The Early Edition: February 27, 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.  

RUSSIA

The Trump campaign filed a libel lawsuit against The New York Times yesterday over a 2019 opinion piece published in the newspaper that suggested the campaign and Russia “had an overarching deal” in the 2016 U.S. election. The suit relates to a March 27, 2019, opinion article headlined “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo” and written by Max Frankel, who served as executive editor of the Times from 1986 to 1994. Michael M. Grynbaum and Marc Tracy reporting for the New York Times.

The Trump lawsuit argues that the statements in the op-ed were “false” and that The Times published the piece “knowing it would misinform and mislead its own readers.” The suit also states the “falsity of the story” was confirmed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In a statement, the Times said that the Trump campaign was trying to “punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable” and the law would protect their statements. Alex Leary reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

The United Nations disarmament chief warned yesterday that the prospect of an unconstrained nuclear arms race is threatening the world for the first time since the 1970s, the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Izumi Nakamitsu did not name any specific nations but she was clearly alluding to the United States and Russia, and possibly China, when she told the U.N. Security Council that “relationships between states — especially nuclear-weapon states — are fractured.” AP reporting.

TURKEY-SYRIA

At least two Turkish soldiers were killed and two others were injured in an air strike in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said early today. It said the Turkish military retaliated by opening fire on Syrian government targets. Reuters reporting.

The violence came as talks between Turkey and Russia aimed at calming tensions resumed yesterday, AP reporting.

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters today reclaimed a key northwestern town in Syria that was recently seized by government forces, and cut the highway connecting the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012. The retaking of Saraqeb which sits on the highway is a knock-back for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces who have scored crucial gains in a weeks long Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province. AP reporting.

A look at how the Syrian government’s offensive on a rebel-held province has created one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of a brutal nine-year war is fielded by Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad at the New York Times.

A poignant account of the human cost of the assault on Idlib as the Assad regime battles to recapture all of Syria is provided by Kareem Fahim at the Washington Post.

IRAN

The United States yesterday blacklisted a high-ranking member of Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia over its attacks targeting U.S. forces, most recently for murdering an American contractor in an Iraqi military base near the northern city of Kirkuk. The U.S. State Department said it has classified Ahmad al-Hamidawi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), Secretary General of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), an Iran-backed terrorist group active in Iraq and Syria, which Washington designated as terrorist organization in 2009. “The Kataib Hezbollah group continues to present a threat to U.S. forces in Iraq,” Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said at a news briefing. “We’re adding to the pressure that has existed on this group for a decade.” Reuters reporting.

A bipartisan pair of senators is calling on the United Nations to renew sanctions on Iran that are set to expire in October. Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) are introducing a measure this week urging the international body to “at a minimum” renew the penalties, which include an arms embargo and travel limitations. “Clearly the Iranian regime plans on continuing to destabilize the region and provoke America and its allies,” Toomey said in a statement, adding, “This bipartisan resolution … would reaffirm the international community’s opposition to Iranian aggression.” Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

FISA REFORM

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday canceled a planned vote to reauthorize a set of key intelligence powers after a bipartisan group called for more extensive restrictions on government surveillance than what the bill contained. The reforms in the reauthorization bill put forward by Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) did not go far enough to satisfy key civil liberties advocates and privacy hawks in Congress, who were anticipating more sweeping changes to the government’s spying powers. Siobhan Hughes and Dustin Volz reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

Some timely recommendations for strengthening the role of amici in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) courts, with the goal of making them more responsive to civil liberties concerns, are provided by Faiza Patel and Raya Koreh at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

President Trump said Americans are at “very low” risk from the coronavirus, and he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of federal response efforts , amid growing criticism of the White House’s handling of the outbreak. The move came as a U.S. case was diagnosed that may have no connection to travel abroad. The Washington Post reporting.

Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire “learned about his firing from reporters reaching out for comment before publication, and had to call the national security adviser to confirm that he’d been replaced by Grenell,” in a sign that Trump is seeking to protect the public from intelligence that could be politically damaging for him, and keep the flow of information coming out of the agencies firmly under his command. POLITICO reporting.

A federal appeals court said the Trump administration can withhold funds from law enforcement agencies in so-called sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with immigration enforcement agencies, reversing a lower court ruling and setting the stage for possible U.S. Supreme Court action. Reuters reporting.

Senate Democrats yesterday introduced legislation to undo Trump’s decision to divert billions in military money toward the U.S.-Mexico border wall and place new restrictions on the Pentagon’s transfer authority. The Hill reporting.

The Justice Department said yesterday that it had established an official section in its immigration office dedicated to reviewing denaturalization cases, a move that boosts the Trump administration’s broad efforts to oust from the country immigrants who have committed crimes. The New York Times reporting.

Six House Democrats yesterday demanded that World Bank President David Malpass explain an August meeting with the Ukrainan president amid Trump’s order to withhold defense aid from Ukraine, citing worries that Malpass’s conference with Zelensky on Aug. 23 in Kyiv could be considered as a part of Trump’s pressure campaign that led to his impeachment. The Hill reporting.

Nuclear diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea has stalled one year after Trump and Kim’s second summit, held in Vietnam, collapsed without an agreement. Al Jazeera reporting. 

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).