speculating about the strength of my character and the fate of my immortal soul  … that is disappointing … speculating about souls is not a job for police and prosecutors,” Sadie Gurman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Federal prosecutors signaled yesterday that they could call former Trump Campaign Deputy Chair Rick Gates to testify at two high-profile upcoming criminal trials arising from Mueller’s investigation. There is a possibility Gates could be selected as a witness in the D.O.J.’s cases against both former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig and longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, according to a joint status report that says Gates “continues to cooperate” with the government and is not yet ready for his own sentencing, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s former senior adviser Steve Bannon allegedly urged two senior F.B.I. officials to put their differences with the White House “behind them” at a 2017 meeting, on the day after Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to the president. The reported Jan. 28 exchange, which has never been publicly disclosed, “offers new insights into the ways in which senior White House officials, including Bannon … sought to ensure the F.B.I. saw itself as an ally of the White House,” and raises questions as to why the incident was not included in the Mueller report, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Jon Swaine write at the Guardian.

“The need for thoroughgoing reform of America’s intelligence services and processes is evident,” Thomas J. Baker comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the “problem goes beyond the purview of the Justice Department, and the murky origins of the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign go beyond the bureau.”

“A change to House rules which would ameliorate … though not eliminate … Congress’s structural disadvantage in executive-legislative information disputes,” is proposed by Michael Stern at Just Security.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin today in a “diplomatic push” to discuss various international conflicts. Pompeo today sent a message on Twitter stating: “on some issues we may agree, on others we may disagree, but when it’s in our national interests, it is our responsibility to find a way forward,” AFP reports.

Pompeo’s visit will be first high-level meeting since the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on his investigation, Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

Putin and Pompeo will be discussing arms control as well as situations in Iran and Syria at the upcoming talks, the Kremlin has confirmed. The AP reports.

Pompeo’s likely agenda with Putin will also include Venezuela, Megan Specia reports at the New York Times.

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday shared information on the “escalating” threats from Iran with European diplomats and N.A.T.O. officials in a last-minute visit to Brussels. Foreign ministers were meeting to discuss the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, Reuters reports.

European Union (E.U.) leaders urged the U.S. to exercise “maximum restraint” amid rising tensions in the Gulf a year after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, Al Jazeera reports.

Pompeo reportedly failed to change attitudes among European leaders who fear that the U.S. and Iran are inching toward war. Michael Birnbaum and Liz Sly report at the Washington Post

If Iran targets U.S. interests “it will be a very bad mistake” and “they will suffer greatly,” President Trump warned yesterday. The warning comes after Washington deployed an aircraft carrier and more jet fighters at a time of rising tensions with Tehran. Reuters reports.

The tanker attacks off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) were “Israeli mischief,” according to Iranian Parliamentary spokesperson Behrouz Nemati. Nemati did not provide any details on what role Israel may have played in the attacks, Babak Dehghanpisheh reports at Reuters.

Iran was likely behind the attack on the two Saudi oil tankers and two other vessels damaged, a U.S. assessment has indicated – the first suggestion by any nation that Iran was responsible for the attack. Summer Said, Nancy A. Youssef and Benoit Faucon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi Arabia claimed that the vessels were “sabotaged” and sustained “significant damage” despite the fact that satellite images show no visible damage to the ships, Jamie Ross reports at the Daily Beast.

The Pentagon’s updated military plan against Iran includes sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East in the event that Iran attacks U.S. forces or accelerates work on nuclear weapons. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented the updated military plan at a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides Thursday – the revisions do not call for a land invasion of Iran, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

The B-52H Stratofortress bombers deployed to the Middle East conducted their first mission Sunday, U.S. Air Forces Central Command announced yesterday. “This was the first mission of the Bomber Task Force deployed to U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in order to defend American forces and interests in the region,” Air Forces Central Command (A.F.C.E.N.T.) said in a statement accompanied with photographs of the bombers taking off, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is asking Attorney General William Barr to investigate whether former Secretary of State John Kerry broke federal law over his talks with Iranian officials. Rubio sent a letter to Barr doubling down on his request for the Justice Department to investigate Kerry, a request he also made last year to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“Iranians will tolerate hardship but not capitulation,” Mahsa Rouhi comments at Foreign Policy, in an analysis of the motivation behind Iran’s recent nuclear policy announcements.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli government embarked on a spending spree in its West Bank settlements following the election of President Trump, according to official data obtained by the AP. Both supporters and critics of the settlement movement have previously referred to a “Trump effect,” claiming the president’s readiness to embrace the settlements has precipitated additional West Bank construction, Josef Federman reports at the AP.

Top official in the Palestine Liberation Organization – Hanan Ashrawi – has said that Washington denied her application for a visa to travel to the U.S. yesterday, in an indication that the U.S. is intensifying pressure on Palestinians. Ashrawi told journalists that she believes she was rejected for political reasons, the AP reports.

SYRIA

Syrian government troops yesterday captured five small villages and a hill on the edge of the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country, according to pro-government media. The villages are near the strategic village of Kfar Nabuda, which Syrian troops entered last week, Baseem Mroue reports at the AP.

Rebels said they mounted a counterattack against government forces yesterday in the northwest, intensifying battles within their final stronghold. “A military operation began targeting the northern Hama countryside today,” the media office of the Jaish al Izza rebels announced in a statement, Reuters reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Syrian government has aimed to damage Turkish-Russian cooperation in Idlib by violating the agreed ceasefire in the area, according to a statement from Erdogan’s office. Erdoğan also reportedly told Putin that Syrian attacks on civilians, schools and hospitals in Idlib could not be seen as fighting against terrorism, the statement added, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 18 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between April 6 and April 20 [Central Command]

YEMEN

The Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels have targeted vital Saudi Arabia installations in attacks carried out by “seven drones,” according to reports from a television station run by the group. The Houthis did not identify the targets or time of the attacks, Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia offered no immediate confirmation of the report, which comes a day after the country claimed two of its oil tankers were among four vessels attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, Reuters reports.

The U.N. is to report today on whether the Houthis carried out a key first step in the withdrawal of forces from three key ports. “All three ports were monitored simultaneously by United Nations teams as the military forces left the ports and the Coast Guard took over responsibility for security,” U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters yesterday, Edith M. Lederer reports at the Washington Post.

Yemen’s opposing parties are holding fresh U.N.-sponsored talks in Jordan as the Houthis withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah. The talks will discuss sharing out revenue from the Red Sea ports to help relieve the humanitarian crisis, according to Yemeni officials,  Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Pyongyang today called the U.S. seizure of a North Korean cargo ship involved in banned coal exports a “robbery,” demanding that the vessel be returned immediately. An anonymous foreign ministry spokesperson accused the U.S. of betraying the spirit of a summit agreement last June between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump, in a statement carried by the North’s official K.C.N.A. news agency, the AP reports.

“The United States committed an unlawful and outrageous act of dispossessing our cargo ship,” the statement read, adding “the latest U.S. act constitutes an extension of the American method of calculation for bringing the D.P.R.K. [North Korea] to its knees by means of ‘maximum pressure’ and an outright denial of the underlying spirit of the June 12 DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement.” Reuters reports.

BORDER SECURITY AND IMMIGRATION        

Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and top immigration enforcement official Ronald Vitiello reportedly challenged a secret White House plan to arrest thousands of parents and children in the weeks before the pair were ousted last month. According to seven current and former Department of Homeland Security officials, the administration wanted to target the huge number of families that had crossed Southern border after the president’s failed “zero tolerance” prosecution push in early 2018; Vitiello and Nielsen halted the new plan, concerned about a lack of preparation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the risk of public outrage and anxieties that it would divert resources from the border. Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The Pentagon’s move last week to transfer $1.5 billion from defense accounts to the president’s long-promised border wall will divert money from funds including those meant to upgrade Air Force surveillance planes and an intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.) system, according to Defense Department documents released by the Pentagon’s comptroller office. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

A new report has found how a pro-Iran group “spread fake news” online. Researchers at the University of Toronto have untangled “look-alike” websites and “bogus” news articles with possible links to Tehran, Scott Shane and Ronen Bergman report at the New York Times.

The Supreme Court yesterday allowed an antitrust class action against tech giant Apple to proceed – allowing consumers to try to prove that the company used monopoly power to raise the prices of iPhone apps. President Trump’s two appointees – justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch – were on opposite sides, in a divided 5-to-4 vote featuring an “unusual alignment” of justices, Adam Liptak and Jack Nicas report at the New York Times.

Chinese tech giant Huawei insists it has never been directed to spy by the Beijing administration, with founder Ren Zhengfei claiming he would “shut the company down” if he was asked by China’s communist regime to eavesdrop on mobile phone calls, Dan Sabbagh reports at the Guardian.

“Huawei is a private company that is not controlled by the Chinese government and would refuse to hand over information to Beijing,” according to the firm’s Vice President of Western Europe. Reuters reports.

A vulnerability in the WhatsApp messaging app has allowed attackers to install Isreali spyware onto iPhones and Android phones through its call function. The spyware was reportedly developed by Israeli cyber intelligence company N.S.O., Julia Arciga reports at the Daily Beast.

The attack follows Apple’s roll out of an advertising campaign last month flaunting the impenetrability of the iPhone, promising “Privacy. That’s iPhone,” Mehul Srivastava and Robert Smith report at the Financial Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Three explosions hit the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad yesterday, killing at least three people and injuring 20, according to a provincial official. Reuters reports.

All warring groups in Libya must commit to a ceasefire and return to U.N.-led mediation, the European Union (E.U.) announced yesterday, describing the situation in the country as a threat to international security. Reuters reports.

France has granted asylum to the family of former Interpol president Meng Hongwei, currently detained in China, his wife told reporters yesterday. Meng disappeared during a trip to China in Sept. 2018, with China announcing shortly after that it was holding him on accusations of corruption, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

President Trump yesterday hosted far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the White House, in a departure from the approach adopted by the previous two U.S. presidents. Richard Gonzales provides an account at NPR.

Parts of Sri Lanka were under indefinite curfew today and social media banned after a man was killed by a “sword-wielding mob” in an intensifying anti-Muslim backlash following the Easter bombing attacks that killed 258 people. AFP reports.

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday made the “highly unusual” step of releasing explanatory statements from the court’s conservatives as to why they reached such apparently contradictory decisions in two death penalty cases in February and March. Nina Totenberg reports at NPR.

Chinese government-owned conglomerate Cosco Shipping declined to lease space in a Lower Manhattan building to N.G.O. Amnesty International U.S.A. Last week’s decision comes after Amnesty’s release of scathing reports highlighting human rights abuses in China, Matthew Haag and Michael Forsythe report at the New York Times. 

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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).

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).