The Early Edition: June 20, 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’s elite Revolutionary Guard (I.R.G.C.) announced today that it had shot down a U.S. “spy drone” which encroached on Iranian airspace near the Strait of Hormuz, in the latest incident heightening Washington–Tehran tensions. There was no immediate reaction from the U.S., the AP reports.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet directed questions to the U.S. Central Command, which was not immediately available for comment. A U.S. official, however, confirmed the incident to the A.P. and added that the drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile over international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz, Eric Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

“The U.S.-made Global Hawk surveillance drone was brought down” in the country’s southern coastal province of Hormozgan, the I.R.G.C.’s website stated, adding that “it was shot down when it entered Iran’s airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in the south.” Iran’s foreign ministry today condemned the alleged intrusion into its airspace, with ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi cautioning: “we warn of the consequences of such illegal and provocative measures,” Al Jazeera reports.

“We are not going to get engaged in a war with any country … but we are fully prepared for war,” I.R.G.C. Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami said, according to a translation from Press T.V. “Today’s incident was a clear sign of this precise message so we are continuing our resistance,” Salami added, Daniel Victor reports at the New York Times.

“The downing of the American drone was a clear message to America … borders are our red lines … any enemy that invades these borders will not return [home],” Salami said in a speech, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency. Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. military said today that one of the tankers sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman last week was hit with limpet mines that “bear a striking resemblance” to devices held in Iran’s arsenal. Officials have additionally found biometric information on the Kokuka Courageous tanker – including a handprint and fingerprints­ – which “can be used to build a criminal case and hold the individuals responsible accountable,” according to Task Group 56.1 Cmdr. Sean Kido, Courtney Kube and Alexander Smith report at NBC.

Kido declined to elaborate further on the matter, although he did say that the damage done to the Japanese tanker was “not consistent with an external flying object hitting the ship.” The owner of the vessel has claimed the damage was caused by “flying objects,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration is making representations to Congress about what it alleges are worrying ties between Iran and Al Qaeda militant group, prompting both skeptical reactions and concern on Capitol Hill. Briefings by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backed by other State Department and Pentagon officials, have led lawmakers from both sides to question whether the administration is building a case that the White House could invoke the war authorization – passed by Congress in 2001 in order to fight terrorist organizations groups – as legal cover for military action against Iran. Edward Wong and Catie Edmonson report at the New York Times.

The State Department’s special representative on Iran Brian Hook yesterday declined to rule out the possibility that the Trump administration might justify a military confrontation with Tehran using the 2001 law. “We’re not seeking military action,” Hook told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East subpanel, adding that if it comes down to such a confrontation: “we will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers, and we will comply with the law,” Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Trump has nonetheless privately pushed his representatives to row back tough talk on Iran — and reiterate that the administration is not aiming to go to war with Tehran. The president has asked officials to tone down heated rhetoric on the brewing conflict, according to two senior officials and three other individuals with direct knowledge of the administration’s strategy in the Gulf, Erin Banco reports at The Daily Beast.

Could Trump use the Sept. 11 “War Law” to attack Iran without Congressional approval? Charlie Savage provides an analysis at the New York Times.

The maritime security industry has reportedly experienced a flood of demand from shippers “spooked” by last week’s Gulf of Oman tanker attacks. David Sheppard and Harry Dempsey provide an account at the Financial Times.

If Trump wants to “blunt Iran’s sabotage without a war … now would be a good time to become less belligerent and less unilateral,” Dennis Ross comments at the Washington Post, focusing on how the U.S. should focus on leveraging its alliances in countering Tehran.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei has pleaded guilty to accepting $2.1 million in bribes, Chinese state media reported today, in what has been described as “remarkable fall from grace” for the former vice minister of public security, the AFP reports.

Meng “showed repentance” during the hearing, according to the Tianjin No.1 Intermediate Court in northern China. His verdict will be announced at a “select date or time,” the court said in a statement, without specifying further details, Al Jazeera reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that U.S moves against Chinese tech giant Huawei aimed to weaken China, making the remarks during his annual televised question and answer conference. Reuters reports.

The deadline imposed by activist groups for Hong Kong’s government to meet demands including the scrapping of the controversial extradition bill passed today without an official response. Protesting groups have claimed they would call on supporters to surround government headquarters if their demands were not met, the AP reports.

Chinese President Xi Jinping should set out a timetable for real democratic reform, the Economist argues, commenting that keeping Hong Kong’s political system as it is will result in more protests and probably more violence.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Pyongyang today as part of a two-day state visit, marking the first time a Chinese leader has traveled to North Korea in 14 years. Xi left Beijing this morning with his wife and several key aides, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, top diplomat Yang Jiechi, and key economic adviser He Lifeng, according to Chinese state media, Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN.

The visit is expected to be a “largely symbolic” affair, with no formal joint statement likely. The trip is a chance for China to demonstrate its influence in the region, according to analysts, the AFP reports.

Xi will hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attend a welcoming banquet and watch a gymnastic performance on his first day in the region, according to Chinese state media. Xi is additionally expected to pay tribute at the Friendship Tower, which honors Chinese troops who fought together with North Koreans during the 1950-53 Korean War, Reuters reports.

Xi said China will firmly support Kim Jong-un “to implement the new strategic line … concentrate energy on developing the economy … improve people’s livelihoods … and promote new achievements in North Korea’s socialist construction.” The president made the comments in a front-page op-ed piece published today in North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun. Reuters reports.

The trip apparently highlights two-way ties that “never waver despite any headwinds” and strengthens “blood ties” between the two peoples, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper states, Al Jazeera reports.

The two leaders are likely to discuss the stalled talks between Pyongyang and Washington over the North’s nuclear programme as well as economic issues, the BBC reports.

The visit comes a week before Xi and U.S. President Trump are to meet at the G.20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Justin McCurry reports at the Guardian.

U.S. officials are expecting that Xi will try to make progress with Kim on the nuclear issue – then use that as “leverage” with Trump when discussing trade next week, Jane Perlez reports at the New York Times.

President Trump’s envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun yesterday said that the door remains “wide open” for negotiations, even as the two sides appear to be at an impasse. “The door is wide open for negotiations,” Biegun commented at an Atlantic Council event in Washington, Josh Aaron Siegel reports at the Hill.

Xi is likely visiting North Korea to talk about – or at least send a message to –Trump, Russell Goldman writes at the New York Times, commenting that Xi is ‘officially’ there to strengthen “strategic communication and exchanges” between the two countries, as the Chinese president wrote in his front-page op-ed.

“Kim … Xi and Trump are a trio of unlikely partners,” Mark Landler writes at the New York Times, in an analysis of the relationship between the three leaders.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir has rejected the report on the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi released yesterday by U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Agnes Callamard, sending a message on Twitter claiming that the report was “nothing new” and contained “clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.” “The Saudi judiciary is the sole party qualified to deal with the Khashoggi case and works with full independence,” Al-Jubeir added, the BBC reports.

Al-Jubeir claimed in a separate statement that the report included “false accusations confirmed as stemming from the preconceived ideas and positions” held by Callamard towards the kingdom. Al-Jubeir claimed the Saudi authorities had provided a progress report on the Khashoggi case to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on June 3, and retained the right to take legal action in response to the report’s claims, Reuters reports.

Callamard’s report found that the mission to “execute Khashoggi” required significant coordination, resources and finances. It adds that every expert consulted for the report found it “inconceivable” that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the involvement – or at the least awareness – of Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, Jackie Northam reports at NPR.

“The report by … Callamard … makes for grisly reading,” Al Jazeera reports, detailing five key takeaways from the publication.

“Callamard … suggested the United Nations secretary general should establish an international criminal investigation to ensure accountability for the crime … … I urge the United Nations to heed Ms. Callamard’s call,” Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times. Cengiz expresses her disappointment with inaction from Capitol Hill in the face of a near-unanimous consensus regarding bin Salman’s involvement in the killing.

“Callamard has laid out a path for holding the murderers of Khashoggi accountable,” the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that it is “now it is up to [U.N. Secretary General António] Guterres, the F.B.I. and congressional leaders to accept her charge and follow up.”

Profiles of the people already detained or fired from their positions in Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi case are provided at Reuters.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels launched a projectile missile into Saudi Arabia’s southern province of Shuqaiq late yesterday which the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition claims landed near a desalination plant without causing damage or casualties, Reuters reports.

The Houthi rebels announced the attack via the group’s Al Masirah T.V. channel, Al Jazeera reports.

“President [Trump] has been briefed on the reports of a missile strike in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” outgoing White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement made yesterday, adding “we are closely monitoring the situation and continuing to consult with our partners and allies.” Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate will vote today to block Trump’s controversial arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Jordan. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Senate will hold three votes on the 22 sales, with two standalone votes on resolutions to block sales to Saudi Arabia and a third vote that merges the remaining 20 resolutions of disapproval into one vote, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

U.K. arms sales to Saudi Arabia were declared unlawful today by the nation’s Court of Appeal because they “contributed to civilian casualties in indiscriminate bombing in Yemen.” The judgment from three senior judges was handed down today in London, and follows a challenge brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, which had accused the U.K. government of allowing the sale of arms despite there being a “clear risk” that their use could breach international humanitarian law, Dan Sabbagh reports at the Guardian. The U.K. Court of Appeals judgment is available here.

A new report shows the Yemen war death toll is fast approaching 100,000. The report, by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, highlights the “human cost” of the conflict, Rod Austin reports at the Guardian.

VENEZUELA

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet yesterday arrived in Venezuela for a three-day visit where she is expected to hold separate talks with both incumbent Presidentg Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Bachelet is also expected to speak to civil society leaders and “victims of human rights violence and abuses,” her office announced, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump has reportedly lost interest in Venezuela after U.S. support for Guaidó’s attempt to oust Maduro failed to produce immediate results. According to an unnamed official, Trump initially thought of Venezuela as “low-hanging fruit” on which he “could get a win and tout it as a major foreign-policy victory,” but “five or six months later… it’s not coming together,” Karen deYoung and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Ex-Trump aide Hope Hicks repeatedly declined to answer questions yesterday about her experience working in the White House during her closed-door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Sasha Ingber and Ryan Lucas report at NPR.

The move frustrated Democrats who hoped to obtain testimony about President Trump’s actions that Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated as possible obstruction in his probe into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

Republicans declared the session “a complete waste of time:” “they are just trying to continue to make some hay out of the whole Russian collusion and obstruction of justice,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) commented, while Rep. Ted Lieu, (D-Calif) said “I’m watching obstruction of justice in action,” adding “we’re going to go to court … we’re going to win and just make Hope Hicks come back again and actually answer the questions about her tenure in the White House,” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

“She made clear she wouldn’t answer a single question about her time unless the White House counsel told her it was OK,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) stated in an interview, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

“This is a pattern … the White House says to people … ‘you can’t answer questions,’” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) – who is also running for president – commented, adding “there’s no legal authority to do so … it sets us back, we have to go to the courts, and then they say, ‘Oh well you know, this is taking too long, this is dragging on’ … and the reason it’s dragging on is because they’re not doing what they should have done and what the courts will tell them they’re supposed to be doing.” Betsy Woodruff and Sam Brodey report at the Daily Beast.

A White House attorney and Justice Department lawyer claimed that Hicks had immunity from questions, even though Hicks is a private citizen. “Her refusal to answer questions is based on this very bogus immunity, sort of newly invented, very broad immunity, that you can never be asked anything about anything you ever did while you worked for the president, which is an absurdity … this will ultimately be decided by a court,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) commented, Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis and Hailey Fuchs report at the Washington Post.

“So sad that the Democrats are putting wonderful Hope Hicks through hell … for 3 years now … after total exoneration by Robert Mueller & the Mueller Report,” President Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “they were unhappy with result so they want a Do Over … Very unfair & costly to her. will it ever end?”

Hicks testified before the panel for almost eight hours and a transcript of the session was expected to be released within 48 hours, Alex Moe and Rebecca Shabad report at NBC.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) yesterday stated that the F.B.I. is beginning to respond to his inquiries about the counterintelligence investigation that preceded Mueller’s probe. “We have started to get answers from the F.B.I,” Schiff told reporters at the National Press Club, adding “they are not nearly complete … I would describe it as the beginning of their response, not the end, but I think they recognize that they are going to have to live up to their legal obligations.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has ruled out censuring Trump but plans to view a minimally redacted version of Mueller’s report this week, in her latest attempt to balance the competing impeachment factions within her caucus, Heather Caygle and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

Russian-born former Trump business associate Felix Sater is to testify tomorrow before the House Intelligence Committee about his time working on a proposed Trump tower project in Moscow during the 2016 election. The closed-door interview forms part of an inquiry by the House panel into the president’s long-standing interest in expanding his brand to Moscow, Tom Hamburger and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Leaders of the moderate Blue Dog Caucus are launching a new strategy in an alleged attempt this week to steer the conversation back to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The House is looking to draft a legislative response to a number of concerns in the Mueller report, Sarah Ferris reports at POLITICO.

An explainer of whether Trump can cite immunity to block Hicks from talking to Congress is provided by Jan Wolfe at Reuters.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin will address his country in a live televised broadcast today, one day after a Dutch-led investigation accused four Russian-backed separatists, in the 2014 shooting down of the MH17 passenger jet over east Ukraine. Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

Washington yesterday levied sanctions against Moscow-based bank Russian Financial Society, which it has accused of assisting North Korea. The Treasury Department alleged that the Russian bank opened accounts over the past two years for sanctioned Chinese-registered company Dandong Zhongsheng Industry & Trade Co., as well as blacklisted North Korean representative for the country’s Foreign Trade Bank –Han Jang Su, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan – held in Russia on spying charges – today appealed to U.S. President Trump for help. Whelan was arrested in a hotel room in Moscow at the end of December and charged with espionage; “Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect American citizens wherever they are in the world,” Whelan said today in a statement, adding that he was a victim of “political kidnapping,” the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Afghanistan’s presidential election scheduled for 28 September will be a “key moment to reaffirm the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s democratic political structure,” Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) – Tadamichi Yamamoto – told the Security Council yesterday, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (T.M.C.) should hand former President Omar al-Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) to face justice for his role in the atrocities in the western Darfur region, the court’s prosecutor has stated. Al Jazeera reports.

A new order by a federal judge in Maryland sets up a possible block against the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 census. Hansi Lo Wang reports at NPR.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday advanced legislation aimed at securing government-purchased devices against cyber threats, in a move that comes just weeks after a companion bill moved forward in the House. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s withdrawal from consideration of a Cabinet position is “not the usual Trump administration scandal,” the Economist writes in an account of this week’s developments.

Sexual violence in conflict is a “threat to our collective security” and a “stain on our common humanity,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

“Do we live in a world governed by international law … or one where an individual state’s interests hold sway?” Jonathan Marks writes at the BBC in the wake of the Khashoggi report and MH17 charges. 

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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).