The Early Edition: February 24, 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

The judge presiding over longtime Trump ally Roger Stone’s case has denied a defense request for her recusal from a potential new trial challenging the conduct of a juror at his trial. In a six-page order issued yesterday evening, Judge Amy Berman Jackson said that there was no factual or legal basis to Stone’s claims. Stone’s lawyers alleged in a Friday filing that Jackson could not impartially assess his request for a new trial over allegations of juror misconduct, arguing that the judge displayed bias at the sentencing hearing by commending the “integrity” of the jury. The motion came after the president amplified allegations of a biased trial on Twitter, Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO.

The tensions between the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, the Justice Department (D.O.J.) and the White House go back further than the turmoil in the Stone case — they have been stewing since at least last summer, when the office’s probe of Andrew McCabe, a former top F.B.I. official whom the president had long targeted, began to come apart, Katie Benner and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times.

RUSSIA

National security adviser Robert O’Brien said yesterday there is no intelligence to support reports that the Russians are trying to help President Trump win reelection, contradicting warnings reportedly put out by intelligence officials. “The national security adviser gets pretty good access to our intelligence … I haven’t seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump reelected,” O’Brien said in an interview airing yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.” The remark follows a New York Times report that intelligence officials informed Congress earlier this month of Russian interference in the 2020 race to help Trump’s reelection. Allan Smith reporting for NBC News.

Trump on Friday dismissed claims of Russian interference in the 2020 election in his favor, describing the recent news reports as another partisan attack against him. “Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates who still have been unable to, after two weeks, count their votes in Iowa. … hoax number 7!” Trump said in a message sent on Twitter. Morgan Chalfant and Maggie Miller reporting for the Hill.

Trump accused House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) of leaking classified intelligence on Russian meddling to boost Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) campaign. Speaking to reporters as he left the White House for a visit to India, Trump said he had not been briefed on information that Russia was aiming to help Sanders and he urged a probe into Schiff for the leak. Schiff rebuffed Trump’s accusations in a message sent on Twitter, telling the president, “Americans decide American elections.” Rebecca Klar reporting for the Hill.

In a subsequent tweet, Schiff called Trump’s claims of never being briefed on intelligence about foreign election interference deflection.” Schiff told the president in a Twitter post that his “false claims” fooled no one. “You welcomed Russian help in 2016, tried to coerce Ukraine’s help in 2019, and won’t protect our elections in 2020 … now you fired your intel chief for briefing Congress about it,” Schiff said. Barbie Latza Nadeau reporting for The Daily Beast.

“[Both] sides are thickening the fog by suggesting each leaked information about alleged meddling for political advantage … in a sense, it doesn’t matter which version of these events is correct, since the effect is the same — a further eroding of trust in the democratic process,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis.

“The recent analysis that Russia is again trying to help Trump inflamed a long-sensitive nerve,” Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima and Josh Dawsey  report on the recent developments at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

More than 10,000 civilians were killed and injured from fighting in Afghanistan for the sixth straight year in 2019, the U.N. said in a new U.N. report released Saturday. The number of civilian casualties has now exceeded 100,000 after more than a decade of the U.N. documenting the war’s impact on civilians, it said. The report comes as a weeklong “reduction of violence” agreement between the U.S. and Taliban takes effect, raising hopes for a resolution to America’s longest war. AP reporting.

If the seven-day partial truce holds, the two sides have said they will sign a peace accord on Feb. 29 laying out a timetable for the United States to withdraw its troops in exchange for the Taliban’s renouncing terrorism and entering into peace talks with the Afghan government. It remains unclear how the U.S. will measure success of the initial agreement to reduce violence, and U.S. officials and experts agree the peace process come under threat from domestic political developments in Afghanistan. AP reporting.

The planned deal between the U.S. and Taliban “provides no guarantees to preserve women’s rights or civil liberties enshrined in the country’s constitution,” which the insurgents do not recognize. The Trump administration, keen to pull U.S. forces out of America’s longest war, is treating the matter as an internal issue to be straightened out among the Afghans in future peace negotiations, placing hard-won gains at risk. Dan De Luce reporting for NBC News.

“The recent dispute between the country’s two most senior leaders could not have come at a more sensitive time for Afghanistan,” Al Jazeera’s Shereena Qazi explores how the rivalry between Afghanistan’s incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and the runner-up in the Sept. 28 presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, could undermine the Afghan peace process.

“Some military historians and thinkers … argue persuasively that Afghanistan — while it never was going to be easy — was a winnable conflict,” Michael Hirsh writes for Foreign Policy, commenting, “at the very least, Washington could have stabilized the country with far less investment of time, money, and blood, had it simply paid attention.”

Five things to know about the emerging U.S.-Taliban peace deal are provided by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Saturday that he will meet with the leaders of Russia, Germany and France on March 5 to discuss the situation in northwest Syria, where nearly a million people have been displaced amid aggression from Russian-backed Syrian forces. Reuters reporting.

The United Nations has proposed that the Tal Abiyad border crossing between Syria and Turkey could be used to deliver assistance to civilians in northeast Syria after Russia and China blocked the world body from utilizing a crossing level on the Iraqi border to provide help. Last month, the U.N. Security Council allowed a six-year-long cross-border aid operation to carry on from two places in Turkey, but dropped crossing points from Iraq and Jordan due to resistance from Russia and China. “If viable alternatives to Al Yarubiah are not found for medical items, the gap between the humanitarian response and humanitarian needs will increase,” Guterres wrote in his report to the council, adding, “from a security and logistical perspective, in the current context, the Tal Abiyad border crossing would constitute the most feasible alternative.” Reuters reporting.

IRAN

Iran’s conservatives will dominate the country’s new parliament following a general election marked by the lowest turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution amid the threat of the new coronavirus, an economic downturn and the disqualification of half the candidates. AP reporting.

The world’s leading antiterrorism monitoring group voted on Friday to keep Iran on its blacklist for not addressing terrorist financing at home, extending international sanctions at a time when the country had hoped to compensate for its troubled economy by doing business with Europe. The Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based monitoring group, had given Iran a February deadline to pass antiterrorism legislation or remain blacklisted. Although Iran’s parliament approved the legislation, a high clerical body rejected it. Maria Abi-Habib and Salman Masood reporting for the New York Times.

An additional U.S. service member has been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from Iran’s January missile strike in Iraq, the Pentagon said Friday. The new diagnosis brings the tally to 110. Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

AL-QAEDA

Al-Qaeda has confirmed the death of Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of Islamist group in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors armed group networks worldwide, reported yesterday. The announcement came weeks after President Trump declared that the United States had killed al-Rimi in a counterterrorism operation in Yemen. Al Jazeera reporting.

Groups connected to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), at war with each other in the Middle East, are working together to seize territory across a vast stretch of West Africa, U.S. and local officials say, prompting fears the regional threat could evolve into a global crisis. Danielle Paquette and Joby Warrick reporting for the Washington Post.

SUDAN

South Sudan President Salva Kiir swore-in rebel leader Riek Machar as his deputy on Saturday, marking a hesitant start of a power-sharing government between two longtime foes and the latest effort to wind down the six-year conflict in the African country. Nicholas Bariyo reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

An assessment of recent developments affecting U.S.-Sudan relations, including a settlement agreement for the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing in Yemen and some movement on the fate of ousted president Omar al-Bashir, is provided by John Hursh at Just Security.

The INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY

New Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Richard Grenell has pushed out the office’s No. 2 official, Andrew Hallman, wasting no time in making major changes at the agency. Grenell told Hallman, who has worked for national intelligence and the C.I.A. for three decades, that his service was no longer needed. The deputy D.N.I. resigned on Friday along with Joseph Maguire, the former acting D.N.I.. Julian E. Barnes, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos reporting for the New York Times.

Grenell’s ascension to the highest intelligence post in the United States increases concerns that the Trump administration is politicizing the relationship between the White House and intelligence agencies and comes amid a dispute over Russian election interference, Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report for Foreign Policy, citing fears voiced by Grenell’s former colleagues.

“With this recent record, there is virtually no chance that Grenell will be able to discern, let alone stay inside, the line between objectively providing intelligence and tendentiously supporting the president’s policies,” Jonathan Stevenson argues at the New York Times, commenting, “by now, we’re used to this president naming unqualified loyalists to high positions … but this is not just another disparagement of the separation of powers.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Trump administration has a designated list of government officials regarded by the president as being disloyal and slated for removal so that they can be replaced with pro-Trump loyalists. According to a dozen sources familiar with the matter, Trump has a team of conservative allies — including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife Ginni Thomas — helping to compile anti-Trump and pro-Trump lists. Axios reporting.

“[I]n this administration, good men and women don’t last long,” retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and is one of Maguire’s closest friends, wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post.

PAGE WIRETAP

Top White House officials are considering an overhaul of the government’s surveillance program for individuals in the U.S. suspected of posing a national-security risk, driven in part by President Trump’s criticisms over an investigation of a 2016 campaign adviser, Carter Page, according to people familiar with the matter. Andrew Restuccia and Dustin Volz reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

It is an open question whether Congress will propose reforms to the F.B.I.’s intelligence wiretap powers based on theories that Page was a victim of a high-level political conspiracy or instead focus on the systemic problems with surveillance, Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman write at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza into southern Israel today after Israeli airstrikes against Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip and Syria yesterday killed two fighters. The BBC reporting.

At least one protester was killed and at least six others were injured in renewed clashes between anti-government demonstrators and security forces in central Baghdad yesterday, Iraqi officials said. AP reporting.

Pro-Turkish Syrians are battling in Libya alongside military trainers sent by Ankara, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed for the first time Friday. Al Jazeera reporting.

“Cheap and easily accessible small arms are increasingly becoming the weapon of choice for many terrorist groups,” the U.N. counter-terrorism chief told an event on Friday aimed to increase awareness of the link between terrorism, organized crime and illicit small arms trafficking. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

Live updates from President Trump’s visit to India, as the two nations continue to work to strengthen their security cooperation, are provided by the Washington Post. 

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).