The Early Edition: October 25, 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.  

D.O.J. RUSSIA PROBE

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has opened a criminal investigation into the origins of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign — creating a rare situation in which the Department is conducting a criminal investigation into itself. According to two sources, Attorney General William Barr’s existing administrative review of Mueller’s investigation has evolved into a criminal inquiry, a move that gives Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, the prosecutor in charge of the probe, the power to issue subpoenas for witness testimony and documents, to enlist a grand jury, and to file criminal charges. Durham previously only had the power to voluntarily question people and examine government files, Katie Benner and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

It is not reportedly clear what potential crime is under investigation, however Trump’s allies speculate that Durham has found evidence of wrongdoing. Trump and his Republican allies have long pressed the D.O.J. to determine whether the U.S. government’s intelligence-gathering efforts in the probe’s early stages were “legal and appropriate” and whether the president and his associates were “unduly targeted for surveillance during the 2016 campaign by politically biased investigators.” Democrats, meanwhile, have described Barr’s review as an attempt to “discredit” Mueller’s probe, Sadie Gurman, Giovanni Legorano and Rachel Pannett report at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a resolution yesterday condemning the House for pursuing a “closed door, illegitimate impeachment inquiry” and demanding that Democrats hold a formal vote authorizing the inquiry, as evidence against the president continues to mount. The resolution, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), argues that the House is “denying President Trump basic fairness and due process accorded every American.” Clare Foran reports at CNN.

“The move [leaves] the president’s allies in the same awkward place they have been for more than two weeks: unable or unwilling to mount a vigorous defense on the substance of the allegations and focused instead on trying to shake the public’s faith in the House’s impeachment process,” Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

The original whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine for his own political benefit prompted a formal impeachment inquiry into the president is not expected to testify in front of impeachment investigators as several Democrats declared yesterday they have “ample” testimony from senior Trump administration officials to support his claims. Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

The White House’s trade representative Robert Lighthizer in late August retracted a recommendation to reinstate some of Ukraine’s trade privileges after John Bolton, then-national security adviser, advised him that Trump would likely oppose any move that “benefited” the government in Kyiv, people briefed on the matter said. The August exchange between Bolton and Lighthizer, which came as Trump was holding up $391 million in military aid and security assistance from Ukraine, signals that the administration’s suspension of assistance to Ukraine extended beyond the congressionally authorized security funds to other government programs, David J. Lynch and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

House Democrats plan to hold more closed-door interviews in their impeachment inquiry and have scheduled current and former White House officials for private depositions next week, defending the secretive nature of the proceedings and also alleging that the G.O.P. storming into a secure meeting room Wednesday was intended as a distraction from top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor’s “damning” testimony. Democrats apparently hope to hold proceedings in public before Thanksgiving, Natalie Andrews and Jesse Naranjo report at the Wall Street Journal.

Although Republicans have attacked the secretive nature of the House impeachment inquiry, that is in fact typical for sensitive congressional investigations, Nicholas Fandos writes at the New York Times, exploring precedent for a closed-door impeachment inquiry and Republicans’ due process complaints as well as their options to make the inquiry public.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani is reportedly talking to defense lawyers and may seek representation, according to three people familiar with the matter. The move is notable given Giuliani’s remarks last week that he would not be looking for a new lawyer unless he felt one was needed, Erica Orden, Katelyn Polantz and Evan Perez report at CNN.

“Giuliani could be indicted for conspiracy to interfere with the fair administration of elections, conspiracy to commit bribery, and contempt of Congress” based on facts already in the public record, Barbara McQuade and Joyce Vance argue at Just Security, laying out the case for Trump’s personal lawyer’s indictment based on current, publicly available evidence of his misconduct on matters involving Ukraine.

A copy of the Trump administration’s warning letter to the deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for Ukrainian policy Laura Cooper ahead of her voluntary, private testimony is available at the New York Times, annotated with context and analysis, and “shows how the administration has attempted to persuade officials to keep silent.”

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Turkish forces and their allies attacked Syrian government troops and Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria yesterday in violation of a ceasefire agreed two days earlier. Syria’s state-run news agency reported that Turkish troops and its allied fighters had targeted Syrian army posts outside the town of Tal Tamr, resulting in Syrian casualties, while the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) said three of its fighters were killed during clashes with Turkish-backed forces. Turkey’s Defense Ministry reported that Kurdish forces attacked Turkish troops in Ras al Ayn, wounding five soldiers, adding that its military responded “within the framework of self-defense,” without elaborating. The AP reports.

A Russian aircraft conducted strikes on the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria early yesterday, a monitoring group and rescue workers said, “raising fears of an all-out Syrian regime offensive to retake the area following a Moscow-brokered border deal with Turkey,” Jared Malsin and Nazih Osseiran report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Turkey is forcibly sending Syrian refugees to an area of Syria near the border where it aims to set up a “safe zone” even though the conflict there has not ended,” Amnesty International said in a report released today. The report details complaints of refugees being “threatened or physically forced” by Turkish police to sign documents declaring that they were voluntarily returning to Syria; “in reality, Turkey put the lives of Syrian refugees under serious danger by forcing them to return to a war zone,” the British-based human rights watchdog said. Reuters reports.

A group of senators were briefed at the White House yesterday about a forthcoming Syria plan from top Pentagon officials that could counter Islamic State group (ISIS) extremists in Syria, while safeguarding oil fields in the country. “There’s a plan coming together from the Joint Chiefs that I think may work, that may give us what we need to prevent ISIS from coming back, Iran taking the oil, ISIS from taking the oil,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters after receiving a briefing at the White House from Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reuters reports.

The U.S. will station additional forces in northeastern Syria to protect oil fields from “falling back into the hands of” a potentially resurgent Islamic State jihadist movement, a Pentagon statement said yesterday. The planned reinforcement will take place in coordination with the S.D.F., the statement said, without providing details of how many or what kind of forces would be sent. AFP reports.

The statement came amid reports that the White House is weighing options to keep 500 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria and sending more battle tanks to protect them. Military officials apparently presented the choices yesterday, Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s pledge that the U.S. military would continue securing oil fields in Syria highlights an “evolving” U.S. mission that “appears to be shifting from one focused on fighting the Islamic State to at least partly keeping the country’s own government from possessing all its oil fields,” Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

A Q&A with Syrian Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed about Trump’s plans to maintain a small U.S. force in northern Syria to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers seizing the region’s oil fields is provided by Lara Seligman at Foreign Policy.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have asked intelligence officials to investigate whether the popular Chinese-owned App TikTok “poses national security risks.” In a letter sent Wednesday to acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire, the senators raised concerns about TikTok’s collection of user data, suggesting that the App and other Chinese-owned platforms could be used to spy on U.S. citizens or become targets of foreign influence campaigns. Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report at the Washington Post.

TikTok yesterday denied claims that it operates on orders from the Chinese government, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) has requested that the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) review policies and procedures in place at the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) for sharing Americans’ personal information with contractors, citing three recent data breaches that exposed the information. “In many cases, D.H.S. leverages the capabilities and expertise of contractors to assist it in its mission, and these contractors also have access to millions of Americans’ [Personally Identifiable Information] P.I.I.,” Hassan wrote, adding, “while the department’s functions are essential, it is also essential that it protect the P.I.I. that is collected on the department’s behalf from improper access or use.” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The office created under the Trump administration to protect whistleblowers and expose wrongdoing at the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly failed in that mission, according to a new inspector general report released yesterday which revealed that the office failed to get rid of poorly performing senior officials, did not conduct accurate or unbiased investigations and refused to honor whistleblowers’ demands for anonymity. Bobby Allyn reports at NPR.

The Trump administration “separated 1,556 more immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border than has previously been disclosed to the public,”the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) said yesterday. Maria Sacchetti reports at the Washington Post.

House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) yesterday subpoenaed two senior Trump administration officials for public testimony on terror threats facing the country, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Yemen’s internationally-recognized government and separatists known as the Southern Transitional Council (S.T.C.) have struck an initial deal to end their infighting in the country’s south, Yemeni officials said today. The AP reports. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).