The Early Edition: December 23, 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.  

KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia today sentenced five people to death and three more to jail terms totaling 24 years over the murder of Washington Post columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year. Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesperson Shalaan al-Shalaan, reading out the verdict in the trial, said the court set aside charges against the remaining three of the 11 people that had been on trial, finding them not guilty. Reuters reporting.

Shalaan did not name any of the convicted defendants but said that Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to Prince Mohammed whom the U.S. imposed sanctions on over the murder, had not been tried because of a lack of evidence against him. Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The White House sought to freeze aid to Ukraine just 91 minutes after President Trump spoke to President Volodymyr Zelensky by phone in July, according to newly-released government emails, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity late Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Michael Duffey, a senior official at the Office of Budget Management (O.M.B.), directed the Defense Department to “hold off” on sending military aid to Ukraine just over an hour-and-a-half after Trump ended his controversial call with Zelensky. Duffey told Pentagon officials that Trump had become personally interested in the Ukraine assistance and asked the Pentagon not to discuss the hold widely. The emails shed new light on Trump’s dealings toward Ukraine, the matter at the center of the House’s vote on Wednesday to impeach him, Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) renewed his demand for Duffey to testify at Trump’s impeachment trial, citing the newly released emails. “If there was ever an argument that we need Duffey to come and testify, this is that information … this email is explosive,” Schumer said, adding, “a top administration official … is saying, stop the aid 90 minutes after Trump called Zelensky and said keep it hush, hush … what more do you need to request a witness?” Sara Murray, Katelyn Polantz and Tammy Kupperman report at CNN.

The O.M.B. dismissed linking the freeze of the aid to the call. “It’s reckless to tie the hold of funds to the phone call … as has been established and publicly reported, the hold was announced in an interagency meeting on July 18,” spokesperson for the O.M.B. Rachel Semmel said in a statement. “To pull a line out of one email and fail to address the context is misleading and inaccurate.” Winston Wilde and Phil McCausland report at NBC News.

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff argued yesterday that the House Democrats’ delay in handing over impeachment articles to the Senate has undermined their own claims about the urgency in pursuing the process in the first place. “It’s a really untenable position, we think, for [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi to say, ‘this president is such a clear and urgent danger to the world, to the globe, that we have to basically trample his constitutional rights, to force a quick impeachment,’ and then say, ‘well, we’re going to hold up impeachment papers,’” Pence’s aide, Marc Short, said in an interview. Ben Kamisar reports at NBC News.

Trump on Saturday slammed Pelosi for delaying sending the articles of impeachment against him to the Senate. “It’s so unfair,” Trump said, days after he was impeached by the House, arguing that Pelosi took up the strategy because she has “no case.” Reuters reporting.

An analysis of the “stalemate” over Trump’s Senate impeachment trial is provided by Stephen Collinson at CNN.

Reflections on last week’s impeachment vote and predictions for the imminent Senate trial are provided by reporters at POLITICO.

INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court (F.I.S.A.) that authorized F.B.I. surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page is now probing other applications it has received from one of the agency’s lawyers accused of making an inappropriate alteration to the Page application. The review, which was announced in an order made public on Friday, indicates a comprehensive effort by the secretive court to reevaluate surveillance after the Justice Department inspector general’s report found blunders in the Page application process. The court requested in the order that the executive branch single out “all other matters currently or previously before this Court” that involved F.B.I. attorney Kevin Clinesmith. Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

How could special counsel Robert Mueller have ignored the Steele dossier? The Wall Street Journal editorial board comments on Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report, which identified failings in the F.I.S.A. process to obtain a warrant to monitor Page.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban claimed responsibility today for an attack on an American convoy in the northern province of Kunduz that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded several more. The killing, which brings the number of U.S. service member deaths in Afghanistan this year to 20, came amid ongoing peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports at the New York Times.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears to have narrowly secured a second five-year term according to preliminary polling results. After months of political limbo and complaints of fraud and corruption in the Sept. 28 balloting, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (I.E.C.) announced Ghani won 50.64 percent of the vote. AFP reports.

Hailing the preliminary results yesterday, the head of the United Nations mission in the country Tadamichi Yamamoto called on the authorities and all actors to “protect the integrity of the final stage of the [election] process.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

A round up of five articles that best reflect the challenges facing Afghans as their future is discussed by others, and the legacy the United States will leave behind if it does withdraw troops is provided by Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy.

IRAQ

At least two soldiers were killed and an officer was wounded in a car blast in Iraq’s western province of Anbar early today, the military said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Reuters reporting.

There are growing signs that the Islamic State group (ISIS) is re-adjusting in Iraq, two years after losing the last of its territory in the country. ISIS presence in Iraq is a “sophisticated” insurgency, and attacks by the militants are on the rise, according to Kurdish and Western intelligence officials. BBC reporting.

SYRIA

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted Russia and China after the countries vetoed a U.N. resolution allowing humanitarian aid for Syria, calling the move “shameful.” Pompeo said in a Saturday statement that Russia and China had “blood on [their] hands,” adding, “Russia’s and China’s vetoes of this resolution demonstrate that these governments simply do not care that the horrible Syrian regime continues to obstruct and deny humanitarian access to its own people.” Veronica Stracqualursi reports at CNN.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that his country cannot handle a “new refugee wave” from Syria and “will not bear all alone the burden.” Speaking yesterday in Istanbul, Erdogan warned that a new influx would be “felt by all European countries,” saying more than 80,000 people from Idlib had fled to areas near the Turkish border amid increased shelling by Syrian and Russian forces. Reuters reporting.

Syrian air defenses opened fire yesterday night on missiles fired from the direction of Israel, state media reported. Syrian state news agency S.A.N.A. claimed one of the missiles was shot down near the Damascus suburb of Aqraba but gave no further details. Al Jazeera reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.)’s chief prosecutor said Friday she wanted to open a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. I.C.C. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that she was “satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” following a nearly five-year preliminary assessment. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The announcement of an official probe triggered an incensed reaction from Israel and strong disapproval from the U.S.. The Palestinians hailed the move by the I.C.C. as a “long overdue step” following a preliminary examination by the prosecutor into the situation since the 2014 war in Gaza. AFP reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

New analysis of satellite photos shows that North Korea is involved in “producing or modifying” long-range nuclear missiles that threaten the U.S.. The commercial satellite images from Planet Labs show that a temporary structure that houses the launcher arm has expanded, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Lewis told NBC News that there is “activity at a number of locations indicating that North Korea is laying the groundwork for an expansion of their I.C.B.M. program — more systems, more buildings, more capabilities.” Ken Dilanian reports at NBC News.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held a meeting of top military officials to discuss boosting the country’s military capability, state news agency reported yesterday amid growing concern among U.S. military and intelligence officials that North Korea may return to confrontation with Washington in the next few days or weeks. Kim presided over a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party, K.C.N.A. news agency said, to discuss steps “to bolster up the overall armed forces of the country … militarily and politically.” AP reporting.

U.S. military and intelligence officials are reportedly bracing for an imminent test by North Korea of an intercontinental missile as negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang remain in deadlock. North Korea has threatened to give the U.S. a “Christmas gift” if no progress is made on lifting sanctions, but officials appear to accept the fact that President Trump has no options to prevent a test. David E. Sanger, Edward Wong and Michael Crowley report at the New York Times.

North Korea’s so-called “Christmas gift” could be a new hard-line policy toward the U.S. that involves taking denuclearization off the negotiating table amid perceptions that Trump is weak politically, according to a source familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current thinking. The new policy includes scrapping talks with Washington and cementing Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear weapons state. Will Ripley and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

There is ample evidence that Trump and his team bear responsibility for derailing the denuclearization negotiations — “delivering mixed messages, failing to understand their counterparts, demanding too much and making undeliverable promises,” Simon Denyer argues at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

U.S. sanctions against Iran are a “reckless addiction,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a message sent on Twitter yesterday, arguing that the move amounts to “#EconomicTerrorism.” “The U.S.’ approach to sanctions betrays a pathological and reckless addiction — a condition that renders no bounds or boundary to what the U.S. may or may not do,” Zarif wrote, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced them last week. Justine Coleman reports at the Hill.

Sudan has opened an investigation into crimes committed in the Darfur region under the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, “a move aimed at ending years of impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice amid a fragile political transition,” Abdi Latif Dahir reports at the New York Times.

President Trump signed a critical defense policy bill the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) Friday establishing his widely-promoted Space Force. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump’s senior advisers threatened in recent days that the president would veto must-pass spending legislation if Congress did not remove a directive requiring the administration to quickly release $250 million in defense aid to Ukraine early next year, according to five administration and congressional officials. Democrats ultimately agreed to drop the language; Trump signed the $1.4 trillion in spending legislation late Friday. Erica Werner reports at the Washington Post.

“Senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services … agreed to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to collect fingerprints and other biometric information from adults seeking to claim migrant children at government shelters. If those adults are deemed ineligible to take custody of children, I.C.E. could then use their information to target them for arrest and deportation,” Nick Miroff reports at the Washingon Post.

“Although its opinions resolve enormously consequential and often constitutional questions about the limits of the government’s power, the [Office of Legal Counsel] O.L.C. has refused … to systematically make its opinions public.” Alex Abdo at Just Security makes the case for release of the O.L.C.’s opinions. 

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).