The Early Edition: March 9, 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.  

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. death toll from coronavirus infections rose to 22 yesterday, while the virus reached a global milestone, exceeding 105,000 cases across more than 100 countries over the weekend. Connecticut, Missouri, Washington, D.C., and Vermont announced their first cases over the weekend as infections spread to new parts of the United States. At least eight states have declared states of emergencies, granting their governors further powers to combat the virus’s spread: New York, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Utah, Washington, and Oregon, which declared it yesterday. The New York Times reports.

The Department of Health and Human Services said yesterday that the Grand Princess cruise ship’s more than 3,500 passengers, at least 21 of whom have tested positive for the coronavirus, will be quarantined in California, Texas and Georgia. About 1,000 passengers who are California residents are to go to the Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., or the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, while residents of other states will complete the mandatory quarantine at the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas or Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga., the department said, adding all will be observed for symptoms of COVID-19 throughout their quarantine. AP reporting. 

A look at the failures in dealing with the crisis on the Diamond Princess amid another cruise ship outbreak is fielded by Matt Apuzzo, Motoko Rich and David Yaffe-Bellany at the New York Times.

The U.S. Army has ordered a suspension on the movement of soldiers into and out of Italy and South Korea as part of its response to the novel coronavirus, and will also ban foreign troops’ participation in U.S. military activities. The decision came after seven people with links to the U.S. military in South Korea have reportedly tested positive for the virus and follows confirmation that one American stationed in Naval Support Activity Naples has also tested positive. Justine Wise reports for the Hill.

Two Republican lawmakers, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), said yesterday they will remain at home this week in a self-imposed quarantine after contact at a late February gathering of conservatives with someone who has since tested positive for coronavirus. Cruz and Gosar were among the U.S. politicians and activists who attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event just outside Washington from Feb. 26-29. Reuters reporting.

President Trump on Friday signed an $8.3 billion measure to help fight the coronavirus outbreak that provides federal public health agencies with money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments and helps state and local governments prepare and respond to the threat. The Guardian reporting.

Italy has quarantined some 16 million people in an attempt to get a handle on the epidemic as the country experienced its highest day-on-day rise in deaths from coronavirus yesterday making it the nation hardest hit by the virus outside of China. The extraordinary measure restricted movement for a quarter of the country’s population but a leak of the possible lock down several hours before Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte formally announced the plan caused confusion about how it could be enforced. Davide Ghiglione, James Politi and Miles Johnson report for the Financial Times.

The number of new coronavirus cases in China has steadily dropped as the country reported its lowest number of cases so far today. The BBC reporting.

In a March 3 letter to top diplomats at the United Nations, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun sought to paint China — and its president, Xi Jinping — as a key leader in the international effort to stop the spread of the virus. In doing so, he appeared to be taking a swipe at other countries, including the United States, for placing constraints, including on trade and travel, on certain countries. Colum Lynch reports on the letter at Foreign Policy.

Uncertainty continued to permeate the U.S. response effort, however, amid contradictory messages from the Trump administration and confusion over testing for the virus. Shannon Pettypiece, Hallie Jackson and Monica Alba report at the New York Times.

“For a president who lives in the moment, rarely planning too far ahead, the coronavirus has proved to be a leadership challenge he was not prepared for … The outbreak that has rattled the nation does not respond to Trump’s favorite instruments of power,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

“Rather than vigorously preparing for a pandemic, federal officials responded in a way that suited the narrative Trump preferred, focusing most of their attention on travel restrictions, passenger screening and quarantine,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, argues at the New York Times, commenting, “pretending we could wall out the virus not only gave the public a false sense of security, it also left the United States unready for the threat it now faces.”

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the epidemic are available at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea launched several short-range projectiles into the sea today as part of ongoing training drills, in Pyongyang’s second weapons test in a week after a period of inactivity, South Korea’s military said. The projectiles were fired from the eastern coastal town of Sondok and flew northeast before falling in waters between the North and Japan, South Korean defense officials said. Some devices flew up to 124 miles, they said. Choe Sang-Hun reporting for the New York Times.

North Korea blamed European nations for “illogical thinking” on Saturday after they convened a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting to denounce missile launches by the state earlier last week. “The illogical thinking and sophism of these countries are just gradually bearing a close resemblance to the United States, which is hostile to us,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement to the state-run KCNA news agency. Britain, Germany, France, Estonia and Belgium raised last week’s missile firings at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, calling them a provocative action that breached U.N. resolutions. Reuters reporting.

TURKEY-SYRIA

A Russian-Turkish truce in northwest Syria appeared to hold over the weekend after coming into force on Friday. “We will continue to be a deterrent force to prevent any violation to the ceasefire … none occurred since ceasefire entered into force,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday. Al Jazeera reporting.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to hold deliberations with top European Union officials in Brussels over a refugee crisis unfolding at the Turkish-Greek border, as Germany said the bloc was weighing taking in 1,500 child refugees. Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been attempting to break through the land border between Turkey and Greece for days after Ankara declared it would no longer prevent people from trying to reach the E.U. Al Jazeera reporting.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan’s President-elect Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah are preparing to hold parallel presidential inaugurations today, both claiming the premiership amid worries their political rivalry could thwart upcoming Taliban talks. In February, Afghanistan’s Electoral Commission announced incumbent Ghani as the winner of September’s presidential election, but his opponent Abdullah also claimed victory and insisted that he would form a government, throwing plans for negotiations with the Taliban into chaos. Susannah George reporting for the Washington Post.

U.S. intelligence officials say they believe the Taliban do not intend to honor the recently-signed peace deal with the United States, citing “persuasive” information collected by the American government. However, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen dismissed claims that the group has no intention of abiding by the agreement, writing in a message sent on Twitter that the implementation process “is going good so far and such comments by U.S. officials cannot be justified.” Courtney Kube, Ken Dilanian and Dan De Luce reporting for NBC News.

President Trump also allowed for the possibility that the Taliban overruns the U.S.-back Afghan government after U.S. troops leave the country. “It’s not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will,” Trump told reporters, adding, “countries have to take care of themselves … you can only hold someone’s hand for so long.” Al Jazeera reporting.

Afghanistan’s minister of defense warned yesterday that if the Islamist Taliban did not halt attacks by the end of the week, it would shift from ‘defense mode’ to attacking the militant group. “Afghan forces will remain in defense mode until the end of this week under the guidance of President Ashraf Ghani because of the peace agreement, but if the Taliban do not stop their attacks by the end of the week, our troops will target the enemy everywhere,” Asadullah Khalid said in a statement. Reuters reporting.

While the Taliban have read the classified annexes of the recently signed peace deal with the U.S., the Trump administration insists that the documents must remain secret. “The State Department has struggled to explain why the criteria for the terms, standards and thresholds for the American withdrawal could be known to the adversary but not to the American people or allies,” David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

A look at the challenges ahead for U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as representatives from the Taliban, the Afghan government and Afghan society begin the next phase of peace negotiations is provided by Missy Ryan and John Hudson at the Washington Post.

The implications of International Criminal Court (I.C.C.)’s authorization of an investigation in the Afghanistan situation, early U.S. responses to the decision and the next steps are explored by Randle DeFalco at Just Security.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM 

Two members of the Saudi royal family were arrested Friday in an apparent effort to consolidate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s power. The brother of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and a former crown prince were among those detained and the Saudi royal court had initially accused the pair of plotting a coup to unseat the king and crown prince. The two men were released after being summoned for questioning by the royal court, according to people familiar with the matter. Summer Said and Jared Malsin report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration continues to stonewall efforts by Congress to enforce accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, flouting legal requirements, including human rights legislation, the Washington Post editorial board argues.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The House has requested a full appeals court to rehear its case for subpoenaing former White House counsel Don McGahn after a split three-judge panel decided last week that congressional subpoenas of the executive branch are legally unenforceable. Lawyers for the House Judiciary Committee argued in a court filing on Friday that if the ruling were to stand, it would undermine Congress’s constitutional role. Harper Neidig reporting for the Hill.

President Trump’s re-election campaign filed a libel lawsuit against CNN on Friday, over an essay that said the campaign had left open the possibility of seeking Russia’s help in the 2020 election. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, was the campaign’s third in less than two weeks accusing major media outlets of libel, following cases against The New York Times and the Washington Post. Reuters reporting. 

Attorney General William Barr still appears intent on undermining the findings of the Russia inquiry by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Sharon LaFraniere writes in an analysis for the New York Times, commenting that a judge’s criticism last week shed light on the first in a series of moves by the attorney general to take aim at the Russia investigation.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A Dutch court today opens the trial of four men charged in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Prosecutors say the suspects, three Russians and a Ukrainian, helped organize the Russian missile system used to shoot down the civilian aircraft, killing all 298 on board and triggering international outrage. The Wall Street Journal reporting.

“Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok has survived an assassination attempt targeting his convoy in the capital Khartoum,” state television and a source in the cabinet said today. Hamdok has been transported to a safe location, state television said. Reuters reporting.

The United States’ top aid agency is pulling apart its presence in Iraq, leaving a skeleton crew ill-equipped to oversee more than $1 billion in aid programs aimed in part at fending off the comeback of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, officials and lawmakers say. Foreign Policy reporting.

Following Russia’s large-scale cyber attack on Georgia on last October, several states are now willing to publicly identify cyber attackers but without grounding their concerns in international law. Przemysław Roguski explains why that’s a damaging approach in a piece for Just Security.

President Trump on Friday replaced his acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney with conservative lawmaker and close aide Mark Meadows, who was a notable Trump defender during the Democratic impeachment drive. Reuters reporting.

The Trump administration plans to deploy 160 troops to two cities along the southwestern border ahead of a Supreme Court decision that officials worry could cause large crowds of migrants to seek entry into the United States. CNN 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).