The Early Edition: July 26, 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

The Senate Intelligence Committee found that election systems in all 50 U.S. states were likely targeted by Russia in 2016 in some way in the first volume of its long-awaited bipartisan report on election security and Russian electoral interference, released yesterday. The heavily redacted, 67 page report states that “the Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level,” and warns that “vulnerability persists” going into the 2020 campaign, Karoun Demirjian and Colby Itkowitz report at the Washington Post.

“In 2016 … the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure,” Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a statement, noting that while the Department of Homeland Security and state and local election officials have made strides in the past three years “to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities … much work … remains to be done,” Elias Groll reports at Foreign Policy.

The committee recommends that states move to more secure voting machines that have a verified paper trail and are not connected to wireless networks, to guard against electronic intrusions. The report also recommends that Congress weighs providing additional funding for states to secure elections, with committee Vice Chair Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) stating: “this threat remains urgent … and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it,” Leigh Ann Caldwell, Heidi Przybyla and Kyle Stewart report at NBC.

House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) sent a letter to President Trump Wednesday probing his administration’s efforts to secure elections, following comments made by former special counsel Robert Mueller during his testimony in front of two House committees which indicated that the Russians will likely try to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. “It is your responsibility, as Commander in Chief, to address the threat of cyber-attacks, influence operations, disinformation campaigns, and other activities that undermine the security and integrity of U.S. democratic institutions,” Thompson and Wasserman Schultz wrote, adding “we implore you to treat this issue with seriousness and with the utmost sense of urgency and concern that it demands.” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s testimony Wednesday has divided Democrats over impeachment; while a number of senior lawmakers are pushing to begin formal impeachment hearings soon, other members have called on the party “to rest its case” against Trump, Nicholas Fandos, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

America still finds itself “dangerously ill-equipped” to protect itself from Russian electoral interference, Stanley McChrystal and David Eichenbaum comment at POLITICO, urging the U.S. to take more action in the information war.

“American voters are likely to be targeted in the coming campaign season by more foreign disinformation than ever before,” Craig Timberg and Tony Romm write at the Washington Post, warning that Iran as well as other nations have the “capacity to wage Russian-style influence operations in the United States ahead of next year’s election.”

Former special counsel Robert Mueller left “plenty of breadcrumbs” for Democrats who want to impeach President Trump, Jonathan Allen writes in an analysis at NBC, commenting that Mueller left open avenues for further investigation.

“Whatever the press and pundits are saying in the aftermath of Mueller’s testimony … Wednesday’s hearings were not the end of the road … they were not even the beginning of it,” Caroline Fredrickson argues at the New York Times, commenting that “examination of the questions concerning President Trump’s actions and other misconduct identified by Mueller should be the highest priority for every member of Congress.” 

“Through his careful answers … Mueller was able to thread a needle … staking out very nuanced and careful legal positions without seriously being tested by the members who questioned him,” Renato Mariotti writes at POLITICO, hailing Mueller’s testimony Wednesday.

“Mueller’s testimony was a warning: America ignores Russia’s ongoing cyberinvasion at our peril,” John Hickenlooper argues at NBC.

SAUDI ARABIA LEGISLATION

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved a bill that would slap sanctions on the Saudi royal family and block certain arms sales. The measure – sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) – passed via a 13-9 vote and would hold the country accountable for its devastating intervention in Yemen, as well as for the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Al Jazeera reports.

The legislation passed over the objections of the committee’s chair Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) – who had proposed an alternative measure. Risch’s bill was judged too weak by several of his fellow Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.,) Lauren Gardner and Marianne Levine report at POLITICO.

Risch withdrew his own bill from the panel’s agenda, saying: “it can’t become law, we’re all spinning our wheels here … this is over … it is what it is.” Risch’s move came after Democrats succeeded in adding provisions to his measure that would temporarily suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions on the royal family, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“Trump and G.O.P. leaders will bear responsibility if Saudi Arabia is not held accountable,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting on the new Saudi legislation.

IRAN

Iran test-fired a Shahab-3 medium-range missile Wednesday, a U.S. military official revealed, insisting that it “did not pose a threat to American or other Western shipping or military bases” in the region. The unnamed source stated that U.S. officials had been “closely monitoring” the test site as Iran readied the missile for launch, Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

The British navy has begun escorting U.K. ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz after the seizure of a British-flagged tanker by Iranian forces last week. In a statement made yesterday, Britain’s Defense Ministry said that “the Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz, either individually or in groups, should sufficient notice be given of their passage,” adding “this move will provide some much needed safety and reassurance to our shipping community in this uncertain time … however, we will continue to push for a de-escalation of tensions in the region and the safe return of our seafarers,” the BBC reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. and Afghanistan have agreed to speed up a peace process to end the 18-year war and proceed with existing U.S. policies targeted at reducing the American troop presence so far as conditions allow, the two countries said in a joint statement. The statement, which was made after a phone call Wednesday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, insisted that “there has been no change to President Trump’s South Asia strategy” and came following Trump’s comments Monday that he could wipe Afghanistan “off the face of the Earth” if he wanted, Courtney McBride and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

At least 55 pro-government forces and 54 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

TURKEY

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Wednesday at President Trump’s request amid continuing tensions over Ankara’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missile-defense system, the senator revealed yesterday. Graham said he presented a “win-win” situation for Turkey and the U.S. if Ankara “reverses course” on the acquisition: “the S-400, that problem can be solved, and the relationship can flourish … this can be a win-win … if the S-400 is activated, then the relationship takes a very dark turn,” Graham told Cavusoglu, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday appeared to suggest the U.S. was relaxing its stance on congressionally mandated sanctions for Turkey over its purchase of the Russian missile defense system. “There could be more sanctions to follow but frankly what we’d really like is for the S-400 not to become operational,” Pompeo told reporters, explaining “that’s our objective … it’s what we’ve been talking to the Turks about for months and months,” Jennifer Hansler reports at CNN.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong’s appeal court today overturned the conviction of two police officers over the 2014 beating of a pro-democracy protester that was recorded on video. The Court also reduced the sentence of five others who were involved in the attack, Al Jazeera reports.

Police have barred a protest scheduled for this weekend in a district where a suspected gang attacked demonstrators Sunday, making more clashes likely as some activists vowed to go notwithstanding the ban, Natasha Khan reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Online rumors and conspiracy theories have spread confusion and heightened distrust during weeks of recent protests in Hong Kong. Fake news footage and reports are gaining hundreds of thousands of views, further dividing the Hong Kong police and community, AFP reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea said today that its test of a “new type of tactical guided weapon” yesterday – supervised by its leader Kim Jong Un – was a demonstration of its power and a “solemn warning to South Korean military warmongers,” AFP reports.

The South Korean-U.S. military command today insisted that North Korea’s missile launch “was not a threat directed at South Korea or the U.S.” and had “no impact on our defense posture,” Reuters reports.

The U.S. yesterday called on North Korea to “refrain from further provocations” after the country launched two new short-range ballistic missiles, and expressed hope for a continuation of working-level talks on North Korea’s denuclearization. “We want to have diplomatic engagement with the North Koreans,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told a news briefing, adding “we urge no more provocations,” Reuters reports.

U.S. MILITARY

The Senate yesterday confirmed Gen. Mark Milley to be the next chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Trump’s most senior uniformed military adviser.  The Senate voted 89-1 to confirm Milley, with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as the lone dissenting vote, Reuters reports.

“Men and women joining the armed forces today must mentally and morally prepare themselves to spend their careers having their service viewed through partisan lenses in a way that their recent predecessors have not,” Thomas Krasnican writes at Just Security, commenting that the U.S. military is “increasingly politicized.” 

“Under the expanded Intelligence Identities Protection Act (I.I.P.A.) … the threat of prosecution could impair reporting in the public interest where the threat of physical harm to an intelligence officer is minimal,” Linda Moon warns at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has condemned Wednesday’s terror attacks in Somalia that targeted the offices of the mayor of Mogadishu and reportedly killed six Government officials and injured several others, the U.N. News Centre reports. 

The U.S. yesterday imposed sanctions on three stepsons of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, accusing them of participating in a sophisticated corruption scheme that stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food import contracts during a time of widespread hunger in the country, Joshua Goodman and Luis Alonso Lugo report at the AP.

The Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved Kelly Craft’s U.N. ambassador nomination, sending it to the full Senate, Jordain Carney 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).