The Early Edition: February 21, 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

President Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison yesterday for obstructing a congressional investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as part of a case that sparked a firestorm over the president’s political interference in the justice system. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson handed down her sentence of 40 months, a $20,000 fine, two years of probation and 250 hours of community service after Stone’s lawyer asked that the veteran Republican operative receive no prison time. Sharon LaFraniere reporting for the New York Times.

In a stern lecture during the hours-long sentencing hearing, Jackson said Stone’s lies to lawmakers investigating Russian meddling posed a threat to American democracy. Jackson delivered an implicit rebuke to Trump, who has slammed Stone’s prosecution: “There was nothing unfair, phony or disgraceful about the investigation or the prosecution,” the judge said, citing words that the Republican president has used. “[Stone] was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president … he was prosecuted for covering up for the president,” Jackson added in her closing remarks. Rachel Weiner, Matt Zapotosky, Tom Jackman and Devlin Barrett reporting for the Washington Post.

Trump suggested he has no immediate plans to pardon Stone and would let the legal process play out, while adding that “at some point I’ll make a determination,” teasing the eventual possibility of pardoning his longtime aide. Caitlin Oprysko reporting for POLITICO.

“[Jackson] debunked no fewer than five conspiracy theories that have found a home on Trump’s Twitter feed, conservative media outlets and Stone’s allies on the fringes of the Internet” in her “impassioned plea for the truth and the rule of law,” Marshall Cohen writes at CNN.

Stone’s case was one of a number that arose out of an investigation by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller that chronicled Moscow’s campaign of hacking and online propaganda to improve Trump’s candidacy. A rundown of some of the other characters who have pleaded guilty or been convicted or indicted in Mueller’s inquiry is provided by Reuters.

The scenes at Stone’s sentencing will intensify suspicions about what is occurring behind the scenes in the Justice Department (D.O.J.), Aaron Blake writes in an analysis of the courtroom spectacle at the Washington Post.

A scrutiny of federal sentencing processes and principles makes clear that Attorney General William Barr’s intervention in the Stone case is in fact “considerably worse” than it initially seemed, Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, comments at the New York Times.

“Congress should transform the Justice Department into an independent agency, legally immunized from the president’s day-to-day control,” Cass R. Sunstein argues at the New York Times, reflecting on the growing controversy over the politicization of the D.O.J. under Barr and its “potential weaponization” at the hands of President Trump.

RUSSIA

Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was seeking to interfere in the 2020 campaign to help President Trump get reelected, it was reported yesterday. The Feb. 13 briefing by top election security officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) to the House Intelligence Committee prompted Trump to lash out at now-former acting D.N.I. Joseph Maguire, accusing him of disloyalty for greenlighting the briefing, suggesting Democrats would use the information against him as he seeks reelection. Adam Goldman, Julian E. Barnes, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos reporting for the New York Times.

During his outburst,Trump reportedly had been under the false impression that the briefing had been provided exclusively to the House intelligence committee chair, Adam Schiff (Calif.), who had acted as the lead prosecutor in the president’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan reporting for the Washington Post.

The U.S. joined its main allies yesterday in blaming Russia’s principal military intelligence agency for a major cyberattack against the Republic of Georgia in October that knocked thousands of government and private websites offline and interrupted television broadcasts. The accusation, issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, came as Trump has been looking to pin interference in the 2016 election on Ukraine, a key element of his impeachment trial last month. David E. Sanger and Marc Santora reporting for the New York Times.

NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE

Trump yesterday said he is considering Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) as his permanent Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.), one day after he announced that Richard Grenell, the current ambassador to Germany, will take over from Joseph Maguire on a temporary basis. Trump told reporters that Collins is a protective candidate to be nominated to fill the post that has not had a permanent occupant since Dan Coats resigned last August. Brett Samuels reporting for the Hill.

Kash Patel, a former top National Security Council (N.S.C.) official who also played a central role as a Hill employee in helping Republicans discredit the Russia investigation, is now a senior adviser for Grenell, the new acting D.N.I., according to four people with knowledge of the matter. It is not known what precise role Patel, who began his role yesterday, is playing in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Daniel Lippman reporting for POLITICO.

Trump’s mission to purge the government of anyone “not blindly loyal” to him continued Wednesday with the appointment of Grenell, the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting, the ambassador is “manifestly unqualified for the job, even in an acting capacity” and “has no experience in intelligence or in managing large organizations — like the 17 agencies that will now report to him.”

SYRIA

Two Turkish soldiers were killed and five others were wounded in Syrian government air raids yesterday near the northwest region of Idlib in a sharp escalation of an intense battle over the last rebel stronghold, the Turkish Defense Ministry said. More than 50 Syrian forces were killed in retaliation, it added. Reuters reporting.

Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in an interview yesterday that the United States may dispatch Patriot missile systems to Turkey to use for security amid violent clashes in Idlib region. Akar said discussions with the United States on purchasing Patriot systems were also carrying on. Reuters reporting.

IRAN

Iranians began voting today in a parliamentary election that is expected to produce a hard-line parliament loyal to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The 11th parliamentary election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution comes after heightening tensions between Iran and the U.S. and the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that triggered anti-government protests. The BBC reporting.

Iran’s senior leaders issued eve-of-poll warnings in the media last night that a low turnout in the elections would benefit President Trump’s economic sanctions against Tehran. Patrick Winter reporting for The Guardian.

“When Iranians go to the polls on Friday they will be taking part in what may be the least representative and least fair election in the Islamic Republic’s history,” Farnaz Fassihi reports for the New York Times, noting, “Iran’s clerical leadership disqualified more than 7,000 candidates from running this year, including most of the moderates and centrists, paving the way for tougher domestic and foreign policies.”

A guide to Iran’s parliamentary election is provided by Arwa Ibrahim at Al Jazeera.

The Trump administration announced sanctions yesterday against five Iranian officials it said are responsible for preventing “free and fair” elections in Iran a day before a parliamentary vote that it called a “sham.” The U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement it imposed sanctions on the officials, members of Iran’s Guardian Council and its Elections Supervision Committee in charge of vetting all parliamentary candidates, over their role in disqualifying several thousand candidates. Mengqi Sun reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

A global terror-finance watchdog agency is expected to blacklist Iran today, marking a step forward in the U.S. effort to use sanctions to compel the Iranian government to halt its support for terrorist groups and eliminate its nuclear weapons program. The move by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force follows a decision by European governments to join the U.S., according to American and allied officials, and increases the pressure on the number of banks and businesses still dealing with the Islamic Republic to sever their ties. Benoit Faucon in London and Ian Talley reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. sanctions are helping the Iranian government block off its people from the internet, preventing pro-democracy activists from getting word out about attacks and killings, Nima Fatemi and Gissou Nia write in a piece for Just Security, suggesting how the U.S. could support alternatives.

AFGHANISTAN

A weeklong “reduction in violence” across Afghanistan promised by the Taliban goes into effect early tomorrow, an Afghan official said today, beginning the countdown to the signing of a peace agreement between the insurgents and the United States at the end of the month. If the partial truce goes ahead, it would pave the way for the withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan and a political settlement that could, ultimately, see the more than 18-year war end. AFP reporting.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, published an op-ed yesterday, writing that the Taliban is prepared to work with international partners on a long-term peace-building plan. He reiterated the demand of fully withdrawing foreign troops first. The piece, which represents the highest-level statement from the Taliban on the peace talks, is available at the New York Times.

The op-ed drew criticism from G.O.P. lawmakers, who cast doubts on Haqqani’s portrayal of the Taliban as peacemakers, as well as his assertion that “the killing and the maiming must stop.” Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

IMMIGRATION and HOMELAND SECURITY

President Trump has tapped Julia Nesheiwat, Florida’s chief resilience officer, as his new homeland security adviser, according to a person familiar with the matter. In her new role, Nesheiwat, currently responsible for preparing the state for the effects of climate change, will strive to protect the U.S. from terrorist threats, boost cyberdefenses and respond to natural disasters. Jim Acosta and Paul LeBlanc reporting for CNN.

A look at the impact on immigrant communities of the Trump administration’s new visa rules is provided by Al Jazeera.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Victoria Coates, President Trump’s deputy national security adviser, has been reassigned to the Department of Energy amid suspicion that she is the anonymous author of a tell-all book critical of Trump, the latest of several top personnel moves arising from questions of loyalty to the president. Coates will join the Department as senior adviser to Secretary Dan Brouillette. Morgan Chalfant reporting for the Hill.

An ex-Pentagon counterterrorism analyst pleaded guilty yesterday to giving out classified information to two journalists, one of whom was his girlfriend. Michael Levenson reporting at the New York Times.

Rival leaders in South Sudan announced yesterday that they have agreed to forge a coalition government just two days before a crucial deadline as the country works to move on from a five-year civil war. AFP reporting.

“Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi’s recent nomination to be Iraq’s next leader is a dead end, for Iraq and the United States alike,” John Hannah writes for Foreign Policy, commenting, he has “no chance” of resolving “Iraq’s ever-expanding subjugation by Iran and its local Shiite Islamist proxies.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed to raise human rights with the Saudis during his three-day trip, but the U.S. government has demonstrated “little willingness to go beyond lip service for these hostages of the Saudi regime,” Alia al-Hathloul, Ali AlAhmed and Areej AlSadhan write at NBC News, calling on officials “to act now … to secure the release of citizens or relatives of citizens whom they are in office to serve.”

The attacks this week targeting two bars in Germany appear to be part of an ongoing pattern of white supremacist terror and are proof that “conspiracy theories that are circulated by Americans in the United States, and through message boards that are predominantly American, do have an impact in other places,” Lois Beckett writes at The Guardian

Entrepreneurship can help reintegrate former militants and could potentially reduce recidivism rates among terrorists, Aviva Feuerstein argues at Foreign Policy. 

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).