The Early Edition: March 11, 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

A senior U.S. intelligence official told lawmakers yesterday that the intelligence community does not as yet have proof that Russia is meddling in the 2020 election to advance a particular candidate, according to four officials familiar with the closed briefings in the House and Senate. The head of national counterintelligence, William Evanina, seemed to be softening an assessment delivered to lawmakers in the House last month that Russia had grown a “preference” for President Trump — a briefing that riled the president when he was told that it had been given to lawmakers, the officials said. Evanina told senators that Russians “continue to be broadly engaged in social media activities designed to divide us further, to discredit our electoral system and to disrupt our election,” according to one official present at the all-members classified meeting. Ellen Nakashima and Seung Min Kim report for the Washington Post.

Prior to the day’s briefings, however, Kashyap Patel, a former White House and congressional aide who moved to acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell’s office last month, “met with intelligence officials and imposed limits on what they could tell Congress about foreign influence operations,” according to two people familiar with the matter. Patel’s remarks “struck some intelligence officials as an inappropriate politicization of the briefing.” Some have been suspicious of his partisan background since his arrival as a top adviser to Grenell; Patel was previously a senior investigator for Representative Devin Nunes and played a central role in helping Republicans try to discredit the Russia investigation by writing a memo that accused law enforcement officials of abusing their power. Julian E. Barnes, Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed legislation that permits him to run for two more six-year terms. The 67-year-old emphasized that the legislation, which passed the lower house of Parliament yesterday, still requires approval from Russia’s Constitutional Court and a nationwide vote scheduled for April — largely a formality given the country’s tightly controlled politics. Andrew Roth reports for The Guardian.

“A series of choreographed political moves in Russia’s parliament set the stage for the longtime leader to serve as the country’s president for another 16 years.” Reid Standish explains the new constitutional amendment in a piece for Foreign Policy.

Dutch prosecutors have accused Russia of trying to “thwart” the probe into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in Ukraine in 2014, saying this has cast “a dark shadow” over the upcoming trial of four suspects. Pre-trial hearings started in Amsterdam on Monday. Prosecutors say the defendants – three Russians and a Ukrainian – helped organize the Russian missile system that shot down MH17, a civilian airliner, killing all 298 passengers onboard. Reuters reporting.

U.S. and Royal Canadian air force fighter jets intercepted two Russian reconnaissance aircraft while they were flying off the Alaskan coast on Monday, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) announced yesterday. The U.S. F-22 stealth jets and Canadian CF-18 fighters “intercepted two Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone,” NORAD said in a series of messages posted on Twitter. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

Across the U.S., efforts to control the novel coronavirus intensified yesterday, as the number of confirmed American cases surpassed 1,000 and the death toll reached 31. New York imposed a “containment area” around a portion of New Rochelle, the New York City suburb with more than half the state’s reported cases, while the Democratic presidential candidates called off rallies in Ohio. Fears about the spread of the virus in the U.S. also moved organizers to cancel major sports and cultural events across the country. Jennifer Calfas and Chong Koh Ping report for the Wall Street Journal.

During a meeting with Senate Republicans yesterday, President Trump and top economic officials presented a slate of measures to help mitigate the economic fallout from the spread of the coronavirus, but no consensus was reached on the proposals. Trump made the rare trip to Capitol Hill after pledging “very major” economic relief. But while sources familiar with the midday meeting said a host of options were discussed, members emerged without a solid plan. The Trump administration’s proposals included a payroll tax cut, targeted relief for hard-hit industries and paid sick leave. Ted Barrett, Kaitlan Collins, Lauren Fox, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju report for CNN.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday urged Iran to release Americans who are being wrongfully imprisoned and warned that the U.S. would hold Tehran accountable if any of them died from the coronavirus. “Our response will be decisive,” Pompeo warned in a statement, adding, “Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens.” At least four Americans are detained in Iran, which has reported more than 8,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 300 deaths. Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood report for CNN.

U.S. sanctions on Iran have seriously impaired the country’s ability to import drugs and medicines into the country, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said during a news conference today. Ramin Mostaghim reports at CNN.

A look at the series of “missed chances” by the federal government to provide more widespread testing during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, when greater containment still seemed achievable, is provided by  Sheri Fink and Mike Baker at the New York Times.

“The multilateral [health] system failed at what it had been specifically redesigned in 2005 to do: prevent the denial and inaction of one nation from putting many other nations at risk of a pandemic of deadly disease,” Thomas J. Bollyky and Yanzhong Huang argue at Foreign Policy.

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

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani yesterday approved the phased release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners as part of efforts to secure a peace deal with the insurgent group. The presidential decree allows for the release of 100 prisoners a day for 15 days and requires all captives to give “a written guarantee to not return to the battlefield.” After that, any further releases will be contingent on launching intra-Afghan talks aimed at ending the 18-year-long war. In exchange, the Taliban have apparently agreed to hand over 1,000 government troops. Hamid Shalizi reports for Reuters.

The Taliban, however, have responded by calling the limited release “not satisfactory” and against the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in Doha last month. “This is not mentioned in the agreement,” Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said, adding, “all 5,000 [prisoners] should be released” before direct talks are initiated. Mujib Mashal reports for the New York Times.

Ghani’s decree came as the American agreement with the Taliban received a unanimous endorsement yesterday from the United Nations Security Council — a rare instance of agreement by the 15-member body. The resolution, sponsored by the U.S., hailed the significant steps towards ending the conflict and “opening the door” to dialogue between the Afghans themselves. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

The U.S. commander for the Middle East and Afghanistan has said the Taliban are not keeping “their part of the bargain” from the deal signed with the U.S. just over a week ago, saying the insurgents were continuing to launch attacks against Afghan forces. U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie was giving evidence to the House Armed Services Committee yesterday as lawmakers continue to voice concern over the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban that covers a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday urged Afghanistan’s backers to ensure that women take part in negotiations to end the country’s long war — and to never again allow the Taliban to inflict “a reign of terror against women and girls.” Addressing ambassadors and activists at U.N. Headquarters, Clinton said Afghan women today are rightly worried that the gains they have made since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001 “will be washed away in a rush to achieve a peace that will not hold anyway.” AP reporting.

Why is the Trump administration keeping parts of its deal with the Taliban private from the public? The New York Times editorial board notes that lawmakers who have seen the classified annexes of the agreement say the Taliban have given only vague assurances that they will abide by the United States’ demands.

TURKEY-SYRIA

America has offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system if Ankara vows not to utilize a rival Russian system, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, in what he called a “significant softening” in Washington’s stance. Two Turkish officials said that Turkey was assessing the U.S. offer but added that Ankara had not altered its plans for the Russian S-400 systems, which it has said it would begin to activate next month. Al Jazeera reporting.

As the Syria regime maintains pressure on Idlib province, activists continue documenting atrocities in hopes of holding President Bashar al-Assad and his accomplices accountable someday. Public interest lawyer Deyaa Alrwishdi explains why this approach, and other efforts to achieve accountability, can be “misguided” in a piece for Just Security.

FISA REFORM

House leaders yesterday reached a bipartisan deal to revamp surveillance laws just days before three critical F.B.I. investigative tools expire, increasing the prospect of an eleventh hour breakthrough in a politically complicated debate over civil liberties and national security. Much of the revised bill is similar to the legislation that the Judiciary Committee had been set to mark up a fortnight ago, before a revolt by liberal lawmakers seeking more radical changes derailed it. But it contains some adjustments, including new privacy protections and tougher criminal penalties for abusing surveillance powers. Nicholas Fandos and Charlie Savage report for the New York Times.

The bill represents a modest win for House G.O.P. members seeking greater accountability, the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A federal appeals court yesterday ruled that the Justice Department must provide a Democratic-led congressional panel grand jury material redacted from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, dealing a blow to President Trump’s administration. Ann E. Marimow reports for the Washington Post.

The head of U.S. Central Command said yesterday that the United States was in the process of transporting air defense systems to Iraq to better defend American troops in case of a potential Iranian attack. Reuters reporting.

At the same time, the U.S. military has apparently begun to pull small numbers of soldiers out of the Middle East after concluding that the threat of reprisal attacks from Iran or its proxies has diminished, military officials said. The Wall Street Journal reporting.

The strengths, weaknesses and implications of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s controversial database of businesses linked to Israeli settlements are explored by Tara Van Ho at Just Security. 

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).