The Early Edition: March 12, 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 World Health Organization (W.H.O.) yesterday officially declared the coronavirus a global pandemic as its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned of “alarming levels of spread and severity” as well as “alarming levels of inaction.” That message “appeared directed squarely at the United States,” which saw its first cases in January but where major steps to help slow the spread were just coming into force within the past two days, Katie Zezima, Tim Craig, William Wan and Felicia Sonmez report for the Washington Post.

The virus has infected more than 126,000 people in at least 114 countries and has killed over 4,300. Dr Tedros urged countries to learn from one another’s successes, act in solidarity and help prevent transmission: “Find, isolate, test and treat every case, and trace every contact,” he said. The director general stressed the virus could still be controlled, and pointed numerous times to the success of China, which has slashed new infections from over 3,500 a day in late January to just 24 in the most recent daily count. Donald G. McNeil Jr. reporting for the New York Times.

President Trump yesterday suspended travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days, beginning tomorrow at midnight, in an “aggressive” effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has sparked unprecedented lockdowns and widespread panic in other countries. The ban, which mirrors restrictions on travel from China and Iran, will not include travelers from the United Kingdom, which recently left the European Union (E.U.), and will also not apply to American citizens who had received “appropriate screenings” before entering the country, Trump said in an Oval Office address last night. The move came after the administration has faced criticism for its response to a public health crisis that Trump has previously downplayed. Kevin Liptak and Maegan Vazquez report at CNN.

The prohibitions do not apply to European goods or cargo, though Trump indicated that that was the case during his prime-time address. The White House clambered to fix his apparent misstatement, clarifying that the new ban applied only to travelers. Trump himself sent out a message on Twitter correcting the policy mischaracterization moments after his speech ended. Lauren Egan and Dareh Gregorian report for NBC News.

During his speech, the President also announced a series of measures aimed at tackling the economic impact of the coronavirus. Trump said he would take emergency action to provide financial relief to people who need to stay home because they are sick, quarantined, or caring for others, and asked Congress for $50 billion to extend that aid. There were no details immediately available on that measure. Andrew Restuccia, Alex Leary and Kate Davidson report for the Wall Street Journal.

The White House has instructed federal health officials to “treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified,” an unusual step that has limited information and impeded the U.S. government’s response to the contagion, according to four Trump administration officials. The officials said that dozens of private discussions about such topics as the scope of infections, quarantines and travel bans have taken place since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services (H.H.S.), a key actor in the fight against the coronavirus. Reuters reporting.

One of Iraq’s large camps for people who have been internally displaced has reported its first suspected coronavirus cases, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian coordination agency. “The prospect of coronavirus spreading in Iraq’s overcrowded, under-resourced and often isolated internal displacement camps is a nightmare scenario for aid agencies and the Iraqi government, which has confirmed more than 70 people have been infected,” Sarah Provan reporting for the Financial Times.

Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) for emergency funding to help it contain the coronavirus outbreak, as the country’s death toll rose to 429, Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati said today. AP reporting.

Iran’s senior vice president and two other cabinet members have been infected by the new coronavirus, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported yesterday. The news report comes amid days of suspicion about the health of Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who has been notably absent in images of recent top-level meetings. Fars said other sick officials include Ali Asghar Mounesan, minister of cultural heritage, handicrafts and tourism, and Reza Rahmani, minister of industry, mines and business. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Defense Department (D.O.D.) has suspended travel for 60 days to several virus-stricken nations for all service members, employees and their families, the Pentagon announced last night. The prohibitions, which take effect tomorrow, ban all travel to, throughout and from locations categorized as Level 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), including China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. In addition, D.O.D. civilians and service members’ families are prohibited from traveling to Level 2 countries, which currently include Japan, for 60 days. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

The U.S. military will cut back the number of troops expected to take part in a multinational exercise in Europe for the “health protection” of forces, U.S. European Command announced yesterday, citing worries about the coronavirus. “After careful review of the ongoing Defender-Europe 20 exercise activities and in light of the current Coronavirus outbreak, we will modify the exercise by reducing the number of U.S. participants,” the command said in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

“For the first time in the country’s history, the United States must contemplate canceling the Democratic and Republican national conventions and campaign rallies, and give serious consideration to arranging ways of organizing election day that don’t require in-person voting,” Laurie Garret argues at Foreign Policy, citing the apparent aftereffects of Super Tuesday voting on March 3 and this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

An annotated version of the President’s coronavirus speech is provided by Zachary B. Wolf and Sean O’Key at CNN.

An explainer on Trump’s 30-day European travel suspension, including who is affected and whether the response is the most effective to address a growing crisis, is provided by reporters at The Guardian.

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.

Live updates at CNN.

IRAQ

Two American troops and a British soldier were killed and another dozen people were wounded during a rocket attack yesterday on a coalition base in Iraq, according to U.S. defense officials. The attack came from an improvised truck launcher that fired off 30 Katyusha rockets, 18 of which landed on Camp Taji, just north of Baghdad, according to a U.S. official. AFP reporting.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, a U.S. official said the rocket attack is “likely the work of Iran,” raising the prospect that military tensions could reignite in the region. A second defense official added that “based on weapons and tactics used, there is every reason to believe Iranian-backed fighters or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp were behind the attack.” Yesterday’s barrage was the first to cause a U.S. death since December, when an American contractor was killed, setting off a spiral of attacks that nearly led to war between the United States and Iran. Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, Nicole Gaouette and Paul LeBlanc report at CNN.

Iraq’s military has launched an investigation into the attack, according to a statement today from Iraq’s joint operations command, which said caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi ordered the probe into what he described as “a very serious security challenge and hostile act.” AP reporting.

IRAN

The House approved a war powers resolution yesterday that would limit the president’s ability to take military action against Iran without approval from Congress. The bipartisan measure passed 227-186, sending the bill to Trump’s desk for his almost certain veto. Six Republicans voted with Democrats in favor. Democrats — and a number of Republicans cautious of expansive presidential powers — have been looking to reign in Trump’s aims on Iran since last year; those efforts gained vigor in January after Trump directed the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory missile attack by Iran against bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

Proposals for fundamental reform to the war powers framework that would empower Congress to take a more active role in war powers issues, reflecting on the takeaways from the administration’s unauthorized strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, are suggested by leading authority Stephen Pomper in a piece for Just Security.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban have rejected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s move to release prisoners in phased manner,  with Suhail Shaheen, the group’s spokesperson, saying the insurgents will not continue with the intra-Afghan talks unless all Taliban prisoners are released. “We will also make sure at the time of the prisoners release that they are releasing the list of prisoners we have provided them with … once this is done, we will proceed with the intra-Afghan talks,” Shaheen said. Al Jazeera reporting.

“If America’s priority was securing the Taliban’s commitment to prevent its territory from being used by those who would attack the U.S. or its allies, this agreement falls decidedly short,” retired C.I.A. official Douglas London comments at Just Security, writing, “it’s no wonder the Taliban held victory parades” after signing the Afghanistan peace deal.

F.I.S.A. REFORM

The House yesterday approved a bipartisan adjustment of key surveillance powers after weeks of back-and-forth tussling between lawmakers. The passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.), 278-136, comes  just before the bill is set to expire on Sunday and appeared to be a breakthrough on negotiations in both the House and the Senate to address serious failings identified in F.B.I. applications to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser. Nicholas Fandos and Charlie Savage report for the New York Times.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) declared yesterday that he would “do all he can” to stop the House-passed bill that would reauthorize soon-to-expire intelligence programs and reform the surveillance court, and is urging President Trump to veto it. Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are pushing for several revisions to the law not currently included in the House’s bill, including an amendment stating that “F.I.S.A. warrants can’t be used on Americans and no information gathered in the F.I.S.A. court can be used to convict an American.”. Marianne Levine reporting for POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, postponed a vote yesterday on whether to issue a subpoena in a probe of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden’s businessman son, Hunter Biden after federal authorities shared worries that an ex-Ukrainian official cooperating with Republican investigators could be spreading Russian disinformation. The New York Times reporting.

A new timeline providing a comprehensive account of an incident at the Trump White House involving Qatar and the Jared Kushner Companies that has raised Congressional concern is provided by Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Julia Brooks at Just Security, who encourage readers to form their own view as to whether this might “fit into a pattern of trading off the security interests of the United States and foreign partners for personal benefit to [Trump] and his family.”

Russia’s parliament yesterday approved constitutional amendments potentially allowing President Vladimir Putin to serve another two six-year terms until 2036, “removing a key source of uncertainty about Russia’s political future and likely ensuring that Moscow will continue to challenge the U.S. on the world stage.” A nationwide vote on the changes will take place April 22. The Wall Street Journal 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).