The Early Edition: February 13, 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.  

ROGER STONE CASE

Attorney General William Barr has agreed to testify to the House Judiciary Committee on March 31, the panel announced yesterday, as Democrats express numerous concerns about his leadership after the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) took the unusual step this week of intervening in the recommended sentencing of President Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone, who was convicted last year on charges that he lied to congressional investigators and threatened a witness. In a letter to Barr confirming his appearance, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee indicated they plan to ask the attorney general about Stone as well as the arrangement for the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to supply information on Ukraine and the pulled nomination of the U.S. attorney of D.C. Jessie Liu, who oversaw a batch of sensitive cases arising out of former Special Council Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, including the Stone case. Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju reporting for CNN.

Trump hailed Barr for “taking charge” of the case against Stone, confirming suggestions that it was the attorney general himself who intervened, while attacking the federal prosecutors who resigned after the D.O.J. overruled their recommendation for a seven-to-nine-year sentence for Stone. Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump said in a message sent on Twitter. “Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted … even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!” Quint Forgey reporting for POLITICO.

The president’s Twitter message put the attorney general “squarely in the middle of the brewing controversy” over the Justice Department’s recommended sentence, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post, noting, “some current and former Justice Department officials have long feared that Barr is willing to risk the institution’s historic independence to serve an irascible president.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday rejected Democratic demands for an investigation into the D.O.J.’s abrupt reversal, saying he had no plans to bring Barr in for testimony aside from the committee’s general oversight of the Department. And while Senate Republicans broadly condemned Trump’s Twitter attacks into the case, they said further investigation is not justifiedrebuffing Democrats’ calls for congressional action over allegations of politically motivated favoritism. Andrew Desiderio reporting for POLITICO.

The Stone episode has made prosecutors across the United States even more wary of pressure from Trump and has deepened their concern that Barr might not back them in politically charged cases. Katie Benner, Charlie Savage, Sharon LaFraniere and Ben Protess reporting for the New York Times.

“In the span of 48 hours this week, the president has sought to protect his friends and punish his foes, even at the risk of compromising the Justice Department’s independence and integrity — a stance that his defenders see as entirely justified,” Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post, noting Trump has used the justice system, and the Justice Department, to carry out his impeachment vendetta.

The resignation of a Justice Department prosecutor over the sentencing of Roger Stone is a “forceful response to Trump’s assault on rule-of-law norms,” Bob Bauer comments at the New York Times, writing, “a resignation can set off an alarm bell for an institution whose failings an official might be unable to bring to light in no other way, or as effectively.”

“The real “miscarriage of justice” is that Trump’s meddling, and Barr’s willingness to bend his department’s policies to serve Trump’s personal interests, will have a disastrous long-term effect on the public’s confidence in the essential fairness of federal prosecutors,” Renato Mariotti argues at POLITICO Magazine.

Can Trump tell the Justice Department to do whatever he wants? The New York Times editorial board argues that the Constitution does not give the president the authority to make orders to the D.O.J. after Trump remarked that he has an “absolute right” to tell the Department what to do.

“Barr’s gross distortion of the Mueller report led to calls for him to step down … he did not, and now we are facing the same situation all over again,” Mimi Rocah and Glenn Kirschner comment at NBC News, writing “the criminal justice system is being corroded from the inside out.”

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch cautioned that the U.S. had adopted an “amoral” foreign policy that “substitutes threats, fear and confusion for trust” in her first public speech since departing the U.S. foreign service two weeks ago. The policy process has been replaced with top-down decision-making with “little discussion,” Yovanovitch said, adding, “vacancies at all levels go unfilled and officers are increasingly wondering whether it is safe to express concerns about policy, even behind closed doors.” The ex-ambassador also said that the Trump administration’s handling of foreign policy risked alienating allies and driving them into the arms of other partners they find more reliable. Yovanovitch was ousted while the Trump administration was pushing Ukraine to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son; she also testified to lawmakers during the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Jennifer Hansler and Jamie Crawford reporting for CNN.

A trio of senators will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky tomorrow, just a week after the Senate acquitted President Trump on charges he abused his power by asking Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political opponents. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) will meet with Zelensky in Kyiv, the senators said yesterday afternoon. Jordain Carney reporting for the Hill.

IRAN

The U.S. Senate advanced legislation yesterday intended to limit President Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran, paving the way for a final vote as eight Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the war powers resolution. The measure, which would require Trump to end all hostilities targeting Iran within 30 days unless explicitly approved by Congress, is scheduled to get a vote today and will probably pass with bipartisan support although will likely lack the votes to overturn an expected Trump veto. Andrew Desiderio and Marianne Levine reporting for POLITICO.

Trump urged the Senate to vote against the resolution just before the initial procedural vote on the measure yesterday. Trump complained that the resolution would “show weakness” and send the wrong message to Tehran, writing in a post on Twitter, “It is very important for our Country’s SECURITY that the United States Senate not vote for the Iran War Powers Resolution … we are doing very well with Iran … Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist Soleimani … if my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day.” Brett Samuels reporting for the Hill.

The vote reflects the anger with Trump’s order to kill top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani without first consulting lawmakers, and with what many of Congress considered “insufficient candor” from administration officials who have briefed them in the wake of the strike, Karoun Demirjian reporting for the Washington Post.

“The press will portray [the war powers resolution] as Senators “finally” standing up to Trump, but it’s a cost-free vote … Trump will veto it, as he should, and there aren’t enough votes to override … in any event the resolution also includes an escape clause,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

“The Defense Department needs to change its public reporting on brain trauma casualties [because] the numbers severely underestimate the costs of today’s wars and the long-term interventions necessary to address them,” Loren DeJonge Schulman and Paul Scharre comment at the New York Times, reflecting on the growing number of U.S. soldiers being treated for traumatic brain injuries following Iran’s missile strike on al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq. 

Social networking service Instagram reportedly removed posts by Iranian journalists and commentators on the U.S. killing of Soleimani. In a piece for Just Security, Faiza Patel shows how that case illustrates the potential and limits of parent company Facebook’s forthcoming Oversight Board.

IRAQ

Iraqi officials say the U.S. has issued Iraq a 45-day Iran sanctions waiver allowing it to continue importing vital Iranian gas and electricity supplies. In a statement yesterday, the U.S. State Department proclaimed the waiver “ensures that Iraq is able to meet its short-term energy needs while it takes steps to reduce its dependence on Iranian energy imports.” AP reporting.

President Trump’s budget proposal slashes almost $1 billion dollars from the United Nations, which runs critical civilian programs on the ground in Iraq. Jordie Hannum at Just Security explains why, with the Islamic State group (ISIS) regrouping in Iraq, U.S. military leaders are among those calling to save U.N. initiatives.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. and Taliban are poised to signing to a partial week-long ceasefire in Afghanistan, which could lead to broader peace talks and an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Negotiators from both sides have been scrutinizing the deal in Qatar and have said that an agreement is close. Julian Borger reporting for The Guardian.

A delve into what a reduction in violence and the next steps of the peace process might look like, based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former Afghan and Western officials as well as Taliban leaders who have followed the negotiations closely, is provided by Mujib Mashal at the New York Times.

SYRIA-TURKEY RELATIONS

A Syrian was killed yesterday in a rare confrontation in north-eastern Syria between U.S.-led coalition forces and pro-government militia fighters. Syria’s state news agency reported a civilian died when U.S. troops opened fire at a crowd stopping them pass through a checkpoint east of Qamishli city. AP reporting. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if its soldiers came under renewed attack. Erdogan said Turkey was intent on pushing Syrian government forces beyond Turkish observation posts in the northwestern Idlib region by the end of February, and he cautioned allied Syrian rebels not to give government forces an excuse to attack. Turkey mounted a counterattack Tuesday after 13 Turkish military personnel were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days. Reuters reporting.

There has been a “seismic development” in Syria: “Two of the most influential actors there — Turkey and the Syrian regime — have stopped fighting purely through proxies, and instead taken to directly attacking each other,” CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh writes in an analysis.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.N. Human Rights Office released a long-anticipated report yesterday listing 112 companies doing business with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, drawing anger from Israel and sparking a Palestinian threat of legal action against the firms. Reuters reporting.

Senators criticized the U.N. report as a political move which endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Laura Kelly reporting for the Hill.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service found Russia interfered in elections in the West in 2019 and intends to do the same in 2020. “Russia’s cyber operations have been successful and, to date, have not been sanctioned enough by the West to force Russia to abandon them,” the agency’s annual report states. In addition to plans to target U.S. elections in November, the report warns Russia will seek to meddle in neighboring Georgia’s October parliamentary elections. Courtney Kube reporting for NBC News.

The Trump administration is weighing hiring a special negotiator for nuclear talks with Russia as the last major arms control treaty between the two nations is due to expire next year. A high-level negotiator would be recruited to act as a special envoy for the negotiations with Russia, although Trump may tap the negotiator to work with China on a nuclear arms deal as well. Nahal Toosi reporting for POLITICO.

IMMIGRATION AND BORDER CONTROL

The House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to advance a bill that would terminate Trump’s travel ban that targets several Muslim majority countries, and would rein in presidential authority to impose future restrictions based on religion. Al Jazeera reporting.

“While some border policies deter, not all control policies can be counted as ‘deterrence’ … instead, many are more accurately described as forms of ‘defense,’” Jonathan Kent, Kelsey Norman and Kate Tennis tease out the differences in approaches to border control in an insightful price at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council indicated this week it would cooperate with the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) in prosecuting ousted president Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted for alleged war crimes and genocide in Darfur, a “watershed moment in Sudan’s rapidly evolving political environment,” Cameron Hudson writes at Foreign Policy.

The Pentagon is likely to back new U.S. restrictions on Huawei, reversing earlier opposition to a proposal intended to further crack down on U.S. exports to the blacklisted Chinese telecommunications giant, according to five people familiar with internal discussions. Adam Behsudi reporting for POLITICO.

The U.N. Security Council has approved a measure requiring a multinational operation to oversee a ceasefire in Libya, despite serious doubts that any of the conflict’s major players will abide by its terms. The U.K.-backed resolution, calling for a truce without preconditions and an immediate end to the supply of weapons to both sides, was passed by 14 votes to zero, with one abstention from Russia. Patrick Wintour reporting for The Guardian.

A British law firm filed requests yesterday with the authorities in Britain, the United States and Turkey to investigate senior officials from the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) suspected of carrying out war crimes and torture in Yemen. Al Jazeera reporting.

President Trump yesterday brushed off a decision by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to end a decades-old military agreement with the U.S., a position that contrasts with that of his defense secretary who was alarmed by the move. Reuters reporting.

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly laid out, in the clearest terms yet, his reservations about Trump’s behavior regarding North Korea, immigration, military discipline and Ukraine during an illuminating 75-minute speech and Q&A session yesterday evening. Peter Nicholas reporting for The Atlantic.

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee refused to attend a subcommittee hearing on technology and national security yesterday, boycotting the panel’s first public hearing since the impeachment probe into Trump. Olivia Beavers reporting at the Hill.

Incidents of white supremacist propaganda distributed across America went up by 120 percent between 2018 and last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, making 2019 the second straight year that the circulation of propaganda material has more than doubled. The BBC reporting. 

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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).