The Early Edition: March 10, 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 director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) said the threat of a global coronavirus pandemic has become “very real,” but stressed the virus could still be controlled. There are more than 110,000 reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in 100 countries, according to WHO, and at least 4,020 people have died worldwide from the virus. Still, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, it is an “uneven epidemic at the global level” because 93 percent of cases are from four nations, adding, there are still things countries can do to slow down the virus and prevent infections. Jennifer Calfas, Betsy McKay and Chong Koh Ping report for the Wall Street Journal.

Italy placed its entire national territory under quarantine yesterday, just two days after it locked down much of the country’s north to stem the coronavirus outbreak. The unprecedented new attempt to combat the virus in Europe’s worst-affected country comes after Italy registered 9,172 cases and 466 deaths yesterday, up nearly 1,800 cases from the day before, making it the most inflicted region after China. Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli report for the Washington Post.

Israel said yesterday that it would mandate a two-week quarantine for anyone arriving from overseas in a dramatic extension of restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak in the country. “This is a difficult decision, but it is essential for safeguarding public health, and public health comes first,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Israel has so far recorded 42 cases of COVID-19, but no deaths. The BBC reporting.

In the U.S., passengers began disembarking from the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland in California yesterday. The ship’s more than 3,500 passengers will be quarantined in California, Texas and Georgia after 21 people onboard, the majority crew members, tested positive for the coronavirus. Lucy Campbell and Helen Sullivan report at The Guardian.

President Trump said his administration would discuss with Congress today several measures to ease the economic pain inflicted by the coronavirus, including a possible payroll-tax cut and help for hourly workers, after the worst stock market drop in more than a decade. Trump said he would hold a news conference this afternoon to lay out the proposals in more detail. “They will be very major,” he said. Jeff Stein, Seung Min Kim, Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis  Report for the Washington Post.

“Clearly unsettled by the plunging markets and the potential effect on his re-election prospects, Trump offered an economic response without any new health measures,” Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni report for the New York Times.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Trump’s incoming chief of staff, is self-quarantining after he came in contact with a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) attendee who tested positive for the new coronavirus. In a statement, Meadows’ office said he would be in quarantine until the 14-day period passes Wednesday but that he is experiencing no symptoms. The news comes after Vice President Mike Pence would not say whether the President has been tested for the coronavirus, and some lawmakers who were exposed to the virus, like Meadows, during the CPAC conference near Washington and have had significant recent contact with Trump have all self-isolated. Haley Byrd, Paul LeBlanc, Lauren Fox and Kaitlan Collins report at CNN.

An increasing number of colleges, including The Ohio State University and San Francisco State University, have halted face-to-face classes amid worries of growing coronavirus cases in the United States. Rice University in Houston announced in-person instruction is scrapped this week and it is bracing for the possibility of delivering most of its classes remotely. Princeton said yesterday that it will switch to virtual instruction after spring break and will reduce the number of gatherings on campus. Stanford also announced it will move in-person classes to an online format for the last two weeks of winter quarter. Phil Helsel reports for NBC News.

The Army general in charge of U.S. soldiers in Europe and several of his staff are working remotely after they may have been exposed to the coronavirus during a recent conference. “Out of an abundance of caution and following recommended protocols, he and others potentially affected are self-monitoring and working remotely to fulfill their command duties and responsibilities,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a statement yesterday, referring to Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. John Bowden reports for the Hill.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Wuhan today, visiting the city at the center of the coronavirus epidemic for the first time since the health crisis began. Xi’s trip comes as China reports a steep decrease in the number of new cases. Yesterday, Wuhan closed the last of the 14 temporary hospitals that it had built to deal with the sudden surge of new patients. Jonathan Cheng reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The United States needs to implement community-based interventions   such as “school closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellation” — to delay the outbreak peak and prevent the health-care system becoming overwhelmed, Tom Bossert, former homeland security adviser to President Trump, argues in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, noting Hong Kong and Singapore are proof that achieving linear growth of COVID-19 cases is possible and warning that, once the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1 percent, “science tells us, these interventions become far less effective.”

“From Beijing to Washington, governments have been muzzling scientists, inflating the success of their containment efforts, and discrediting valid reporting,” Suzanne Nossel argues at Foreign Policy, warning that the obfuscation of data “not only increases the threat to public health, but it also undermines trust in the very institutions on which we rely to fight the virus.”

“When the coronavirus first appeared in China, some commentators reached for the Chernobyl comparison … Today the comparison looks increasingly apt for the United States as well,” Jennifer Senior comments at the New York Times, writing, Trump is not conveying “the full magnitude of contagion.”

“The strange combination of severity and amateurism [in Italy] is quite typical of a nation historically burdened by volatile governments, sifting parliamentary coalitions [and] inscrutable power struggles,” Mattia Ferraresi writes in a dispatch piece for Foreign Policy, commenting, Italy’s latest “draconian” decree is “infused with ambiguous signals and hard-to-interpret provisions.”

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

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

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. military has begun to remove troops from Afghanistan as part of the pullout agreed in the Feb. 29 agreement with the Taliban. “In accordance with the U.S.-Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Joint Declaration and the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days,” spokesperson Col. Sonny Leggett said in a statement. AP reporting.

The withdrawal came as Afghanistan’s rival leaders were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies yesterday amid a deepening political crisis that threatens to jeopardize the future of peace talks with the Taliban. A rocket attack disrupted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration, injuring one police officer, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. AFP reporting.

The Taliban dispatched vehicles for fighters set to be released by the Afghan government in a prisoner exchange expected to be announced today, and were ready to follow through with their side of the deal by handing over 1,000 government soldiers, militant leaders said. Reuters reporting.

The revival by the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) of a more than decade-old probe into alleged crimes committed by Americans and the Taliban in Afghanistan is “a disgraceful example of moral and legal equivalence that equates Islamist insurgents … with the U.S.,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

The KINGDOM 

The dramatic arrests of two top Saudi royals followed discussions between the pair about using a procedural body, led by one of them, to prevent the accession to the throne of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), if the current monarch dies or becomes incapacitated. Three sources have confirmed that the detention of Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, the sole remaining full brother of King Salman, and the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, on Friday was directed by MBS after details of alleged conversations were passed to the royal court. Martin Chuluv reports for The Guardian.

Dozens of Palestinian activists residing in Saudi Arabia were accused by the kingdom of supporting the Gaza-based rulers Hamas and were put on trial, according to Arabic press reports. 68 Palestinian and Jordanian citizens started to face Sunday the “special terrorism court” in the capital Riyadh. The families of the defendants said their relatives, who were arrested by Saudi secret police in April of last year, were being prosecuted without legal representation. Ali Younes reporting for Al Jazeera.

ELECTION INTERFERENCE

The Russian government has intensified efforts to ignite racial tensions in the United States as part of its bid to influence November’s presidential election, including trying to provoke violence by white supremacist groups and to fuel anger among African-Americans, according to seven American officials briefed on recent intelligence. Russia’s lead intelligence agency, the S.V.R., has apparently exceeded 2016 methods of meddling, when agents tried to stoke racial animosity by establishing fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to lower black voter turnout. Now, Russia is also attempting to influence white supremacist groups, the officials said. Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times.

A critical look at how Russia could capitalize on the potential for political violence in the U.S. is provided by Alex Finley, Asha Rangappa and John Sipher at Just Security, who warn that “the American public needs to be aware of the tactics our enemies are likely to utilize as we barrel toward November.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) said yesterday that it had concerns about possible “undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities” in unregistered locations in Iran, bringing Tehran’s nuclear capabilities back into the international spotlight. Urging Iran to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, I.A.E.A. Director General. Rafael Mariano Grossi said that the country had not granted access to the sites in question and had failed to resolve inspectors’ questions. The U.N. News. Centre reporting.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked for more support from his N.A.T.O. and European Union (E.U.) partners over the ongoing situation in Syria as conflict rages in Idlib, and a refugee crisis unfolds at the Turkish-Greek border. Erdogan flew to Brussels for talks with E.U. and NATO leaders after tensions soared in recent days over the fate of tens of thousands of refugees trying to enter E.U.-member Greece since Ankara announced last month it would no longer stop them crossing into the bloc. Al Jazeera reporting.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally supervised yesterday’s “long-range artillery” drill, the nation’s second live-fire artillery exercise in a week, state media reported today, as the country continues to expand its military capabilities. The report by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (K.C.N.A.) came a day after South Korea’s military detected the launch of multiple projectiles from North Korea’s eastern coast. Reuters reporting.

The State Department is pushing to classify at least one violent white supremacist group as a foreign terrorist organization, an unprecedented step that national security experts say would be a big stride toward combatting a growing threat on U.S. soil. State Department officials hope to have the designation finalized by next week, according to four people familiar with the effort, but the White House, where senior officials have long preferred to concentrate on terrorism by Islamist extremists, has yet to give the go-ahead. POLITICO reporting.

House leaders are nearing a bipartisan deal to extend a set of federal surveillance powers expiring this weekend, but no final agreement has been reached, according to lawmakers and aides of both parties as the fallout continues from an internal probe into the bureau’s surveillance of a 2016 campaign adviser, Carter Page. POLITICO reporting. 

American military commanders will assess how their forces conduct operations in Iraq and Syria after the deaths of two U.S. Special Operations troops in northern Iraq on Sunday during a mission against Islamic State fighters, military officials said yesterday. The New York Times reporting.

“The prospect of armed conflict in outer space unfortunately appears to be growing.” In a piece for Just Security, Michael Schmitt and Kieran Tinkler explore some of the novel international humanitarian law challenges space-based warfare may present. 

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).