The Early Edition: March 13, 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.  

IRAQ

U.S. forces carried out airstrikes in Iraq yesterday against Iranian-backed Shia militia members believed to be behind a rocket attack that killed two Americans and a British soldier at Iraq’s Camp Taji, the Pentagon confirmed. The strikes targeted five Kata’ib Hezbollah weapons stores across the country, including facilities housing arms used in past attacks on U.S.-led coalition troops, according to the Pentagon statement. The Defense Department said the strikes were “defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat” posed by the militia members who “continue to attack bases” hosting troops that are part of the international coalition fighting Islamic State jihadists. Dan Lamothe and Louisa Loveluck report for the Washington Post.

“The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement. “As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.” Esper had earlier warned that “all options are on the table” to respond to the death of the three soldiers in a barrage of about Katyusha 18 rockets on the Taji air base Wednesday. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

Iraqi religious authorities today said the U.S. strike hit an Iraqi civilian airport in the holy Shi’ite Muslim city of Kerbala and resulted in the death of one worker. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday said he would isolate himself for a 14-day period after his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for the new coronavirus. The prime minister’s office said Trudeau is in good health and would not be tested for the virus at this stage because he has not experienced symptoms. “For the same reason, doctors say there is no risk to those who have been in contact with his recently,” the statement read. The prime minister took meetings over the phone yesterday, and will continue his duties from isolation. In addition, his office said the prime minister would address the nation today. Faith Karimi and Patrick Cornell report for CNN.

Australia’s home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, who last week met with Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, said he had contracted the new coronavirus. “I feel fine and will provide an update in due course,” he wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. The minister met with Ms. Trump, Attorney General William Barr and acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf last week in Washington. Teo Armus and Rick Noack report for the Washington Post.

Concerns about the prospect that President Trump has been exposed to coronavirus grew yesterday after a senior Brazilian official tested positive for the virus just days after the two dined together at Mar-a Lago, the president’s private club in Palm Beach. The White House is gauging who might have been exposed to the virus and has not decided the next steps, press secretary Stephanie Grisham said yesterday. She said Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had “almost no interactions” with Fabio Wajngarten, the communications secretary for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and do not plan to get tested for the virus. Rebecca Ballhaus, Siobhan Hughes and Luciana Magalhaes report for the Wall Street Journal.

Congress and the White House are nearing a final agreement on legislation aimed at aiding Americans affected by the coronavirus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday. After a day of serious negotiations between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the speaker told reporters that “we’ve resolved most of our differences” and the House would vote today on the measure “one way or another.” It would then proceed to the Senate, which postponed a recess that had been scheduled for next week in anticipation of a compromise. Emily Cochrane, Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley report at the New York Times.

Satellite images of mass graves in the city of Qom, about 80 miles south of Tehran, have suggested Iran’s coronavirus epidemic is even more severe than the authorities are admitting. The pictures, first published by the New York Times, show the excavation of a new section in a cemetery on the northern fringe of Iran’s holy city in late February, and two long trenches dug, of a total length of 100 yards, by the end of the month. “According to expert analysis, video testimony and official statements, the graves were dug to accommodate the rising number of virus victims in Qom,” Erin Cunningham and Dalton Bennett report at the Washington Post.

The testing system for coronavirus in the U.S. is currently failing, a top public health official has admitted. “The system is not really geared to what we need right now … let’s admit it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged to a House hearing about coronavirus diagnosis kits in the U.S., which initially faced particular difficulties. “The idea of anybody getting it [testing] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. I think it should be, but we’re not.” Elizabeth Chuck reports for NBC News.

“Fauci’s expertise and credibility shine against the contradictory and false messages coming from President Trump,” Karen Tumulty argues at the Washington Post, commenting, “while Trump tries to play down the severity of a public health crisis that might affect his reelection prospects, Fauci has laid out the best assessment of the true danger in stark terms.”

South Korea has tested more than 230,000 people and given free and easy access to testing for anyone who a doctor deems needs it. By contrast, the U.S. estimates about 11,000 Americans have been tested. A look at South Korea’s “aggressive” approach to testing, while other nations struggle to keep up with the demand, is provided by Ivan Watson, Sophie Jeong, Julia Hollingsworth and Tom Booth at CNN.

Mayor Bill de Blasio officially announced a state of emergency in New York City yesterday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, adopting a more sinister tone than usual as he cautioned it would be months before life would return to normal. “We are getting into a situation where the only analogy is war,” de Blasio told reporters during yesterday’s news briefing. The city topped 95 cases of the virus yesterday, and the mayor predicted the number would soar to 1,000 by next week. Erin Durkin and Amanda Eisenberg report for POLITICO.

The virus has infected 1,264 people in the U.S. and has killed 36, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) data. Reuters reporting.

A look at the challenge hospitals are confronting is provided by Sarah Kliff at the New York Times, who notes, “with 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, the United States has fewer than Italy’s 3.2 beds per 1,000, China’s 4.3 and South Korea’s 12.3 … the estimated 45,000 intensive care unit beds in the United States would be swamped by even a moderate outbreak of about 200,000 in need of I.C.U. admission.”

Many of the officials who have been working on the coronavirus issue for weeks said they were disregarded during the writing of Trump’s prime-time address Wednesday. The speech was drafted largely by Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and overseen by staff secretary Derek Lyons. The three men have not been heavily involved in the coronavirus response, White House officials said, with one admitting, “Kushner hasn’t attended a single task force meeting.” Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An account of the West Wing intervention staged this week by administration officials worried about the messaging on and the president’s response to coronavirus is provided by Shannon Pettypiece at NBC News.

European Union interior ministers today were seeking to unify their response to the novel coronavirus as cases spread throughout the 27-nation bloc and countries took separate measures to slow the disease down.“The problem is on different levels in different countries,” Swedish Interior Minister Mikael Damberg told reporters in Brussels, but he said “we hope that all countries that take new measures also inform other European countries.” AP reporting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are looking at how the virus can work to their advantage, including to extend their power, CNN’s Nic Robertson writes in an analysis.

Universal health care is now an urgent national security imperative as well as essential for U.S. health and economic security, Jacob S. Hacker and Oona Hathaway comment at Just Security.

Trump, like Trudeau, needs to self-isolate because he has had direct contact with people known to have the coronavirus, Justin Ling argues at Foreign Policy, comparing the leaders’ differing approaches to the pandemic.

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 pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

The extent of the outbreaks in Italy, South Korea and Iran and information on how these countries are trying to halt the spread of the virus is provided by Anjali Singhvi, Allison McCann, Jin Wu and Blacki Migliozzi at the New York Times.

INTELLIGENCE

Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell initiated a hiring freeze and directed a review of the agency’s personnel and mission, officials said yesterday, an effort that some intelligence officers saw as “politically motivated.” Though some Republicans have had doubts about the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and looked to scale it back, the timing of the review by Grenell — after President Trump’s downsizing of the National Security Council (N.S.C.) staff — sparked concern inside the nation’s intelligence agencies. Some current and former officials said they viewed the effort as an attempt to force out intelligence officers who disagreed politically with Trump. Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times.

Aides denied that Grenell’s move was “an effort to purge” officials for political reasons. “Since assuming his new role on Feb. 20, Acting D.N.I. Grenell and the O.D.N.I. leadership team have embarked on a careful review of these studies completed prior to his arrival, with an eye to implementing key recommendations,” Amanda Schoch, an assistant director of national intelligence, said in a statement. Schoch said that while the review was underway, a temporary and short-term pause in external hiring for the office would be put in place as well, pointing out that “a similar hiring pause was implemented in 2018 as part of O.D.N.I.’s first Transformation effort.” Zachary Cohen reports for CNN.

President Trump’s months-long effort to shake up the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) has created [a] problem for the C.I.A. … Without the O.D.N.I. to deflect attention from it, the secretive agency risks finding itself more exposed to political interference and public scrutiny,” Katrina Manson reports for the Financial Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Three domestic surveillance tools used by the F.B.I. in counterterrorism investigations appear likely to lapse at least temporarily on Sunday after President Trump signaled yesterday that he might veto a bipartisan surveillance bill to extend them and the Senate failed to vote on it. The intervention by the president threatened to upend a deal to resolve a wide debate over national security and privacy related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.). “Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the F.I.S.A. Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” Trump wrote in a message sent on Twitter, a day after the House had approved a bipartisan bill to renew the expiring tools while also adding safeguards to national security wiretapping under F.I.S.A. The New York Times reporting.

Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst convicted of leaking archives of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, was released from prison yesterday on a judge’s order after being held since May for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the organization’s founder, Julian Assange. Manning was due to appear in court today, but the judge ruled that it was no longer necessary for her to testify. The release came one day after Manning tried to kill herself and was hospitalized, according to her lawyers. The BBC reporting.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, dropped plans to subpoena a former consultant for a Democratic public relations company linked to Ukraine gas company Burisma Holdings as part of the panel’s probe into Hunter Biden and his role on the board Burisma, instead preferring to issue a subpoena to the public affairs firm, Blue Star Strategies, directly for the same documents. POLITICO reporting.

The Department of Defense (D.O.D.) is seeking court permission to reconsider certain parts of its decision to award a $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft Corp, court filings showed yesterday. AFP reporting.

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), citing Just Security’s reporting, is asking Mark Paoletta, the general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.), not just to recuse himself from any ongoing inquiries into the Trump administration’s withholding of aid to Ukraine, but to resign from his role as O.M.B.’s designated ethics official. Kate Brannen explains why at Just Security.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan agree that tensions in Syria’s Idlib were now “significantly lower” after a truce was reached to end a surge in violence in Idlib. Reuters reporting.

A top U.S. general said yesterday that the Taliban had to significantly cut the number of attacks it is carrying out, after a peace deal it signed with the United States earlier this month. “I would not consider what the Taliban is doing as consistent with any path to going forward to come to a final end state agreement with the current government of Afghanistan,” U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the military’s Central Command, said during a Senate hearing. Al Jazeera reporting. 

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).