Security Brief

Former NSC Official Takes the Stand in Impeachment Probe as Republicans Go on the Defensive

Fiona Hill has denounced the “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections, capping off a dramatic week of public impeachment hearings in Washington.

Fiona Hill, the former senior director for Europe and Russia on U.S. President Donald Trump's National Security Council, is sworn in prior to testifying before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on impeachment in Washington on Nov. 21.
Fiona Hill, the former senior director for Europe and Russia on U.S. President Donald Trump's National Security Council, is sworn in prior to testifying before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on impeachment in Washington on Nov. 21. Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief Plus, where we’ll catch you up on a week of dramatic impeachment hearings. What’s on tap today: Former NSC official Fiona Hill takes the stand in Washington, the rising terrorism threat in the Sahel stokes fears in West, and the death toll mounts in Iran’s deadly crackdown against countrywide protests.

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Fiona Hill’s Testimony Begins With Blistering Critique

Today marks the final day in a week of dramatic public impeachment hearings in Washington. Fiona Hill, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former top National Security Council aide on Russia, opened her testimony with a blistering critique of the Republicans’ “fictional narrative” that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 elections. “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine—not Russia —attacked us in 2016,” she said in her prepared opening statement.

Hill is testifying alongside David Holmes, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. The final hearing comes a day after Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, gave explosive testimony explicitly tying Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rival. “Everyone was in the loop,” he said.

Pompeo in the spotlight. Pompeo has so far avoided attracting attention during the impeachment inquiry. He denies any wrongdoing and insists he is proud of the administration’s work in helping Ukraine fight corruption and confront Russian-backed separatists. But questions about his management come as Republican strategists are pushing Pompeo to leave the administration and pursue a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports.

Have the hearings moved the dial? After weeks of closed-door and public hearings, it doesn’t appear any House Republicans have heard anything that would convince them to break ranks with the president.

What We’re Watching 

Warning signs from the Sahel. France is asking its European neighbors to step up support for their military operations against Islamic militant groups in the Sahel. Top U.S. officials are worried, too. The State Department’s senior diplomat on Africa warned of a brewing crisis  in a recent interview with a group of reporters, including Foreign Policy. “I think [the Sahel] is the most difficult and challenging situation we have now in the continent,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy said. “As you know, the threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It’s not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert.”

Protests in Iran. Despite the government’s claims, protests in Iran appear to be ongoing. The unrest first broke out after a rise in fuel costs, itself a response to the deteriorating economic situation brought on in part by U.S. sanctions. Although demonstrators initially took to the streets over the fuel hike, the protests have opened space for citizens to challenge the government on a broader range of issues, including corruption and economic mismanagement. The government, fearful of recent events in Iraq and Lebanon replicating themselves in Iran, has instituted an internet blackout to frustrate organizing efforts among protesters. Its heavy-handed response led to the deaths of at least 106 protesters in 21 cities across the country. Both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claim foreign actors stoked the unrest.

Syria fires rockets at Israel. On Tuesday, Shiite militias based in Syria fired four rockets into the Golan Heights, which was formally recognized as Israeli territory by the United States in March. Although all four missiles were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, the Defense Forces responded with a barrage of missile attacks on several Syrian and Iranian targets around Damascus. The attacks suggest both Israel and Iran are expanding the scope for what constitutes justified retaliatory action.

Election meddling, Balkans edition. It’s not just the United States that is worried about election meddling in 2020. U.S. military cyber experts are now working with Montenegro, the newest member of NATO, to prevent cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns by Russia ahead of Montenegro’s 2020 elections. Montenegro faced a brazen Russia-backed coup attempt in 2016. The attempt failed, but it reflects Russia’s desperation to keep its geopolitical clout in the Balkans as Montenegro and many of its neighbors pivot to the West.

Movers and Shakers

Head for the Hill. A former Pentagon official from the Obama administration is throwing her hat in the 2020 Congressional election race. Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Eurasia, has announced a run for Congress as a Democrat in New York’s 17th district. “I was one of the first people to ring the alarm about Russia’s intervention in our election,” Farkas said. “And really from that moment on, I’ve been fighting to protect our democracy and fighting again this president through erosion of the rule of law in our country.”

Bolton rejoins hawkish anti-Iran group. Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton is returning to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a hawkish anti-Iran advocacy group, as a senior advisor. Bolton previously served on UANI’s Advisory Board until 2018, when he left to join Trump’s White House.

Quote of the Week

“My whole day has been like this.”

—U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, after accidentally putting his luggage in the wrong bin when boarding his flight back from Washington to Brussels on after a day of impeachment testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday

Odds and Ends

Avocado cartels. As the demand for avocados explodes in the United States, Mexican drug cartels are moving in to stake their claim in the booming industry, as a Los Angeles Times investigation reveals. The cartels recognized avocados as a new source of power, forcing local growers to hand over a portion of their profits. Several cartels in Mexico have been diversifying their portfolios outside of the illicit drug trade in recent years to expand their influence into other parts of Mexico’s economy, posing a major new challenge for the United States and Mexico.

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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