The Early Edition: March 17, 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 White House urged all Americans to avoid gathering in groups larger than 10, eating in restaurants or  traveling unnecessarily for the next 15 days, to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. In a sombre news conference yesterday, President Trump also advised the nation to work or attend school from home whenever possible, and cut down on visits to nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The White House briefing came as U.S. cases passed 4,400, with at least 86 fatalities. Toluse Olorunnipa, Seung Min Kim and Scott Wilson report for the Washington Post.

Trump — who previously predicted the outbreak would be over in weeks, and as recently as Sunday advised Americans to “just relax” — acknowledged yesterday that the emergency could last until July or August. POLITICO’s Gabby Orr and Nancy Cook report on Trump’s “do-over approach” after weeks of the president downplaying the coronavirus threat and boasting about the availability of tests and the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The national guidelines are the tightest restrictions yet from the Trump administration. But the recommendations are not obligatory and fall short of a national quarantine and internal travel restrictions; they also do not match the urgency of actions taken around the world as governments in Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere began imposing strict lockdowns on citizens. Katie Rogers and Emily Cochrane report for the New York Times.

The first testing of an experimental coronavirus vaccine began yesterday, with four healthy individuals in Seattle receiving the vaccine. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the trial, using a vaccine made by Moderna Inc., would determine if the shots are safe for humans. Later tests will determine how effective the vaccine is, and it could still take up to 18 months for any potential vaccine to become available for the public. Despite the long road ahead, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said the study was launched in record time. AP reporting.

Some states have seen a desperately needed increase in their capacity to test for the coronavirus in recent days — but the United States’ testing ability still trails far behind other nations. Elizabeth Chuck reports for NBC News.

Senior health care officials warned yesterday that there is not enough stockpiled medical equipment like masks, gowns and gloves to fulfill the expected need of the nation’s health care system as it tackles the coronavirus. Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.)’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness Responses told medical professionals on a conference call that the government did not yet have a solution for the impending shortfall, but was “working on one.” Kristen Holmes reports for CNN.

In revised emergency legislation that Democratic leaders announced as a “technical correction,” but represented an important rewrite, the House called back a program aimed at providing paid leave to people affected by the coronavirus. Democratic aides were apparently “alarmed” by the amendments, which were passed with no objections because House lawmakers are away from Washington. The changes were not shown to most lawmakers prior to the vote. Siobhan Hughes, Natalie Andrews and Kate Davidson report fr the Wall Street Journal.

Senators from both parties and the White House are already discussing a third stimulus bill to tackle the coronavirus crisis, which will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The Senate could pass the “Phase 3” measure this week, according to several G.O.P. senators. Following a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, acting budget chief Russ Vought, and White House legislative affairs Director Eric Ueland, Senate Republicans said the Trump administration will pitch the proposals today for the latest response to tackle the economic fallout from the outbreak. John Bresnahan and Brianna Gurciullo report for POLITICO.

The pandemic threw the 2020 presidential election into disarray as the Ohio governor announced late yesterday that polls would not open “as a health emergency” despite a state judge’s decision that the election must proceed. “During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said in a message sent on Twitter. He also pledged to push for a remedy through the courts “to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.” Amy Gardner, Elise Viebeck and Isaac Stanley-Becker report for the Washington Post.

Hackers are focussing on government health agencies and hospitals, who are working to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, as a means to make money and cause disruptions in the midst of a global crisis. These concerns were underscored yesterday when it was reported that H.H.S.’s systems had been attacked by hackers over the weekend. Maggie Miller reports for the Hill.

The Department of Defense (D.O.D.) has evaluated possible actions it could take to support the coronavirus response but it stressed that such actions have drawbacks. One particular worry is the possible burden on civilian medical personnel that calling up the National Guard and reservists could place. And while officials recognize that the military could in theory construct tented hospitals, they would not necessarily be the best facilities to address a contagion like the coronavirus and staffing such facilities would still be a problem. Decisions will be “informed by the facts of what is possible and what is not and what those trade-offs are,” Pentagon spokesperson Jonathon Hoffman said yesterday. Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr report at CNN.

Trump yesterday joined leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) countries in a teleconference to take stock of the coronavirus pandemic. “The leaders discussed efforts to accelerate the national health and economic responses to the coronavirus pandemic in order to save lives and restore economic growth,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement on the teleconference, which happened yesterday morning. The world leaders agreed to share epidemiologic data and cooperate on research efforts, use fiscal and monetary measures to deal with the adverse impact on the global economy and restore growth, and support efforts by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), the World Bank and other international groups to respond to the outbreak. Morgan Chalfant reports for the Hill.

The European Union (E.U.) has proposed to halt nonessential travel into the bloc from other countries for 30 days as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged other European countries, including Ireland, Britain and non-E.U. countries in the passport-free Schengen zone, to align their travel bans. E.U. leaders are expected to approve the proposal today. Bojan Pancevski and Laurence Norman report for the Wall Street Journal.

French President Emmanuel Macron ordered citizens of France yesterday to stay home for at least 15 days or risk punishment, while several other European nations also introduced more robust measures, including border shutdowns. “We are at war,” Macron said in a televised address. “Walking about, meeting up with one’s friends — this is no longer allowed.” Steven Erlanger reports for the New York Times.

W.H.O. called on all countries yesterday to ramp up their testing programs as the most effective way to contain the coronavirus pandemic, saying nations “cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded.” In a press briefing, W.H.O. Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu acknowledged the hasty escalation in social distancing measures worldwide, but stressed that simply following guidelines for personal behavior — such as social distancing, regular hand-washing and coughing into your elbow — was not sufficient to “extinguish the pandemic.” The U.N. News Centre reporting.

China’s Foreign Ministry hit back today at Trump’s description of the pandemic as a “Chinese virus,” accusing him of insulting China. The president’s remarks also prompted huge backlash in the U.S., including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said the tweet was “misplacing blame and could put more Asian Americans in danger.” Alex Shi and Yuliya Talmazan report for NBC News.

The Israeli government’s plan to track citizens with the virus as well as individuals exposed to them risks moving Israel toward a “surveillance democracy,” legal experts have warned, in the same way that the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks broadened U.S. government spying on individuals and enabled access to phone records, Joshua Mitnick writes in a piece for Foreign Policy.

A look at the military’s role in the crisis is fielded by Mark Nevitt at Just Security, who also considers other emergency legal authorities that are not yet being invoked.

“Authoritarian responses based in high-profile displays of state power … can distract from the success of widespread testing, openness and transparency, and effective public-health communication, which have been the key ingredients of effective [disease] response,” Matthew Kavanagh argues at Foreign Policy, warning, “Americans are at risk of learning the wrong comparative lessons in the face of this global emergency.”

President Trump and his former national security advisor John Bolton should now acknowledge and learn from serious errors of judgment on COVID-19, Jeremy Konyndyk argues at Just Security.

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 and The Guardian.

RUSSIA

The Justice Department (D.O.J.) dropped its criminal case yesterday against two Russian firms accused of funding the campaign to meddle in the 2016 elections, saying that they were exploiting the case to gain access to sensitive information that Russia could weaponize. The companies, Concord Management and Concord Consulting, were charged in 2018 in an indictment against 13 Russian individuals and another company, the Internet Research Agency — one of the major outcomes of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 vote. Prosecutors said they operated a social media campaign to “spread disinformation, exploit American social divisions and try to subvert the 2016 election.” The stunning shift came just a month before the case was scheduled to go to trial. Katie Benner and Sharon LaFraniere report for the New York Times.

Prosecutors cited several reasons for the reversal and were clearly defensive that Russia would paint the decision as proof that U.S. evidence of the alleged Russian interference is shaky. “There is a substantial federal interest in defending American democratic institutions, exposing those who endeavor to criminally interfere with them, and holding them accountable, which is why this prosecution was properly commenced in the first place,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers and U.S. Attorney for Washington Timothy Shea wrote. “In light of the defendant’s conduct, however, its ephemeral presence and immunity to just punishment, the risk of exposure of law enforcement’s tools and techniques, and the post-indictment change in the proof available at trial, the balance of equities has shifted … it is no longer in the best interests of justice or the country’s national security to continue this prosecution,” Demers and Shea added. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

Russia’s highest court yesterday endorsed President Vladimir Putin’s proposed constitution changes, giving him the possibility to remain in power until 2036. Putin last week signed the widely-criticized reform bill, which would allow him to run again after his presidential term, his fourth since 2000, ends in four years. A public vote on the reforms has been set for April 22 but it was unclear whether that might be postponed by the global coronavirus crisis. AFP reporting.

IRAQ

At least two rockets hit a training base south of Baghdad where U.S.-led coalition troops and N.A.T.O. trainers are present, Iraq’s military said today, the third such incident in the span of a week. The rockets struck the Basmaya base near the Iraqi capital yesterday evening, the army statement said. The projectiles fell down in an area that includes agricultural land and a factory, according to the statement. AP reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Iraqi prime minister that the U.S. is willing to act in self-defense if attacked in Iraq, according to a transcript of a call between the two officials released yesterday. Pompeo spoke with Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi on Sunday and urged the Iraqi government to fulfill its duties protecting coalition troops working in the country to defeat ISIS and identify and hold responsible the groups behind a rocket attack last week that injured three U.S. service members. “These actions will not be tolerated and the groups responsible must be held accountable by the Government of Iraq,” Pompeo wrote in a message sent on Twitter. Sunday’s call came after U.S. and Iraqi service members were injured in a Katyusha rocket attack on Camp Taji base, north of Baghdad, which houses coalition forces engaged in the fight against ISIS. Laura Kelly reports for the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Former military chief and opposition leader Benny Gantz promised to forge “a national unity government, as broad as possible, within days.” Gantz was given the mandate yesterday to form a new coalition government in Israel in a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after three elections in less than a year fail to produce a clear winner. BBC reporting.

As U.S.-Iran tensions escalate, Tehran’s leadership appears to be weighing withdrawing from the global nonproliferation framework entirely, Mahsa Rouhi argues at Foreign Policy. “The mainstream view in Iran until recently was that withdrawing from the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] N.P.T … would be counterproductive to Tehran’s larger aspirations of regional leadership and reintegration into the international community. But recent events have caused Tehran to reevaluate those ambitions,” Rouhi wrote. North Korea pulled out from the treaty in 2003. 

The Senate cleared a 77-day extension of key government surveillance tools yesterday, giving lawmakers time to contemplate wider changes to the divisive domestic eavesdropping program. Reuters 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).