The Early Edition: July 19, 2019

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

The U.S. military shot down an Iranian drone yesterday in what President Trump called an act of self-defense after it threatened an American naval vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. Speaking at the White House, Trump said the drone came within 1,000 meters of the U.S.S. Boxer and had ignored “multiple calls to stand down;” the vessel “took defensive action” against the Iranian drone to “ensure the safety of the ship and its crew,” Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said, AFP reports.

“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters … the U.S. reserves the right to defend our personnel … facilities and interests,” Trump stated, adding that “the drone was immediately destroyed.” “I also call on other nations to protect their ships as they go through the strait and to work with us in the future,” the president said, Zachary Cohen, Kevin Liptak, Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

Iran has rejected Trump’s claim that a U.S. warship downed an Iranian drone, suggesting the American military might have “accidentally” shot down one of its own. “We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that U.S.S. Boxer has shot down their own U.A.S. [Unmanned Aerial System] by mistake!” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said in a Twitter post today, dismissing Trump’s claim, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

All Iran’s drones had “returned safely to base,” Iran’s top military spokesperson Abolfazl Shekarchi declared, in comments carried by the semi-official Tasnim news agency. “All drones belonging to Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz … returned safely to their bases after their mission of identification and control, and there is no report of any operational response by U.S.S. Boxer,” Shekarchim was quoted as saying by Tasnim, Reuters reports.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) detained a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 Sunday for apparently smuggling fuel out of the country, Iranian news media reported yesterday. A statement from the I.R.G.C., which claimed that the ship had been carrying one million liters of contraband fuel, revealed that the seizure took place in the northern part of the Strait of Hormuz, south of Iran’s Larak Island; Richard Pérez-Peña reports at the New York Times.

“Iran must cease this illicit activity and release the reportedly seized crew and vessel immediately,” the U.S. State department insisted yesterday, as a U.S. military commander said Washington would work “aggressively” to ensure free passage of vessels through the narrow Persian Gulf waterway that is a vital conduit for maritime petroleum traffic. “The United States strongly condemns the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with safe passage in and around the Strait of Hormuz,” a State Department spokesperson said, Al Jazeera reports.

Footage showing the seizure of the “fuel-smuggling” tanker in the Gulf released by the I.R.G.C. is available at the BBC.

The Pentagon is sending around 500 troops to Saudi Arabia to be stationed at the Prince Sultan Air Base, amid increasing tensions with Iran, according to two U.S. defense officials, Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated yesterday that Saudi Arabia — and not Iran — is responsible for creating “instability” in the Middle East, and slammed the Trump administration for “turning a blind eye” to Riyadh’s “malign” actions, Robert Windrem and Dan De Luce report at NBC.

Zarif also proposed what he considers a “substantial” diplomatic deal with the U.S. in which Iran would agree to permanent and enhanced inspections of its nuclear program in exchange for a permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions. “It’s not about photo ops … we are interested in substance,” Zarif told reporters yesterday at the Iranian mission to the U.N. in New York, adding “there are other substantial moves that can be made;” the proposal will likely be rejected by the Trump administration, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

China urged Washington today to “correct” sanctions imposed on Chinese companies suspected of helping Iran obtain materials for its nuclear program. U.S. pressure on Iran and its “long-arm jurisdiction” against firms in third countries is the “root cause” of tension with Tehran, according to foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, the AP reports.

The head of Gibraltar’s government Chief Minister Fabian Picardo says he met privately with Zarif early this week to “de-escalate” tensions arising from the seizure of an Iranian supertanker near the British overseas territory on Jul. 4. The AP reports.

The U.S. downing of an Iranian drone “underscores the complex challenges facing Trump,” Nahal Toois and Caitlin Oprysko write at POLITICO, commenting that the president is “trying to entice Iran to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear program, while also pushing back against Tehran’s dangerous behavior in the region.”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yesterday slammed ally Saudi Arabia for the suppression of religious freedoms, calling on the kingdom to release blogger Raif Badawi, imprisoned for allegedly insulting Islam. Pence’s comments come amidst criticism of the Trump administration’s reaction to the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Al Jazeera reports.

Yemenis are dying from causes including cholera and hunger because the kingdom and coalition partner the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are not fulfilling funding commitments they made earlier this year, U.N. emergency relief coordinator and under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Martin Lowcock warned yesterday. Contrasting the two nations to the bulk of the 40 countries that made pledges in February, Lowcock told the Security Council that  “those who made the largest pledges – Yemen’s neighbors in the coalition – have so far paid only a modest proportion of what they promised,” Al Jazeera reports.

The Yemeni conflict was to be the “signature” war for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, but “four years later, the war is lodged in a stalemate and Prince Mohammed’s … fight has become a quagmire,” David D. Kirkpatrick explains in an analysis at the New York Times.

AFGHNANISTAN

At least eight people have been killed today after a bomb detonated near university premises in the Afghan capital Kabul, according to officials. Health Ministry spokesperson Wahidullah Mayar wrote in a message on Twitter that another 33 people were wounded in the blast; there has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack and it was not clear whether it had been carried out by a suicide bomber or a detonated bomb, Al Jazeera reports.

At least 11 people were killed and scores more wounded yesterday when the Taliban attacked a police headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar, according to officials and the insurgents. The offensive comes in the context of a series of peace talks between Washington and the Taliban, with both sides claiming progress despite the ongoing violence, AFP reports.

At least 92 pro-government forces and 45 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

TURKEY

U.S. President Trump disclosed yesterday that he has not yet made a decision on whether to impose congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey over the N.A.T..O. ally’s purchase of a Russian-produced S-400 missile defense system. “We’re looking at it, and see what we do … we haven’t announced that yet,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Turkey yesterday launched an air attack on the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq in response to the killing of the Turkish vice consul to the region Wednesday, the country’s defense minister announced. There has been no claim of responsibility for the shooting, but many Iraqi experts have pointed to the likelihood that the Turkish separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) was behind the attack, Al Jazeera reports.

SUDAN

Sudan’s pro-democracy movement is reportedly seeking a delay in the signing of the second part of a power-sharing agreement with the country’s ruling military body (T.M.C.,) saying it needs more time to resolve differences among its members over the deal. The first part of the deal was signed earlier this week, marking significant progress in the tense period following the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir in April, the AP reports.

Hundreds of demonstrators marched in the capital Khartoum yesterday, moving towards a prominent square to honor the dozens of people killed in the country’s months-long protest movement, Reuters reports

TRUMP HUSH MONEY REVELATIONS AND IMPEACHMENT ARTICLES

The F.B.I. believed then-candidate Donald Trump was closely involved in a scheme to conceal hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, according to court documents from the closed campaign finance case against Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. The documents, released yesterday, describe a “series of calls, text messages, and emails” among Trump, Cohen, Trump campaign aide Hope Hicks, Daniels’ attorney Keith Davidson and publishing executive David Pecker, Tom Winter and Adam Edelman report at NBC.

Federal Judge William Pauley of the Southern District of New York ordered the documents unsealed after prosecutors said they had concluded their investigation into the scheme and any related campaign finance violations. Cohen –now serving a three-year prison sentence – has said that he made the payments in coordination with and at the direction of Trump, Ryan Lucas reports at NPR.

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday demanded that Hicks return for a second round of questioning within the next month to clarify what the panel described as “inconsistent” testimony she gave about Trump’s hush-money payments. Democratic Chair Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) sent Hicks a five-page letter citing the newly released court documents; Hicks had previously told the committee she had no direct knowledge of the payments and that she did not have any contact during the presidential campaign with key participants including Davidson, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Public support among House Democrats for impeachment proceedings against President Trump is growing, despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) attempts to halt the effort, Kyle Cheney writes in an analysis at POLITICO, noting however that “the situation is complex” and that many of the Democrats who voted to advance Rep. Al Green’s (D-Texas.) articles of impeachment Wednesday did so “only for technical legislative reasons.”

Green’s “quixotic quest” to impeach President Trump is not the way to get there … and even most Democrats in the House agreed,” Molly Jong-Fast comments at NBC, arguing that “in a time during which American democracy is in such peril and the slightest misstep from Democrats can give the president a news cycle win, his opposition must work together, move methodically, and commit themselves to a singular agenda.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

A $10 billion contract to build the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (J.E.D.I.) – poised to be awarded to Amazon or Microsoft – is in jeopardy due to misgivings from President Trump and other lawmakers. Asked about the program in the Oval Office by reporters yesterday, Trump disclosed that “I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and Amazon … they’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid, this is going on for a long time, I guess probably before this administration … and we’re looking at it very seriously, it’s a very big contract, one of the biggest ever given,” Leigh Ann Caldwell and Carol E. Lee report at NBC.

Israeli tech firm N.S.O. Group – whose spyware hacked WhatsApp – has told buyers its technology can covertly scrape all of an individual’s data from the servers of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, according to people familiar with its sales pitch. N.S.O. Group’s flagship smartphone malware Pegasus, for years has been employed by spy agencies and governments to harvest data from targeted individuals’ smartphones, but it has now evolved to capture a much wider tranche of information stored beyond the phone in the cloud – including the history of a target’s location data and archived messages or photos. Mehul Srivastava and Tim Bradshaw report at the Financial Times.

Cryptocurrencies such as tech giant Facebook’s Libra will need to be tightly regulated or they could destabilize the global economy, according to a working group set up by the G.7 group of nations to explore the issue.  A preliminary report from the group published yesterday found that the financial innovations risk being used for money-laundering and the financing of terrorism, Victor Mallet reports at the Financial Times.

“Ghost key” solutions – authorizing government officials to force companies that operate secure communications services to surreptitiously add another party to an encrypted chat – continue to pose threats to digital security and individual rights, even if such solutions are “technically different from a mandate that tech companies create actual encryption back doors,” Ross Schulman argues at Just Security.

“Your smartphone aspires to know what you want before you do,” Henry Mance explains in an in-depth essay on the fightback against surveillance and data stockpiling at the Financial Times.

The reaction to viral “FaceApp” suggests that although we care about privacy we do not understand how it operates, Charlie Warzel writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority is the “stain of the century,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience at the U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom conference yesterday, also accusing Beijing of pressuring countries not to attend, Al Jazeera reports.

“The carnage must stop” in rebel-held northwest Syria, U.N. emergency relief coordinator and under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Martin Lowcock said yesterday, making the comments following 80 days of intensifying attacks, many on health facilities. Lowcock noted that more than 70 civilians had been killed this month alone, the U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned two Iraqi militia leaders and two former Iraqi governors in separate cases for alleged human-rights abuses and corruption. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz yesterday announced that he had met his Bahrain counterpart publicly during a visit to Washington, D.C., marking the first meeting between two countries that do not have diplomatic relations. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. military hopes to prevent the Venezuelan crisis from spilling over into neighboring Colombia, and is offering Bogotá the latest version of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter jets in order to deter threats from Caracas, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

Trump has nominated Vice Adm. Michael Gilday to be the top admiral in the Navy, the Pentagon announced yesterday, after Trump’s first choice Adm. Bill Moran suddenly retired last week after it was revealed he maintained a professional relationship with someone who had been reprimanded. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill. 

About the Author(s)

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).

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).