The Early Edition: February 26, 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.  

The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT AND ROGER STONE  

The federal judge presiding over the criminal case against Roger Stone warned yesterday about criticism by President Trump and others of a juror in the trial, saying that the president’s recent remarks since the conviction of his longtime associate had helped fuel threats to the jury. The comments by U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson came during a hearing on Stone’s request for a new trial. The defense motion argues that the jury foreperson misled the court when answering questions during the jury selection process about her social media use. Zach Montague and Sharon LaFraniere reporting for the New York Times.

Jackson ultimately ended the hearing without a decision after taking testimony from three jurors from Stone’s trial — including the foreperson. Two jurors on the panel testified that they faced no pressure in their deliberations and each came to their conclusions on Stone’s guilt independently. The judge is expected to issue a ruling soon. Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO.

Attorney General William Barr has asked the president publicly and privately to stop posting on social media about Justice Department (D.O.J.) criminal cases, though Trump proved again yesterday “that the advice has fallen on deaf ears.” Trump has repeatedly bashed the foreperson, judge and jury publicly over the past week since Stone was sentenced to over three years in prison for obstructing the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Spencer S. Hsu and Matt Zapotosky reporting for the Washington Post.

An honest appraisal of Barr’s leadership of today’s Justice Department by his former D.O.J. colleague, ex-acting Attorney General Stuart M. Gerson, is available at Just Security.

RUSSIA

New Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell has asked an intelligence official who riled some lawmakers with a briefing about Russian meddling in the 2020 election to stay in her current post. Grenell’s decision is an apparent peace offering to the intelligence agencies he oversees and suggests that he will not be carrying out a “widespread purge,” as some administration officials have worried. The top intelligence official in charge of election security, Shelby Pierson, was subjected to strong disapproval after her briefing to a classified hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13 sparked off a fierce partisan debate over the nature of Russia’s interference in the 2020 election. Pierson sought to reassure Americans yesterday that the vote remains secure, Julian E. Barnes reports for the New York Times.

U.S. intelligence officials are worried that their latest conclusions about Russian election interference are being “distorted and weaponized” for political benefit by both sides, current and former officials said. The officials say the inaccuracy and dispute surrounding the Feb. 13 briefing have left them on the defensive, and fearful that the public is not getting a “full appreciation” of the threat of foreign election interference in 2020. Ken Dilanian reporting for NBC News.

AFGHANISTAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed cautious optimism yesterday that a formal peace deal with the Taliban will be signed this weekend, saying a temporary reduction in violence pact with the militants is “working,” but also warning opposition leaders in the Kabul government not to spoil the “enormous opportunity.” AFP reporting. 

Afghanistan’s government has agreed to delay President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration to a second term, the United States said yesterday as it refused to recognize competing election victory claims by Ghani and his main political foe, Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani last week was declared the winner of a new term in elections after five months of bitter debate, but Abdullah rejected the results and vowed to form his own government. Reuters reporting.

“Ironically, until recently it was the [Afghan] government that regularly portrayed the Taliban as a nonunified movement it was unable to negotiate with … but now it is Kabul that seems more split than ever before,” Emran Feroz writes for Foreign Policy, reporting on the recent election results.

There were over 10,000 civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan last year, according to a new United Nations report. In a piece for Just Security, Sahr Muhammedally and Marc Garlasco argue that efforts to mitigate civilian harm must be prioritized.

SYRIA

At least 20 civilians, including nine children and three teachers, were killed in Syrian army attacks in Idlib province in northwestern Syria yesterday, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations said in a statement. 10 schools and a hospital were hit by “airstrikes and ground attacks,” the human rights group said. The BBC reporting.

Turkey plans to drive Syrian government troops away from its military observation posts in Idlib region by end-February, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said today, despite advances by the Russian-backed government forces. Addressing A.K. Party lawmakers, Erdogan also said he hoped the issue of using air space in the area would be settled soon. Reuters reporting.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

A Saudi criminal court has sentenced one citizen to death and seven others to jail time on charges of treason and spying for Iran, state television reported. The Saudi national sentenced to death was accused of “betraying his country and offering intelligence to Iran,” Al-Ekhbariya television said yesterday via Twitter. Seven others were sentenced to prison with terms of 58 years for having “associated and cooperated with people working in the embassy of Iran, it added. Al Jazeera reporting.

An Army judge yesterday offered a February 2022 trial date for the death penalty tribunal of a Saudi man  accused of coordinating the Qaeda suicide bombing of the American destroyer Cole that killed 17 sailors off Yemen two decades ago. Carol Rosenberg reporting for the New York Times.

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution yesterday extending targeted sanctions in Yemen following heated negotiations including on whether to refer to U.N. experts’ findings that Yemen’s Houthi Shiite rebels are acquiring parts for drones and weapons, some with technical characteristics similar to arms produced in Iran. Britain, which drafted the resolution, and the U.S. and other Western nations supported including the experts’ conclusions, but Russia and China opposed the move. AP reporting.

FISA REFORM

Attorney General William Barr yesterday called for lawmakers to reauthorize the government’s expiring surveillance powers and pledged he would establish new quality-control mechanisms after a recent inspector general report found serious failings in the F.B.I.’s efforts to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in its investigation of possible links between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. The attorney general spoke about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) during a weekly lunch with Republican senators. Barr, like several other national security and intelligence officials, is opposed to extensive revisions to existing F.I.S.A. law, but told colleagues yesterday he wants to make changes to the court process at the center of the damning watchdog report. Sadie Gurman and Siobhan Hughes reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

In the next 24 hours, the House Judiciary Committee has an opportunity for serious bipartisan reform of surveillance authorities. However, the current draft bill does not go as far as it could and Committee members should insist on bolstering the bill when it goes to markup today. Elizabeth Goitein argues in a piece for Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) is back under consideration as a potential pick to serve as President Trump’s next Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.), two sources said. Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration for the role last year amid questions about his experience. CNN reporting.

The White House has hired a college senior to become a top official in the Presidential Personnel Office (P.P.O.). James Bacon, a senior at George Washington University currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree, will be the P.P.O.’s director of operations — replacing Katja Bullock, who had worked at the office for over two administrations. POLITICO reporting.

A 19-year-old man accused of trying to blow up a vehicle at the Pentagon Monday is in police custody and made his initial court appearance yesterday afternoon. If convicted for the charges related to the incident at the Pentagon, Richardson faces between five and 20 years in prison, according to a Justice Department release. The Hill reporting.

Terrorism experts believe that the threat posed by violent, homegrown extremists, and specifically white supremacists, is higher than the threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and similar groups. The challenge from homegrown extremists has generated an intense debate over whether the U.S. requires a new law to specifically criminalize domestic terrorism, or whether such a statute would threaten basic First Amendment rights. The New York Times reporting.

An Iranian security official accused the White House yesterday of holding back information about an Iranian missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq. “Pompeo’s expression of concern about what he deems to be a cover-up by #Iran over #corona comes while no exact news about the truth of #Ain al-Asad … has been published by the White House,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s top national security body, said in a message sent on Twitter reacting to accusations by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Islamic Republic may have suppressed details about the spread of coronavirus inside the country. Reuters reporting.

Two Libyan families have filed a U.S. civil lawsuit against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces for torturing and killing their relatives, meaning the military strongman and his sons will now have to answer to U.S. courts. Al Jazeera reporting. 

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).