The Early Edition: February 11, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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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 AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Attorney General William Barr confirmed that the Justice Department (D.O.J.) has been receiving information from President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine, saying that the D.O.J. has an “obligation to have an open door to anybody” who believes they have relevant information, but adding that anything originating from Ukraine must be treated with caution. This skepticism has prompted the department to establish an “intake process in the field” to ensure that Giuliani’s information is “carefully scrutinized,” Barr told a press conference in Washington yesterday. The attorney general’s remarks came a day after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that the D.O.J. had created a process so Giuliani could provide information and the department would see if it could be verified. Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett reporting for the Washington Post.

Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Barr yesterday requesting details on the arrangement Giuliani has with the D.O.J. to provide political damaging information from Ukraine. “As you know, the Department has formal, established channels by which to receive information and begin investigations,” Nadler wrote, adding, “this new channel to Mr. Giuliani would seem to be a significant departure from those traditional channels.” Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reporting for CNN.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway yesterday suggested that more officials could be forced out of their roles in the wake of Trump’s impeachment acquittal and following the ousters last week of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Gordon Sondland — both key witnesses in the impeachment investigation of the president. Asked during an interview whether there will be more firings in the days to come, Conway said, “maybe,” and defended the removal of Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, from the National Security Council (N.S.C.). Conway concurred with host Steve Doocy’s evaluation that the two former N.S.C. employees “didn’t get fired” but “just got relocated.” Quint Forgey reporting for POLITICO.

Trump’s removal on Friday of high-profile impeachment witnesses was more than an intemperate outburst — it was the extension of his deliberate project to reshape the executive branch to serve him rather than the nation, Joshua Geltzer and Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman write at Just Security.

TURKEY-SYRIA RELATIONS

Syrian and Turkish forces exchanged deadly fire for the second time in a matter of days in northwest Syria, a marked escalation a week after a similarly fatal clash between the two sides. Ankara said five Turkish troops were killed in “intense” shelling by Syrian forces in Idlib province, the opposition’s last stronghold in the country, prompting Turkey to retaliate against more than 100 Syrian military targets, according to the Turkish defense ministry. Al Jazeera reporting.

Government forces gained control of a strategic highway in northwest Syria for the first time since 2012 today after pushing rebels from their last foothold on the road, a war monitor said, as a second round of talks between Turkey and Russia ended without agreement on dialing down confrontations. The M5 highway connects the national capital of Damascus with the country’s north, which has for years been divided between government and opposition forces. Reuters reporting.

IRAN-IRAQ

The number of U.S. troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries (T.B.I.) after an Iranian attack on a U.S. base in Iraq early last month has risen to 109, the Pentagon disclosed yesterday, a significant increase from the 64 reported a little over a week ago. Of those 109 service members diagnosed with mild T.B.I, 76 have since returned to duty, while 26 were transferred to Germany or the United States for treatment, and another seven have been transported from Iraq to Germany for further evaluation and treatment, officials said. AP reporting.

“The latest tally, which has steadily grown since the Jan. 8 strike [and follows the U.S. killing of top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani], drew a sharp contrast with the assertion by the Trump administration in the hours after the attack that no Americans were hurt,” Mihir Zaveri reporting for the New York Times.

The Trump administration has expressed openness to extending sanctions waivers enabling Iraq to import Iranian electricity and gas, three Iraqi officials said. The officials said that the State Department has signaled that it is prepared to continue an existing waiver, set to expire on Thursday, for another three months if Baghdad can develop a timeline by the end of the week for transitioning off Iranian gas imports. AP reporting. 

CHINA

The Justice Department has charged four members of the Chinese military with hacking into the systems of credit agency Equifax in 2017, stealing the personal information of about 145 million Americans in one of the largest data breaches on record. The nine-count indictment alleges that four members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) worked to steal personal information including Social Security numbers and drivers license numbers. Attorney General William P. Barr called their efforts “a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people.” Aruna Viswanatha, Dustin Volz and Kate O’Keeffe reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

“When Barr announced [the charges], he also confirmed something that cybersecurity experts had long suspected: China was also behind the hack of the information of 500 million Marriott hotel guests in 2018 … Barr also mentioned the hack of the Office of Personnel Management in 2015 … in doing so, [he] publicly confirmed that China has been collecting troves of personal data on U.S. citizens for years,” Kevin Collier reporting for NBC News.

WHITE HOUSE BUDGET PROPOSAL

The White House released its proposed budget for 2021 yesterday, setting out Trump’s spending priorities, including increased funding toward the military, national defense and border enforcement, along with money for veterans. Jim Tankersley, Margot Sanger-Katz, Alan Rappeport and Emily Cochrane reporting for the New York Times.

In the budget, the administration unveiled for the first time that it plans to develop a new submarine-launched nuclear warhead, named the W93. The budget also offers $3.2 billion for hypersonic weapons, a 23 percent increase in research and development intended to compete with a growing number of similar Russian weapons. The president’s spending proposal “reflects more than budget priorities,” it “reveals a significantly different philosophy, rooted in Trump’s own belief that the United States should maintain the world’s most powerful nuclear force — and perhaps enlarge it,” David E. Sanger reports for the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least five people were killed and several others were wounded in a suicide bombing this morning in Kabul outside a military academy, according to the Interior Ministry. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes after months of relative calm in the Afghan capital. AFP reporting.

The U.S. killing of Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, is part of a series of setbacks that have harmed the group’s ability to carry out operations against the West, Eric Schmitt writes at the New York Times.

The Philippines notified the United States today it would terminate a major security pact allowing American forces to train in the country, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterating an earlier threat to o downgrade the defense alliance. Reuters reporting.

Federal prosecutors recommended that longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone receive up to nine years in prison for lying to Congress and tampering with a witness during the Russia investigation, according to a new court filing. Katelyn Polantz reporting for CNN.

A judge yesterday canceled a sentencing hearing for former national security adviser Michael Flynn that was set for later this month, as Flynn works to withdraw the guilty plea he entered more than two years ago in a case prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller. Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO.

An inside look at what it has been like to work at the C.I.A. under President Trump is provided by retired C.I.A. officer Doug London at Just Security.

The F.B.I. will include “abortion violent extremism” as a broad category of domestic terrorism that the bureau confronts, F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray announced yesterday, as the agency revamps its homegrown-terror efforts. However, there is almost no evidence of pro-choice violence, Spencer Ackerman and Emily Shugerman report for The Daily Beast, questioning the need to include “people on either side” of the abortion debate.

The United States faces an increasing threat from foreign operations, including those conducted by Russia and China, with adversaries attempting to steal corporate secrets, hack supply chains and undermine Americans’ confidence in democracy, according to a new U.S. counterintelligence strategy released yesterday. Dan De Luce reporting for NBC News.

The Justice Department sued two so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions  — including the state of New Jersey and a Washington county —yesterday over their laws and policies limiting local cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as part of a renewed push to get cities and states on side with the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO. 

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).