The Early Edition: May 29, 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.

IRAN

Iran is “almost certainly” behind the alleged U.A.E. oil tanker attacks, according to U.S. national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton stated that the attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the U.A.E. were the work of “naval mines almost certainly from Iran,” without offering evidence: “it’s clear that Iran is behind the Fujairah attack … who else would you think would be doing it? Someone from Nepal?” Bolton told journalists at the U.S. embassy briefing in the U.A.E. capital of Abu Dhabi, adding that “there is no doubt in anybody’s minds in Washington … we know who did this and it’s important Iran knows we know,” Al Jazeera reports.

Bolton commented that there was “no reason” for Iran to breach its nuclear deal with world powers unless it were actually seeking atomic weapons: “there’s no reason for them to do it unless it is to reduce the breakout time to nuclear weapons,” he told journalists on the visit to Abu Dhabi, Gerry Mullany reports at the New York Times.

The White House is “trying to be prudent and responsible” in attempting to avoid war with Tehran, Bolton claimed, adding that “the White House isn’t planning a military offensive response to a U.S. assessment that Iran was behind recent attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates;” Bolton’s comments mirror the appeasing tone taken by President Trump toward Tehran, Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested today that talks with the U.S. might be possible if Washington lifted its sanctions, Reuters reports.

Usually “outspoken” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the current Washington-Iran tensions, according to analysts. “In recent developments, Israel has taken the backseat … there’s one reason for this: it’s not in Israel’s interest to take the lead,” senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies Yoel Guzansky commented, Josef Federman reports at the AP.

“Iran is ready to engage in dialogue with Gulf Arab countries” to address escalating tensions in the Middle East, according to the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi. The comments were made yesterday on a visit to Qatar where Araqchi met Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in the capital, Doha; a Qatari foreign ministry statement stated that both sides “expressed their concern about escalations and problems in the region,” Al Jazeera reports.

Fake U.S. social media accounts – impersonating journalists and Republican Congress candidates and planting letters to newspapers – have been removed from Facebook following a tip from leading cybersecurity company FireEye. “This demonstrates that actors who engage in this type of influence activity leverage all manner of different tactics and techniques that stretch across a wide variety of media and platforms,” leader of FireEye’s intelligence team Lee Foster commented, Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.

FireEye stated that the accounts promoted Iranian interests, but it did not link them to a group it blamed for another disinformation campaign last year. Facebook released a blog post about the disinformation campaign which stated: “we conducted an internal investigation into suspected Iran-linked coordinated inauthentic behavior and identified this activity … we’ve shared our analysis with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.” Tim Starks reports at POLITICO.

An analysis of the disconnect between Trump and Bolton is provided by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey has written that President Trump tells “dumb lies” in order to attack the bureau and investigations into his 2016 campaign, making the comments in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post yesterday. Comey’s comments come after Attorney General William Barr began a review of the beginning of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation; Trump has directed intelligence agencies to assist Barr in the effort and has given the attorney general declassification authority, Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

“There was no corruption … there was no treason … there was no attempted coup,” Comey writes in the Op-ed., adding: “those are lies, and dumb lies at that … there were just good people trying to figure out what was true, under unprecedented circumstances.” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Southern District Court Judge Edgardo Ramos – who rejected the president’s request last week to block congressional subpoenas for his banking records – has agreed to put the case on hold while Trump appeals the ruling. Both the president and the legal representatives of the House committees that ordered Deutsche Bank and Capital One to turn over years of the president’s financial information jointly asked Ramos to delay enforcement of the subpoenas while an appeal is expedited through the courts, Renae Merle reports at the Washington Post.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris (R-Calif.) praised G.O.P Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) yesterday following his calls for the president’s impeachment.  “What he has done is what we need more people in the United States Congress to do, which is to put country before party,” Harris told M.S.N.B.C.’s Lawrence O’Donnell at a town hall in Spartanburg, S.C., Julian Manchester reports at the Hill.

Amash yesterday took aim at Barr, sending a 25-message spree on Twitter claiming that the attorney “used his position to sell the president’s false narrative to the American people.” Amash accused Barr of  having “deliberately misrepresented” the findings of Mueller’s investigation in the March 24 letter to Congress summarizing the special counsel’s findings, which Amash alleges “selectively quotes and summarizes points in Mueller’s report in misleading ways,” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

There are major loopholes in the prohibition on foreign governmental involvement in U.S. elections that allowed Russia to legally spend money in connection with the 2016 presidential election. “No foreign government should be permitted to spend any money in this country in connection with our elections or to assist any person in this country to influence our elections … period,” Fred Wertheimer writes at Just Security in an explainer on current efforts to close the loopholes.

The president’s “approach is out of sync with proper executive branch leadership and … more importantly, dangerous to American security …” Joshua Geltzer and Mary B. McCord argue at Just Security, following the president’s decision to grant Barr carte blanche to obtain all “assistance and information” he desires from the intelligence community and to declassify any information of his choosing.            

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would aim to fill a Supreme Court seat should it become vacant, McConnell commented yesterday at a chamber luncheon in Paducah, Kentucky. The remark diverges from McConnell’s decision in 2016 to not consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier that year, Rebecca Shabad and Frank Thorp V report at NBC.

McConnell’s team claim that the difference between the 2016 and 2020 elections is that both the White House and the Senate are currently controlled by the G.O.P.—rather than belonging to opposite parties as in 2016. The Daily Beast reports.

Trump is facing fresh attacks from Democratic presidential candidates who questioning his medical deferment from service in Vietnam. Military veterans South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) are leading the charges, accusing the president of faking a disability and forcing another U.S. citizen to put his life in danger in his place, Robert Costa reports at the Washington Post.

CHINA

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is pressing on with its lawsuit against the U.S., challenging the constitutionality of a U.S. law that prohibits federal agencies from buying its products. The firm filed a motion for summary judgment yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, seeking a quick determination by U.S. courts on whether the case has merit to proceed. Sherisse Pham reports at CNN.

“The U.S. government has provided no evidence to show that Huawei is a security threat … there is no gun … no smoke … only speculation,” Huawei’s Chief Legal Officer Song Liuping told reporters, adding that U.S. politicians “want to put us out of business,” AFP reports.

“Politicians in the U.S. are using the strength of an entire nation to come after a private company … this is not normal,” Song Liuping said in a statement, Dan Strumpf reports at the Wall Street Journal.

China has hit out at the U.S. over its blacklisting of Huawei, accusing it of “abusing national security exceptions to global trade rules” at a meeting at the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.).     The representative from Beijing accused the U.S. of violating W.T.O. rules by proceeding with the action against Huawei, and urged Washington to “immediately lift all unilateral sanction measures against Chinese companies,” adding that the U.S. had caused “great concern in the membership” of the organization, James Politi reports at the Financial Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims Huawei “is an instrument of the Chinese government.” “They’re deeply connected … it’s something that’s hard for Americans to understand,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox Business Network, Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump sided again yesterday with the Pyongyang administration in mocking Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s intelligence. In a reference to a previous claim that he had “smiled” at the Korean administration’s descriptions of Biden, the president sent a message yesterday on Twitter stating: “I was actually sticking up for Sleepy Joe Biden while on foreign soil … Kim Jong Un called him a “low IQ idiot,” and many other things, whereas I related the quote of Chairman Kim as a much softer “low IQ individual” … who could possibly be upset with that?” Katie Glueck reports at the New York Times.

The Biden campaign responded that the president’s comments were “beneath the dignity of the office.” Biden’s campaign manager Kate Bedingfield added in a statement that “to be on foreign soil, on Memorial Day, and to side repeatedly with a murderous dictator against a fellow American and former vice president speaks for itself,” the BBC reports.

The U.S. State Department stated yesterday that North Korea’s overall program of weapons of mass destruction violated U.N. resolutions, after President Trump played down off recent missile launches. Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus declined to say if Pyongyang’s launches were of ballistic missiles or constituted weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.,) but did say that the “entire North Korean W.M.D. program … [is] in conflict with the U.N. Security [Council] resolutions,” adding that the U.S. wants a favorable relationship between Trump and Kim with a goal to “negotiate a peaceful end to the North Korean W.M.D. program,” AFP reports.

The U.S. military announced yesterday that it had identified a total of six American troops from 55 boxes of human remains from the 1950-53 Korean War that North Korea handed over last year – even as the Pentagon has said it has given up hope of recovering more of them in the near future.  The U.S. Defence P.O.W./M.I.A. Account Agency (D.P.A.A.) – working to recover missing U.S. troops around the world – earlier this month disclosed that it had not heard from North Korea since the second Trump-Kim summit in February and that it had suspended efforts for 2019, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

More than 20 civilians were killed yesterday as the Syrian government continued its bombardment against the last rebel stronghold in the country’s northwest. Nine children were among the 21 killed in government fire on several towns in Idlib province and the countryside of neighboring Aleppo, according to U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; civil defense agency rescuers who work in opposition-held territory put the death toll at 24, Al Jazeera reports.

At least 14 further people have been killed in airstrikes today, according to activists and rescuers in the country. The AP reports.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Ursula Mueller warned yesterday that further military operations in Idlib will overwhelm aid efforts, stressing that an estimated 3 million people are caught up in crossfire in the area. Mueller told the Security Council that humanitarian operations in many areas where there are active hostilities have been suspended, explaining that many of the U.N.’s humanitarian partners have been displaced, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The State Department yesterday characterized the recent Russian and Syrian airstrikes in the northwest as a “reckless escalation.” “Indiscriminate attacks on civilians and public infrastructure such as schools, markets and hospitals is a reckless escalation of the conflict and is unacceptable … the violence must end,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, coming nearly a week after the State Department said it had seen signs that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have renewed his use of chemical weapons in the region, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian commented yesterday that there were signs that chemicals had been used in government attacks on rebels in northwest Syria, but they still needed to be verified. “We are cautious because we think that the use of chemical weapons must be confirmed and lethal before we react,” Le Drian added, Reuters reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has started an operation against Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebel targets in the Yemeni province of Dalea, according to reports on Al-Hadath TV, Reuters reports.

The coalition yesterday raided an air base adjoining Sanaa’s airport and the air strikes targeted arms depots in the al-Dulaimi Air Base in Sanaa, according to the T.V. station, Hesham Hajali reports at Reuters.

President Trump is “taking heat” for bypassing Congress following an announcement that it was invoking emergency authority to bypass opposition and complete new arms deals with Saudi Arabia and several other countries, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board comments.

Trump has established a new precedent: presidents may sell arms anywhere in the world without congressional review simply by claiming an unspecified emergency, The Washington Post Editorial Board writes, commenting on the State Department’s recent announcement.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump’s top Mideast advisers face potentially skeptical audiences as they visit several locations in the region and in Europe starting this week to rally support for a proposed workshop on the economic foundations of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The White House is promoting the June 25-26 meeting in the Gulf state of Bahrain as the first phase of its long-promised Mideast peace plan; in accepting the invitation to the Bahrain conference, Gulf countries have been careful to express solidarity with the Palestinians while attempting to signal flexibility, Josef Federman explains at the AP.

The U.S. delegation includes the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner along with Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and special envoy to Iran Brian Hook – with the officials scheduled to visit Morocco, Jordan and Israel this week.  Kushner will then travel to Montreux, Switzerland on June 1, where he is expected to address the Bilderberg Meeting, an annual gathering of international officials to discuss major foreign policy issues, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

IRAQ

Turkey’s military dropped commandos on mountain ridges in a new operation against Kurdish militants based over the border in northern Iraq, the defense ministry announced yesterday. The push began with artillery and air strikes Monday afternoon, and the operation by commando brigades began that evening, according to a ministry statement; “with this operation, the aim is to destroy the caves and shelters used by the terrorist organization and neutralize terrorists in the Hakurk region,” the ministry said, Reuters reports.

Iraq has handed over 188 Turkish children of suspected Islamic State group members to Turkey in the presence of government officials from both countries and U.N.I.C.E.F., a judiciary spokesperson announced today.  The handover took place in Baghdad airport, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq between April 21 and May 4 [Central Command].

U.S. MILITARY

Retired Navy judge Christian L. Reismeier has been named to oversee the military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay, filling a role that has lacked a permanent occupant since his predecessor Rear Adm. John C. Ring was dismissed last year. Ring was dismissed after discussing plea deals with defense lawyers in the Sept. 11 and the destroyer Cole cases; acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan appointed Reismeier to the civilian job last week and the Pentagon announced the decision yesterday, Carol Rosenberg reports at the New York Times.

President Trump is intensifying pressure on the Navy to switch from electromagnetic to steam-powered catapults for launching jets from aircraft carriers, marking a multibillion-dollar shift that could take nearly two decades to achieve and would likely precipitate a battle with Congress. “So I think I’m going to put an order: when we build a new aircraft carrier, we’re going to use steam,” Trump told sailors and Marines aboard the U.S.S. Wasp at a Navy base south of Tokyo, renewing his complaint that the newer technology could be unreliable during battle, Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO.

JULIAN ASSANGE

A Swedish court has rejected a request to postpone the hearing to rule on the detention of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged rape. Reuters reports.

“Assange is not a journalist – he is a spy,” Marc A. Thiessen comments at the Washington Post, arguing that “the Justice Department is right to indict him for his crimes.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Egyptian government has been accused of carrying out human rights abuses including forced disappearances, killings and torture by N.G.O. Human Rights Watch. Its report states that adults and children as young as 12 have been detained and held in secret prisons, and describes cases where detainees are said to have been physically abused by soldiers, including beatings and given electric shocks, the BBC reports.

Over 40 people were killed across Afghanistan yesterday on the eve of talks between Afghan politicians and Taliban leaders in Moscow, as the militant group engaged in a “familiar tactic” of intensifying its attacks before high-profile meetings. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. is reportedly considering suspending training for Turkish pilots on advanced F-35 fighter jets as Ankara pushes on with plans to purchase a Russian S-400 missile defence system despite objections from Washington, Reuters reports.

“It is true that Turkey is drifting away from the West … but it is still too early to say that it is ready to join forces with Russia,” Galip Dalay writes in an analysis of the “frenemies” at Foreign Policy.

The U.N. General Assembly has adopted a resolution designating Aug. 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The resolution expresses concern at “continuing acts of intolerance and violence based on religion or belief against individuals, including against persons belonging to religious communities and minorities,” the AP reports. 

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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).

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).