The Early Edition: March 18, 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 new coronavirus has now hit all 50 states in the U.S. as West Virginia reported its first case of the infection last night. There have so far been 114 deaths in America from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and more than 6,400 confirmed cases nationwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Caitlyn Opyrsko reports for POLITICO.

President Trump announced a plan yesterday that would include $1,000 direct payments to individual Americans to help cushion the impact of the sudden economic slowdown, a move that could cost an estimated $500 billion, according to G.O.P. sources. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pitched Senate Republicans yesterday on an $850 billion stimulus package being floated by the White House that also includes $250 billion for small-business support. The overall price tag of the package could be around $1 trillion, a senior administration official said, John Bresnahan, Marianne Levine, Heather Caygle and Jake Sherman report for POLITICO.

The Trump administration plans to immediately turn away anyone trying to illegally enter the United States from Mexico in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, several officials said. Under the plan, the administration would keep ports of entry open to U.S. citizens, permanent residents and foreigners with proper documentation, as well as to commercial traffic. But the order calls for individuals found to have entered the United States away from a legal crossing point, including asylum seekers, to immediately be returned to Mexico, and not be held or given any hearing in the United States. Administration officials said the move was essential to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus inside detention facilities along the border. Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman report for the New York Times.

The European Union (E.U.) has banned nonessential travel from outside the bloc into 26 nations for 30 days to contain the coronavirus. European Council President Charles Michel said the E.U. would organize the repatriation of citizens of member countries. Kaelan Deese reports for the Hill.

Canada and the United States are smoothing out the details of a mutual ban on non-essential travel between the two countries amid the new coronavirus pandemic, a Canadian official said late yesterday. Both countries are keen to stymie the spread of the virus but also eager to continue the critical economic relationship. AP reporting.

The federal government is in talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies about ways to use smartphone location data to tackle the coronavirus, including to see whether people are practicing social distancing. A new task force made up of tech and other industry executives presented ideas for the use of the location data at a private White House meeting Sunday. Washington apparently is interested in using the data to better understand how the virus spreads. Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg report for the Washington Post.

Iran has temporarily released about 85,000 people from jail, including political prisoners, in an attempt to reduce demand on its prisons system as the country wrestles with the virus, a judiciary spokesperson said yesterday. The announcement came after the judiciary said last week that 70,000 detainees had temporarily been freed, mostly non-violent offenders serving short prison sentences, in response to the virus. Al Jazeera reporting.

The State Department is using social media to spur Iranians to share information with the Trump administration — both on an encrypted tip line and through an online survey — about the coronavirus pandemic that is hitting the country hard. “This is Iran’s Chernobyl,” said one administration official of the outbreak, who described social media portals as a tool to circumvent the Iranian regime and connect to the country’s population. The U.S. started encouraging Iranians to use the encrypted messaging app last year, when Iranian protestors took to the streets and U.S. officials wanted to find out more about the regime’s bloody crackdown. Kylie Atwood reports for CNN.

Researchers are rushing to create a drug to fight the coronavirus, either by destroying it or by interfering with how it attacks the body. Findings from drugs tests on coronavirus grown in labs in New York and Paris are expected at the end of the week. At least 50 potential drugs are being studied by scientists. Carl Zimmer reports for the New York Times.

A startling new report on the virus from a team at Imperial College in London is influencing planning by the Trump administration. The British analysis, which warned that an uncontrolled spread of the disease could cause hundreds of thousands in both the United Kingdom and the United States, sparked a sudden shift in the government’s response to the virus. William Booth reports for the Washington Post.

A federal government plan to tackle the coronavirus notified policymakers last week that a pandemic “will last 18 months or longer” and could include “multiple waves,” causing widespread shortages that would strain consumers and the nation’s health care system. The 100-page plan, dated Friday, the same day President Trump declared a national emergency, set out options for Trump, which include invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950, a Korean War-era law that allows a president to take extraordinary action to force American industry to increase production of critical equipment and supplies such as ventilators, respirators and protective gear for health care workers. Peter Baker and Eileen Sullivan report for the New York Times.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday that the Pentagon will provide 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 specialized ventilators to federal heath authorities to assist in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. AP reporting.

Esper also announced yesterday that the administration was weighing mobilizing the National Guard and Reserve at the federal level to help tackle the coronavirus, while also preparing hospital ships to reduce strain on civilian facilities. The defense secretary briefed Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the coronavirus task force on Monday on approaches the Defense Department can take to help address the crisis, he told reporters. Lara Seligman reports for POLITICO.

The military isn’t a “cure-all,” and there are important legal and practical limits to what the armed forces can do during the coronavirus crisis, Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman note at POLITICO.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday accused Iran and China of spreading “disinformation” about the pandemic, claiming that Iran has been lying about the effect of the outbreak and, like China, has been falsely attempting to pin the virus on the US. Iranian officials have “lied about the Wuhan virus for weeks, the Iranian leadership is trying to avoid responsibility for their … gross incompetence,” Pompeo said, speaking to reporters at the State Department. Referring to Chinese leaders, Pompeo said, “the disinformation campaign that they are waging is designed to shift responsibility,” adding, “now is not the time for recrimination.” Nicole Gaouette and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.

A new Harvard analysis indicates that many areas of the United States will have far too few hospital beds if the new coronavirus continues to advance and if nothing is done to expand capacity. Margot Sanger-Katz, Sarah Kliff and Alicia Parlapiano present the findings at the New York Times.

A new project has launched exploring just how far coronavirus testing in the United States has trailed behind other countries. Recent figures show that about 125 people per million have been tested in the United States; Italy has tested more than 16 times as many, and South Korea more than 40 times. Larry Buchanan, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Allison McCann report for the New York Times.

An analysis of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s quote about the availability of coronavirus tests in the U.S. is provided by Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post, who notes that the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases keeps “getting cited indiscriminately.”

The coronavirus pandemic is a “diplomatic opportunity” for the U.S. and Iran, Robert Malley and Ali Vaez argue at Foreign Policy, commenting, Washington should capitalize on this moment to de-escalate tensions with Tehran and lay the groundwork for a mutually beneficial diplomatic settlement, otherwise the leadership in the Islamic Republic is likely to become “more aggressive” in the region, increasing the risk of a conflict that neither side seems to want.

An explainer on the Trump administration’s latest $1 trillion economic rescue package is provided by Keith Johnson at Foreign Policy.

There was no obvious link to national security about the information relating to Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.)’ coronavirus meetings that we learned last week the Trump Administration has ordered classified, Matthew Collette comments at Just Security, assessing whether the classification of matters like the spread of the virus in U.S. and the ongoing efforts to contain that spread across the American people was justified.

A discussion on Twitter with public health ethics and law experts about the COVID-19 outbreak is taking place today at 1pm Pacific Time. Dr. Alyssa Burgart explains how to join the online chat, and some of the questions to be discussed, 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 The Guardian and NBC News.

CHINA

China yesterday announced it would expel at least 13 American journalists from three major U.S. newspapers, in an escalation of tensions with Washington and one of the communist government’s biggest crackdowns on the foreign press. The move against The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal is in retaliation for a new limit imposed by the Trump administration on visas for Chinese state-owned media operating in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reporting.

China has chosen to further limit independent reporting on the country at a time when much of the world is wondering whether it can trust Beijing’s accounts of the covid-19 epidemic, the Washington Post editorial board writes.

“China’s crackdown on journalists …. is an unfortunate echo of the Cold War, and it couldn’t come at a worse time,” the New York Times editorial board argues, commenting the pandemic demands “independent and trusted information from the country where the scourge began.”

By severing the flow of information, China guaranteed that conspiracy theories about the coronavirus are going to keep spreading, John Pomfret warns at the Washington Post, noting “Beijing officials have launched an international propaganda campaign to induce doubt into the widely accepted view that the coronavirus originated in central China.”

IRAQ

Iraq’s president yesterday named former provincial governor Adnan Zurfi as prime minister-designate after larger groups failed to reach a consensus on a successor to Adel Abdul Mahdi. President Barham Salih tasked Adnan al-Zurfi with forging a government in a bid to end months of political deadlock undermining the country’s ability to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and recent attacks on U.S. troops. The BBC reporting.

Iraqi officials said at least three rockets hit Baghdad’s protected Green Zone close to the American Embassy late yesterday, the fourth such attack in the span of a week. A spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq said the rockets fell at least 1.2 miles away from the embassy in an area that consists of Iraqi government buildings and several embassies. There were no reports of casualties. The attack comes one day after the Iraqi army said rockets also hit a training base south of Baghdad where U.S.-led coalition troops and NATO trainers were present. AP reporting.

TURKEY-SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria’s Idlib, with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain, as well as the refugee crisis it has largely brought about. The four-party video conference that involved French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came after Turkey announced last month it was reopening its border for refugees trying to get to Europe. Al Jazeera reporting.

The United States believes Russia has killed dozens of Turkish troops in the course of its military operations in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, saying that Washington continued to give support to its N.A.T.O. ally Turkey. Speaking at a news conference at the State Department, Pompeo did not say exactly where or during which incident the Turkish military personnel were killed. It was the first time Washington has directly blamed Moscow for the death of Turkish soldiers. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Why did the Justice Department drop its prosecution of two firms tied to a Putin associate? Ken Dilanian, Pete Williams and Tom Winter take a look at the D.O.J.’s reversal at NBC News.

The U.S. blacklisted the new leader of the Islamic State group (ISIS) as a specially designated global terrorist, the State Department said yesterday, naming him as Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that al-Mawli was named leader of the ultra-violent group after an October operation by U.S. commandos killed its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. AFP reporting.

In authorizing an investigation into the “situation in Afghanistan,” the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) Appeals Chamber (A.C.) did not reach the issue of just what the “interests of justice” are. In a piece for Just Security, David Luban explains why this is a missed opportunity for clarity on a key issue. 

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).