The Early Edition: March 20, 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 number of coronavirus deaths in Italy has passed the total in China, making it the worst-affected country in the world with 3,405 fatalities. There are more than 245,000 global cases and over 10,000 deaths worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Helen Regan, Joshua Berlinger, Julia Hollingsworth, Adam Renton and Steve George report for CNN.

For the second straight day, China reported no domestically transmitted cases of the virus. Reuters reporting.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday introduced a $1 trillion economic stimulus package to tackle the coronavirus’s fallout, the third legislative package to help cushion the impact of the economic slowdown, paving the way for negotiations with Democrats to formally begin today. The nearly 250-page bill, dubbed the CARES Act — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — includes direct financial help for Americans, relief for small businesses, help for impacted industries like airlines and efforts to bolster the health care system. Andrew Duehren, Siobhan Hughes and Lindsay Wise report for the Wall Street Journal.

Gov. Gavin Newsom yesterday ordered California’s nearly 40 million residents to stay home except for essential trips in the most drastic step yet by a U.S. state to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus. Newsom earlier cited projections that 56 percent of the state’s residents could be infected over eight weeks. Patrick McGee reports for the Financial Times.

The State Department yesterday implemented a Level 4 travel advisory warning American citizens not to travel abroad and to either return home or stay in place, a move that comes amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The travel advisory for all overseas travel appears to be unprecedented and is the strictest warning issued by the department. Dan Diamond, Nahal Toosi and Sam Mintz report for POLITICO. 

The Pentagon is planning to send a U.S. Navy hospital ship to Seattle and station two Army hospital units at separate sites to bolster the nationwide effort to combat the coronavirus. The U.S. Navy hospital ship is anticipated to head to the Seattle area in the next five to 10 days, according to a U.S. defense official. The two active duty Army mobile hospital units, meanwhile, have been given “prepare to deploy” orders for to-be-determined locations, according to Army Chief of Staff General James McConville. Barbara Starr reports for CNN.

The top general of the National Guard has advised that the president not federalize control of Guard personnel so that they can continue to be available to help state and local governments with law enforcement obligations amid the widespread coronavirus outbreak. Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel said that if the federal government assumes control of the Guard, those troops, like active duty U.S. military members, would be prohibited from engaging in domestic law enforcement by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. For the moment, Lengyel said, there are no plans “that I’m aware of” to federalize Guard troops, nor are governors yet requesting the Guard assist with policing during the virus outbreak. Defense One reporting.

The United States is fast-tracking antimalarial drugs for use as a virus treatment, Trump said in White House briefing. The President specifically referred to two drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, that have long been used for malaria but are not yet approved for the coronavirus, as well as an antiviral drug, remdesivir, that is currently being tried in clinical research on Covid-19, the coronavirus disease. Denise Grady and Katie Thomas report for the New York Times.

A U.S. senator from Washington, the state hardest hit by the pandemic, yesterday urged a probe into the federal government’s failure to deliver urgently needed tests that detect the new virus, according to the lawmaker. In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) Inspector General, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray asked the watchdog to look into the federal health department’s efforts to “develop, deploy, and analyze diagnostic tests for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.” Tesia Williams, a spokesperson for the department’s inspector general said the agency is scrutinizing the letter. “We continue to monitor the situation around the Covid-19 outbreak and have plans to conduct a number of reviews regarding HHS’s response and planning efforts,” she said. Christopher Weaver reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sold a significant share of his stocks last month, as President Trump and others in his party were still minimizing the coronavirus threat and before the stock market’s precipitous dive. The hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock were sold off in mid-February, days after Burr wrote an opinion article for Fox News expressing confidence in the country’s preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic. At least three other senators dumped major stock holdings around the same time, disclosure records show. Eric Lipton and Nicholas Fandos report for the New York Times.

A government exercise last year simulating a severe influenza pandemic for which there is no vaccine showed that the U.S. was underprepared and disorganized for a pandemic scenario similar to coronavirus. From last January to August, the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) ran a scenario named “Crimson Contagion” that included participation from 19 federal agencies, a dozen states, tribal nations, hospitals and nongovernmental organizations, according to a H.H.S. draft report. While Trump said at his news briefing yesterday that “nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” the work carried out over the past five years illustrates that the government had considerable knowledge about the risks of a pandemic and accurately predicted the exact kinds of problems Trump is now clambering belatedly to deal with. David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley report for the New York Times.

U.S. jails are preparing to release inmates from custody as cases of coronavirus infections are being reported in prisons. New York City is freeing “vulnerable” prisoners, the mayor said on Wednesday, days after Los Angeles and Cleveland released scores of inmates. Prison reform advocates say those in jail are at higher risk of contracting and passing on Covid-19. The BBC reporting.

President Trump canceled the Group of Seven (G-7) meeting scheduled in June at Camp David due to the coronavirus, the White House confirmed yesterday. World leaders will instead convene via videoconference. Reuters reporting.

A pair of lawmakers yesterday brought in bicameral legislation to dispatch coronavirus testing kits to U.S. troops in the Middle East. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Mark Pocan, both Wisconsin Democrats, introduced the bill after the Pentagon said testing for troops in Afghanistan is being undertaken at labs in Germany. “It is unacceptable that testing kits aren’t immediately and readily available for service members in the Middle East where there are confirmed cases of Covid-19 and this legislation will fix that,” Baldwin said in a statement. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

Israel’s Health Ministry yesterday sent tailored message alerts informing citizens that a digital review of their movements showed they had been in proximity to a person confirmed to be carrying the virus. The text also delivered an instant quarantine directive, in line with ever-tightening restrictions issued by the Israeli government. “You must immediately go into isolation [for 14 days] to protect your relatives and the public,” the notice said. Israelis who have tested positive also received messages telling them that their cellphone data would now be utilized to warn others who may have been exposed to them, according to a statement from the Health Ministry. Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report for the Washington Post.

Iran’s death toll from the new coronavirus outbreak jumped by 149 to 1,433 today, a health ministry official said, adding that that total number of confirmed infections had gone up by 1,237 to 19,644. Reuters reporting.

The Iranian regime’s ideological army — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) — is spinning conspiracy theories which blame the U.S. and Israel for the virus and present the Guard as the answer to it, Kasra Aarabi argues at Foreign Policy, commenting, these “propaganda activities aren’t only not helping, but have helped spread the virus among Iran’s population.”

A guide to the government’s constitutional and legal authority to impose draconian measures, such as international travel bans and restrictions on interstate and intrastate travel, is provided by David B. Rivkin Jr. and Charles Stimson at the Wall Street Journal.

“Even as some cities and states enter a phase of exponential spread … social distancing is not being paired with the [epidemiological testing] that’s needed” to suppress and control a pandemic of this scale, the New York Times editorial board argues.

Given the Trump administration’s communication malpractice, news organizations should decline to print or air official comments or statements from administration officials unless they are on the record, Former Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) and Pentagon spokesman David Lapan argues at Just Security, noting the importance of clear, credible communication during the ongoing pandemic.

It’s time to close down immigration prisons, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández and Carlos Moctezuma García argue at the New York Times, commenting, the risks to life and public health associated with imprisoning migrants far outweigh flight risk or dangerousness, the only two reasons recognized under U.S. law to confine this population.

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.

A list of the measures taken by other countries to contain the spread of the new coronavirus is compiled  by Al Jazeera.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian and NBC News.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 25 Afghan forces were killed in an apparent insider attack early today, Afghan officials said. The attack happened in southern Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold. Assadullah Kakar, a provincial council member, said the Taliban conducted the attack, but with the help of Afghan police and army personnel inside the base. AP reporting.

The U.S. military is pausing the movement of any new soldiers into Afghanistan and is quarantining 1,500 troops, civilians and contractors who recently arrived to avoid any possible transmission of the coronavirus, the top commander in the country, Gen. Scott Miller, said yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

A detailed analysis of the terms of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed Feb. 29 is provided by Beatrice Walton at Just Security, who explores the deal’s legal implications and what is might mean for the end of the armed conflict and ongoing detentions.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Two Turkish soldiers were killed yesterday in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib in a rocket attack by “some radical groups,” Turkey’s Defense Ministry said. One other troop was injured in the blast, the ministry said, adding that its units had opened retaliatory fire on targets in the area. Al Jazeera reporting. 

Troops from the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State withdrew from a base in western Iraq yesterday as part of a planned drawdown, Iraqi and coalition officials said, while training activities by the coalition were suspended over coronavirus fears. AP reporting.

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has relaunched his effort to press the Ukrainian government into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and is working with a new batch of local accomplices in Kyiv, according to businessmen, diplomats and politicians in Ukraine and Washington. The Financial Times reporting.

Attorney General William Barr has lost the benefit of the doubt typically afforded to the Justice Department that requires it to dismiss charges “only if it were truly unable to prosecute a case without damaging more important intelligence equities,” former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade writes for Just Security following the D.O.J.’s motion this week to dismiss charges against two Russian businesses stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The acting chief of the National Counterterrorism Center and his deputy were removed Wednesday, according to people familiar with the matter, the latest in recent personnel shifts that have alarmed current and former officials concerned that President Trump is politicizing the U.S. intelligence community. The Wall Street Journal 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).