The Early Edition: March 16, 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

President Trump declared a national emergency under the Stafford Act for the growing coronavirus pandemic on Friday, a move that opens up $50 billion in funding for state officials to respond to the outbreak. As of this morning, more than 3,600 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus and more than 66 have died from COVID-19, the disease it causes. Kevin Liptak reporting for CNN.

The U.S. government announced on Saturday that it would expand its current travel ban on most European countries to include Britain and Ireland as it works to slow the spread of coronavirus. The restrictions, which take effect today at midnight, do not apply to U.S. citizens returning to America, Vice President Pence said during a White House briefing on Saturday. Trump originally exempted Britain and Ireland from his 30-day ban on travelers from 26 European countries that went into effect at midnight on Friday. Jessie Hellmann and Morgan Chalfant reporting for the Hill.

The Pentagon said last Friday it will stop, with some exceptions, domestic travel for military members, Defense Department civilians and families in a move designed to minimize the spread of coronavirus and its impact on the military. “The continuing spread of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) necessitates immediate implementation of travel restrictions for domestic Department of Defense (DoD) travel,” according to a Defense Department memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist. “These restrictions are necessary to preserve force readiness, limit the continuing spread of the virus, and preserve the health and welfare of Service members, D.O.D civilian employees, their families, and the local communities in which we live,” the memo continues. The move, which goes further than previous bans on international travel, highlights the extent to which the U.S. military is concerned and “the lengths it has to go to try and protect the more than a million active-duty troops around the world.” Reuters reporting.

The House easily passed a coronavirus aid bill on Saturday that would provide free virus testing, food assistance and paid sick leave, in an attempt to limit the economic damage from the pandemic. Trump has signed off on the legislation and Senators, who departed Washington for the weekend last Thursday, are expected to take up the measure when they return this week. Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane reporting for the New York Times.

Trump last Friday outlined a series of private partnerships, including with Google, Target and Walmart, to accelerate coronavirus testing for Americans. Target and Walmart said they will reserve parking lot space for testing sites, while Google pledged to design a website to determine whether a person needs a test, and where one is available. Very soon, Americans will be able to go to these drive-in sites,” said Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump put in charge of the administration’s coronavirus task force. Trump said he anticipated 1.4 million further tests to be available this week and 5 million within a month — even as he warned against everyone rushing to get tested. “We don’t want everybody taking this test,” he said. “It’s totally unnecessary.” Anita Kumar reporting for POLITICO.

Trump inflated “far beyond reality” the idea of a Google site to combat coronavirus. The President falsely asserted that “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now” and that “they’ve made tremendous progress.” In fact, the project at Verily — which has a total of about 1,000 staffers — is in its inception. A pilot program is planned for the San Francisco area, but a website has yet to be revealed. Testing spots have not been identified, and the coronavirus tests themselves are not yet widely available. “Trump’s exuberant comments and the project’s more modest expectations was the latest example of the president exaggerating, overselling or making wholly inaccurate statements about his administration’s response to the virus, even as facts on the ground contradicted his rosy assessments of progress,” Michael D. Shear and Daisuke Wakabayashi report at the New York Times.

The Trump administration is awarding $1.3m to two firms trying to develop rapid COVID-19 tests that could discover whether a person is positive for the new coronavirus within an hour, it announced on Friday. The Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) said it is awarding $679,000 to DiaSorin Molecular, of Cypress, California, and $598,000 to QIAGEN, of Germantown, Maryland, to speed up the development of their diagnosis kits. “DiaSorin’s test could be ready within six weeks for consideration by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), and the QIAGEN test could be ready within 12 weeks for F.D.A. consideration,” according to H.H.S.. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Trump administration tried to push a German company developing a possible coronavirus vaccine to move its research work to the United States, German officials said, raising concerns in Berlin that Trump was trying to secure exclusive U.S. rights to any inoculation created. Katrin Bennhold and David E. Sanger report for the New York Times.

The Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will lower interest rates by a full percentage point to a range of zero to 0.25 per cent in an effort to protect the U.S. economy from the impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak. In addition the Fed will resume the “quantitative easing” policy used during the last crisis that will involve purchasing $500 billion in U.S. Treasury debt and $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities. The Financial Times reporting.

Coronavirus deaths outside China exceeded those inside for the first time, as the center of the pandemic shifted West and forced more countries to restrict travel and gatherings to contain the spread. Over 3,300 people from nations including Italy, Iran and Spain had died from the novel coronavirus as of early today, compared with around 3,200 in China, while the 81,000 total cases in China are now surpassed by the 88,000 outside the country. Liza Lin reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

Epidemiological projections suggest that as many as 40 to 60 percent of the United States’ population of 327 million could eventually contract the virus, potentially crushing the nation’s medical system, rationing essential medical equipment and forcing doctors to make tough decisions, including prioritizing patients who have the highest chance of survival. Ariana Eunjung Cha reporting for the Washington Post.

Around 400 National Guard personnel have been activated in six states to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, with another 600 due to join them by Sunday, the National Guard Bureau announced Friday. The Guard’s efforts to tackle the illness include “training personnel on coronavirus response, identifying and preparing Guard facilities for use as isolation housing and compiling state medical supply inventories,” according to the statement. Ellen Mitchell reporting for the Hill.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) urged yesterday a nationwide halt to gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks, citing the risk of the coronavirus. The C.D.C. said that its recommendation, which would drastically alter life in the United States for the next two months, did not apply to “the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses” and added that it was not intended to usurp the advice of local health officials. The New York Times reporting.

Ayatollah Hashem Bathaie Golpayegani, a senior Iranian cleric and Tehran’s representative in the Assembly of Experts, died of the COVID-19 disease yesterday night, state news agency IRNA said today. Multiple political and religious figures have been infected by the coronavirus in Iran. The Guardian reporting.

Israel plans to use tracking technology, typically used to track the movements of Palestinian militants, to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said. Netanyahu’s Cabinet yesterday permitted the Shin Bet security agency to utilize its phone-snooping tactics on coronavirus patients, an official confirmed, despite fears from civil-liberties advocates that the practice would raise serious privacy issues. Mobile-phone tracking technology would be deployed to give a far more accurate history of an infected person’s movements before they were diagnosed and identify people who might have been exposed. AP reporting.

“What, precisely, works to contain the spread of this coronavirus, and can that be implemented elsewhere now?” Benjamin J. Cowling, an epidemiologist, and Wey Wen Limand, a graduate student in epidemiology, explain how Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have “brought outbreaks under control — and without resorting to China’s draconian measures” — at the New York Times.

Four key mistakes the Trump administration made regarding the COVID-19 pandemic are outlined by Susan E. Rice at the New York Times, who comments, despite these accumulated failings, “there is still limited time to avoid the worst-case scenario if the White House moves very quickly.”

Federal law gives Trump broad emergency powers in times of pandemic. POLITICO’s Josh Gertsein explores the President’s options, which include ordering the quarantine of people arriving in the United States who show certain symptoms and having the federal government detain individuals if their illness might end up crossing state lines.

A rough timeline of Trump’s attempts to play down the severity of coronavirus is compiled by David Leonhardt at the New York Times following a review all of the President’s public statements and actions on coronavirus over the last two months.

Key insights into the COVID-19 global pandemic from last Thursday’s virtual gathering of experts from one of the country’s premier medical research centers, Massachusetts General Hospital, are presented by Dr Melissa Bender at Just Security.

A look at what Trump’s declaration of coronavirus emergency means is provided by Priscilla Alvarez at CNN.

A brief backgrounder on the Stafford Act and other emergency authorities President Trump has invoked to address coronavirus is provided by Alexandra Phelan at Just Security.

A look at what’s included in Congress’ emergency coronavirus bill is provided by Lauren Egan at NBC News.

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.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said yesterday he will give opposition leader Benny Gantz the first chance at forming a new government in a setback for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latest twist in the country’s long-running political drama, which has seen three elections in less than a year fail to produce a clear winner. Gantz was recommended for the task by a majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Parliament and also won the endorsements of a coalition of Arab parties, including a staunchly Palestinian nationalist faction. Daniel Estrin reporting for NPR.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will be delayed by two months as Israel takes measures in response to coronavirus. The Jerusalem District Court — where he was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust — said yesterday that the prime minister’s court date will be postponed to May, citing a state of emergency declared by the caretaker justice minister. Netanyahu, who is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be under indictment, was scheduled to start his trial tomorrow. Felicia Schwartz reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

IRAQ

At least five members of Iraqi security forces and a civilian were killed in airstrikes launched overnight Friday by the U.S. in retaliation for a rocket attack two days earlier that killed two Americans and a British soldier and wounded 14 others at Camp Taji, an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad, Iraq’s military said. American officials said that the strikes had hit five sites where rockets and other weapons were stored by the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia. But according to multiple Iraqi military officials, the bombings killed three Iraqi army commandos, two federal police officers and a civilian worker. An Iran-backed Shiite militia group vowed to call for revenge for the U.S. strikes, potentially indicating another cycle of tit-for-tat violence between Washington and Tehran that could play out inside Iraq. AP reporting.

The Iraqi government yesterday cautioned against such unilateral American ativity against Iranian-linked militias. “In doing so, it does not limit these actions, but rather nurtures them, weakens the Iraqi state’s ability to provide its own security, and expects more losses for Iraqis,” the government statement read. It repeated an Iraqi parliamentary demand for the exit of U.S. troops in the country. “This necessitates the speedy implementation of the parliament’s decision on the issue of the coalition’s withdrawal.” Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

U.S. and coalition forces stationed in Camp Taji faced renewed rocket attacks over the weekend, with at least five injuries reported. Iraq’s Joint Operation Command said on Saturday that 33 Katyusha rockets had been launched on the base in a rare daytime attack. The military found another seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area. The BBC reporting.

The U.S. military is preparing to relocate hundreds of troops in Iraq, including moving some out of the country, according to three U.S. defense officials. The consolidation of military personnel will include puling U.S. troops out from joint bases at al-Qaim near the Syrian border, Qayyarah Airfield West near Mosul and possibly K-1 Air Base in Kirkuk. “As a result of the success of Iraqi Security Forces in their fight against ISIS, the Coalition is re-positioning troops from a few smaller bases,” a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement. “These bases remain under Iraqi control and we will continue our advising partnership for the permanent defeat of Daesh [ISIS] from other Iraqi military bases.” Courtney Kube reporting for NBC News.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government Saturday postponed the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners, a senior official said, a decision that could jeopardize a peace deal signed last month between the insurgent group and the United States. Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Adviser’s office, said the releases were being delayed because more time was needed to assess the list of prisoners. The move comes despite President Ashraf Ghani’s decree last week promising the start of the releases Saturday as a “gesture of good will” to kick-start intra-Afghan negotiations. Al Jazeera reporting.

The ongoing standoff between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent whose reelection was announced last month, and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who insists he was “cheated out” of victory and is forging a parallel government, threatens to set off “a violent conflagration” between opposing camps, shoving the country into chaos and derailing planned negotiations between the government and the Taliban to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

SURVEILLANCE REFORM

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and their allies on both sides of the aisle have “already netted one victory: … a days-long expiration of three surveillance programs, including the controversial Section 215,” which lapsed last night. Jordain Carney at the Hill sheds light on the senators’ bid to get President Trump to derail the battle over the House surveillance reform bill. 

A detailed response to Andrew McCarthy’s call to repeal the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) and abolish the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.C.) is written by George Croner at Just Security. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Turkey and Russia have conducted their first joint military patrol along a key highway in Syria’s northwestern region, the Turkish defense ministry said. The patrols are part of a ceasefire agreement reached earlier this month between Turkey, which supports certain opposition groups, and Syrian government ally Russia to end an escalation of violence in Idlib that has displaced nearly a million people and brought the two countries close to direct confrontation. Al Jazeera reporting.

An assessment of Defense Department General Counsel Paul Ney’s March 4th speech, marking the Trump administration’s latest attempt to justify the U.S. strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, is provided by Adil Ahmad Haque at Just Security.

President Trump signaled that he is considering a “full pardon” for his former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who is currently trying to withdraw his guilty plea to lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russian officials. “So now it is reported that, after destroying his life & the life of his wonderful family (and many others also), the F.B.I., working in conjunction with the Justice Department, has ‘lost’ the records of General Michael Flynn,” the president said in a message sent on Twitter. “How convenient … I am strongly considering a Full Pardon!” Trump did not elaborate on the reference to lost records, which seems to be unsubstantiated. The Guardian reporting.

An examination of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s widely-criticized “human rights commission” eight months into its operation, including a breakdown of the work of the panel, is provided in the first of a two-piece series on the Commission on Unalienable Rights by Jayne Huckerby and Sarah Knuckey at Just Security.

Key takeaways from a deep examination of the 51 judges installed by Trump in the past three years showing how Trump has reshaped the federal judiciary, are provided by Rebecca R. Ruiz, Robert Gebeloff, Steve Eder and Ben Protess at the New York Times. 

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).