The Early Edition: September 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.  

WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT

The whistleblower complaint related to U.S. President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader filed by a member of the U.S. intelligence community (I.C.) reportedly involves Ukraine.  Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected into office in May, weeks before the complaint was made, according to two people familiar with the matter; it was not reportedly clear whether Trump’s conversation that triggered the complaint was specifically with Zelensky. Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, Greg Miller and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

Trump denied doing anything improper earlier yesterday. “Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself,” the president wrote in a message sent on Twitter, adding: “knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially “heavily populated” call … I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the U.S.A.!” Reports suggested the whistleblower’s intervention was prompted by multiple actions rather than a single conversation with a foreign leader. Julian E. Barnes, Nicholas Fandos, Michael S. Schmidt and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) warned of possible legal action yesterday if intelligence officials did not share the whistleblower complaint. Schiff called Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire’s refusal to share the complaint with Congress an “unprecedented” departure from the law and said he understood the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) was involved in that decision. Andrew Desiderio, Kyle Cheney and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.

“We cannot get an answer to the question about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress,” Schiff told reporters following a closed-door briefing with the intelligence community’s inspector general (I.C. I.G.) Michael Atkinson and the I.C. members that lasted several hours, adding: “we’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is to make sure that the national security is protected.” AFP reports.

The standoff between Congress and the Trump administration has “laid bare a loophole in whistleblower protection laws that many thought would never be revealed: What happens when an intelligence agent blows the whistle on the president?” Natasha Bertrand writes at POLITICO.

“The system isn’t designed to deal with a situation in which a hazard may come from the president himself,” the New York Times editorial board comments, noting that the Trump administration is doing “whatever it can” to keep the complaint, which has alarmed the intelligence agencies’ watchdog, from becoming known.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The House yesterday approved a short-term spending bill that would hold off a government shutdown until Nov. 21, giving lawmakers more time to resolve disputes over annual spending legislation without a funding lapse. The spending bill would temporarily extend funding for all federal government departments and agencies, as well as for a number of health care and community programs. Emily Cochrane reports at the New York Times.

Senior Trump administration officials are weighing a plan to again divert billions of dollars in military funding to pay for construction of the president’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border next year, according to three administration officials. The president has promised to build nearly 500 miles of new barrier by the 2020 election, a goal that will require $18.4 billion in funding through 2020, according to the administration’s latest internal projections; the figure is far more than the administration has publicly disclosed. Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  warned yesterday that an American or Saudi military strike on Iran would trigger “all-out war,” as the U.S. and its Gulf allies accuse Iran of being behind a weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities. In an interview with C.N.N., Zarif said “we don’t want war, we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” noting conflict would lead to “a lot of casualties,” “but we won’t blink to defend our territory,” he added. Nick Paton Walsh reports at CNN.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to Zarif’s comments by saying the U.S. was seeking to form a “coalition” in the Middle East “aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution.” Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi during a regional trip, Pompoe said “while the foreign minister of Iran is threatening all-out war and to fight to the last American, we’re here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace,” adding: “I think it’s abundantly clear, and there is an enormous consensus in the region that we know precisely who conducted these attacks — it was Iran … I didn’t hear anybody in the region who doubted that for a single moment.” Sune Engel Rasmussen reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Coalition for Peaceful Resolution?,” Zarif questioned the U.S. plans in a message sent on Twitter today, while listing eight diplomatic initiatives by Iran since 1985, including a peace proposal for Yemen in 2015, and a regional non-aggression pact for the Gulf region proposed earlier this year. Reuters reports.

Pentagon officials yesterday said they would hold off explicitly blaming Iran for the Saudi attack until Saudi Arabia’s assessment was complete. “We’re not going to get ahead of the Saudi investigation in their assessment of this,” top Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon, while acknowledging that “as of this time, all indications are … that Iran is in some way responsible for the attack on the Saudi refineries;” Hoffman declined to state whether the U.S. military considers the attack was launched from Iranian territory. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The U.S. has issued visas allowing top Iranian officials to travel to New York for next week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, Iran’s U.N. mission said yesterday. A spokesperson at the mission said that Zarif would arrive in New York today, and President Hassan Rouhani on Monday. The AP reports.

“The Iranians … who consistently blamed figures like [former national security adviser John] Bolton for Trump’s confrontational agenda … seemed to have called the White House’s bluff,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, commenting on the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

A Q&A on how Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is “outmatching” Trump is provided by Michael Hirsh at Foreign Policy.

SAUDI OIL SITE ATTACKS

The House Armed Services Committee received a closed-door briefing conducted by Pentagon and State Department officials yesterday about a weekend attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. “The biggest thing that I’m hoping to find out is what are we planning, what are our options,” committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said ahead of the briefing, adding: “and also I think to make sure everyone’s clear on the point that an attack on Saudi Arabia is not an attack on the United States of America, and the two should not be conflated … an attack on Saudi Arabia gives no legal justification whatsoever to the president for U.S. military action.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The U.S. military said yesterday it was consulting with Saudi Arabia on changes to Saudi defenses to counter threats from the north following Saturday’s attack, which U.S. officials have pinned on Iran. Reuters reports.

The Pentagon is reportedly weighing sending additional military assets to the Middle East, including antimissile batteries, another squadron of jet fighters and added surveillance capabilities in an apparent attempt to build up the military’s regional presence following strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, according to U.S. military officials. Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iraq Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has warned in an interview that the risk of war between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other is “high” and that such a conflict would “spread rapidly.” Mahdi told reporters there was “still time for diplomacy.” The BBC reports.

An analysis of whether the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities change the current classification of the conflict in Yemen and whether oil facilities are targetable under International Humanitarian Law (I.H.L.) is provided by Ilya Sobol and Margherita Stevoli at Just Security.

A breakdown of Trump’s “many options” in response to the Saudi oil attacks is fielded by Jonathan Marcus at the BBC.

“Why would Iran raise the stakes by attacking Saudi Arabia?” Kasra Naji seeks to provide some clarity at the BBC.

YEMEN

At least six Yemeni troops and one Saudi Arabian officer were killed Wednesday in an explosion in the eastern Hadramawt province targeting a government military convoy, Yemeni security officials said yesterday. The AP reports.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels today accused the Saudi-led coalition of a “dangerous escalation” of the situation around Hodeidah after coalition forces struck targets north of the port city. Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the military operation threatened a U.N.-brokered ceasefire agreement in the Red Sea port. Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have admitted that a drone attack that killed at least 30 pine nut farmers and injured 40 others in Nangarhar province yesterday was conducted by the U.S.. Spokesperson for the American-led coalition in Afghanistan Colonel Sonny Leggett confirmed that the drone attack was carried out by U.S. forces with the intention of destroying a hideout used by fighters of the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.). Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

The U.S. is withholding more than $160m in direct funding for Afghanistan, while accusing its government of failing to fight corruption, just over a week before the country’s elections. The U.S. announced it would cut about $100m earmarked for an Afghan energy infrastructure project and would withhold another $60m in planned assistance, citing corruption and lack of transparency in Kabul over how the funds are used. Lara Jakes reports at the New York Times.

“We stand against those who exploit their positions of power and influence to deprive the Afghan people of the benefits of foreign assistance and a more prosperous future,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement yesterday. Pompeo explained that the U.S. was suspending work with the Afghan body in charge of monitoring corruption as it was “incapable of being a partner.” Kathy Gannon reports at the AP.

U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and lead peace talks negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad yesterday briefed members of Congress behind closed doors on the failed efforts to strike a deal with the Taliban and wind down the 18-year war. “In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the Afghan reconciliation process go off the rails in spectacular fashion … we’ve learned that the president up-ended the deal and we have learned that the peace deal evidently is dead,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said at a public hearing following Khalilzad’s appearance. William Roberts reports at Al Jazeera.

ISRAELI ELECTION

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz remain in a standoff over the terms of a unity government, after the country’s repeat election ended in deadlock. Netanyahu invited Gantz to start negotiations on a joint administration after both parties failed to win enough votes on Tuesday to build a coalition with a majority, but Gantz brushed off the idea of joining a coalition led by Netanyahu, saying he wanted a unity government, but only one led by him. The BBC reports.

Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin announced he would begin meetings Sunday with all of the parties elected to parliament. The AP reports.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Amnesty International accused Hong Kong police today of torture and other abuses in their handling of three months of pro-democracy demonstrations in the city, a charge denied by the police who insist they have shown “restraint” on the streets amid increased violence and respected the “privacy, dignity and rights” of those in custody. Police have responded to the protests with tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, bean-bag rounds and multiple live rounds fired into the air, and have also been seen beating activists lying on the ground with batons. Reuters reports.

“The evidence leaves little room for doubt – in an apparent thirst for retaliation … Hong Kong’s security forces have engaged in a disturbing pattern of reckless and unlawful tactics against people during the protests,” East Asia director at Amnesty International Nicholas Bequelin said in a report following a field investigation. “This has included arbitrary arrests and retaliatory violence against arrested persons in custody, some of which has amounted to torture,” Bequelin continued. Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

U.S. President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani acknowledged yesterday that he had asked top Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, as Democrats investigate whether Trump and Giuliani are pressuring Ukraine’s government to find dirt on a 2020 election rival. Justin Baragona reports at The Daily Beast.

Manhattan’s top prosecutor Cyrus Vance agreed yesterday to temporarily suspend a subpoena for Trump’s tax returns until after next week’s court hearing, just hours after the president filed a lawsuit to block the subpoena. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

“[Robert] O’Brien could end up growing into the role, but with an irregular president, a lower public profile and limited national security policymaking experience, he will have to work hard to avoid the frustrations and failures of his weak predecessors.” John Gans at POLITICO explains the “dangers” of a weak national security adviser in light of Trump’s new pick for the job.

Policymakers must move past the misconception that immigrants are to blame for right-wing extremism in order to more effectively combat this form of violence, Niku Jafarnia argues at Just Security.

North Korea today hailed Trump for saying Washington may pursue an unspecified “new method” in denuclearization talks with Pyongyang. North Korean diplomat Kim Myong Gil, who will be leading planned dialogue with Washington, said he is “optimistic” about negotiations with the U.S.. The AP reports.

Russia and China yesterday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a truce in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in Idlib. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

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).