The Early Edition: March 19, 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 signed an emergency coronavirus relief package into law last night. The stimulus package, which passed the House last week and went through the Senate earlier yesterday, includes provisions for free testing for Covid-19 and paid sick and family leave for some U.S. workers impacted by the illness. In addition, the signed legislation expands unemployment assistance and increases federal funds for food programs and medical aid. Lauren Egan reports for NBC News.

Efforts are already underway to put together a third, larger relief measure that could total $1 trillion and include  $500 billion in direct payments to Americans as well as $500 billion in loans for businesses. Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis report for the Washington Post.

Trump moved yesterday to send military hospital ships to combat the coronavirus, and invoked a Korean War-era law, allowing the federal government to ramp up production of vital medical equipment, like ventilators, respirators and protective gear for health care workers. Trump later wrote in a message sent on Twitter that he would only use the powers granted under the Defense Production Act “in a worst case scenario” as he likened himself to a “wartime president.” Maegan Vazquez reports for CNN.

The U.S. Air Force moved 500,000 coronavirus testing swabs from Italy to the U.S. on Monday, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday. Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said that an Air National Guard aircraft transported the swabs – used as part of the process to test for Covid-19 – from Italy to Memphis, Tenn. Defense One reporting.

A look at the Pentagon’s growing role in responding to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States is provided by the AP.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) announced in a statement yesterday that it would be changing how it enforces immigration policy and how it detains immigrants amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The agency said it would temporarily focus on those who pose a public safety risk and are “subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.” A breakdown of 12 changes to the immigration system over recent days is provided by CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams admitted yesterday that the Trump administration’s recommendation that Americans practice preventative measures for 15 days is probably insufficient time to successfully stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.. “Fifteen days is likely not going to be enough to get us all the way through … but we really need to lean into it now so that we can bend the curve in the next 15 days, and at that point we’ll reassess,” Adams said during an interview on NBC’s “Today.” Quint Forgey reporting for POLITICO.

While older people remain at gravest risk worldwide, a report issued yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) found that 38 percent of those who required hospitalization in the U.S. were aged 20 to 54. Pam Belluck reports for the New York Times.

Canada and the U.S. have mutually agreed to close their border to non-essential travelers, Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced yesterday, in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus as confirmed global cases surpassed 200,000. The BBC reporting.

Australia and New Zealand’s borders will be shut to anyone who is not a citizen or resident, in an escalation of both countries’ efforts to tackle the pandemic. Teo Arms reports for the Washington Post.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) yesterday announced an international trial to determine which antiviral treatments may be most effective. The research, called the Solidarity Trial, will be conducted in hospitals in several countries, including Argentina, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. Other countries are expected to participate; the United States is not yet among them. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

For the first time since the coronavirus crisis began, China today reported no new locally transmitted cases for the previous day, a turning point in the battle to contain the outbreak that has since become a pandemic. Officials said there had been just 34 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, all involving people who had come to China from overseas. Javier C. Hernández reporting for the New York Times.

Meanwhile Iran reportedly saw its biggest single-day increase in coronavirus deaths yesterday, as the country’s death toll rose to 1,135. Despite that, the deputy health minister cautioned that some Iranians were still not taking the disease seriously. W.H.O. has asked that nations in the Middle East communicate more about the spread of Covid-19 inside their borders, with Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the organization’s Middle East chief, saying that the response to the pandemic in the Middle East has been “uneven” and more needs to be done. The BBC reporting.

The Kremlin yesterday denied allegations made in a European Union (E.U.) document it was operating a Russian media disinformation campaign designed to aggravate the impact of the coronavirus in Western countries. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told media representatives that they were “groundless accusations,” according to Tass, the Russian state news agency. Reuters reporting.

“China is winning the coronavirus propaganda war,” Matthew Karnitschnig argues at POLITICO Magazine, saying Beijing’s key strategy is to show that the country at the center of the outbreak, and which kept it hidden for weeks, allowing it to spread across the globe unhindered, is “on the front lines trying to save humanity, while the E.U. can’t get its act together and the world’s other superpower is busy pointing fingers.”

The 100-page federal plan on how to combat the coronavirus, which shows the Trump administration is making contingency preparations for a pandemic that could last up to “18 months or longer” and could see “multiple waves of illness,” is provided by CNN.

An explainer on the coronavirus aid bill that passed the Senate yesterday is provided by Andy Sullivan at Reuters.

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.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan is blocking American and allied soldiers from entering Afghanistan and, in turn, stopping some troops from leaving, for the next month, American and European officials said as the coronavirus has spread in the country in recent days. Gen. Austin S. Miller’s decision, intended to protect his forces from the virus, threatens to disrupt the drawdown of troops directed by President Trump after the United States recently signed a peace deal with the Taliban. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes report for the New York Times.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said yesterday the coronavirus pandemic adds urgency to prisoner releases agreed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban and that they should start “as soon as possible.” “No prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides,” Khalilzad said in a message sent on Twitter. The prisoner releases were expected to have started last week as part of a U.S.-led effort to wind down the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera reporting.

IRAN

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will pardon 10,000 prisoners including political ones to mark the Iranian new year tomorrow, state TV reported yesterday. “Those who will be pardoned will not return to jail … almost half of those security-related [political] prisoners will be pardoned as well,” judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili told state T.V. The Guardian reporting.

The United States has refused to lift its Iran sanctions amid the public health crisis — despite calls from Britain and China to do so, a decision that has hampered hindered Tehran’s response to the virus, Adam Taylor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Critics are questioning whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scrambling to keep his job after three inconclusive elections, is exploiting the coronavirus crisis for his own benefit, David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner report for the New York Times. While many Israelis have hailed the aggressiveness of Netanyahu’s response to the pandemic, others wonder whether shutting the courts was necessary and if the infringements on privacy by collecting cellphone data to track coronavirus cases could have long-term consequences. 

President Trump has nominated Christopher Miller to head the National Counterterrorism Center (N.C.T.C.), it was reported yesterday, a move that will fill a central role in the intelligence community. Miller, a senior Pentagon official in charge of special operations and combating terrorism, will take over the role previously held by Joseph Maguire. The Hill reporting.

A statement by former American Ambassadors for atrocity crimes and U.S. Chief Prosecutors, following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement Tuesday that two explicitly named individuals in the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court would face potential sanctions relating to the Prosecutor’s investigation of the Afghanistan situation, is provided by Just Security.

Does international law require States to repatriate their foreign fighters being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) in Syria? Department of Justice (D.O.J.) National Security Division Counselor Dan E. Stigall examines the question in the first of a two-part series with Just Security on international legal obligations related to extraditing the thousands of foreigners who fought with the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Syria.  

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).