The Early Edition: March 23, 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

There were more than 341,000 global cases of the novel coronavirus as of today and over 14,700 deaths worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. has now gone past 35,000, with 417 deaths. CNN reporting.

President Trump announced yesterday that members of the National Guard will be activated to New York, California, and Washington state to help the states fight the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover the costs for the deployment to the states, which so far have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Trump approved a disaster declaration for California later last night following previous declarations for New York and Washington state. Allan Smith reports for NBC News.

The president’s move came hours after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appealed to Trump to nationalize the effort to acquire masks and other critical protective supplies that are dwindling. “I think the federal government should order factories to manufacture masks, gowns, ventilators, the essential medical equipment that is going to make the difference between life and death,” Cuomo said during a news conference Sunday in Albany, New York. “It’s not hard to make a mask or PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) equipment or a gown, but you need companies to do it.” Devan Cole and Chandelis Duster report for CNN.

The healthcare system is reaching a breaking point and frontline medical workers are running out of protective equipment, placing them at risk of getting infected. Dr. Melissa Bender and Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman report on hospitals’ policies, including tensions with current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), at Just Security.

New York is now the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, accounting for almost half of the country’s confirmed infections and 5% of cases worldwide. In an effort to curb the crisis, Cuomo ordered New York City to crack down on people gathering in public. The governor also announced measures aimed at preparing for a wave of patients, including establishing temporary hospitals in three New York City suburbs and constructing a massive medical bivouac in the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side. The startling spike is partly the result of increased testing efforts: thousands of tests continued to be carried out, even as officials instructed hospitals to restrict coronavirus testing and save resources for treating patients. Jesse McKinley reports for the New York Times.

The Senate failed to pass a $1.6 trillion emergency coronavirus stimulus bill yesterday after pushback from Democrats who criticized the main elements of the package. Senate Democrats claimed that the measure favored big business over the rights of workers. The bill, which is intended to cushion the economic impact of the new coronavirus and needed 60 votes to advance, was blocked by a split Senate with a 47-47 vote. Marianne Levine and John Bresnahan report for POLITICO.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House will introduce its own legislative package after congressional leaders failed to reach an agreement yesterday, adding that she was still hopeful for a bipartisan congressional deal on a coronavirus economic relief bill. Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and Marianne Levine report for POLITICO.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has privately asked Congress for the authority to ask chief judges to hold people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a drive for new powers amid the pandemic. Documents reviewed by POLITICO lay out the department’s requests to lawmakers on an array of topics, including the statute of limitations, asylum and the way court hearings are conducted. Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO.

The intelligence community was warning of the global danger posed by the new coronavirus throughout January and February as the White House minimized the threat and was slow to roll out nationwide measures, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting. The reports did not clarify when the virus might spread in the U.S. or recommend specific steps to mitigate it, but they did track the international spread of the coronavirus and warn that China was initially playing down the seriousness of the outbreak. Shane Harris, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima report for the Washington Post.

A Defense Department contractor has died from coronavirus, the first military-related fatality from the illness. The Virginia-based contractor, who worked inside the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (D.S.C.A.), died on Saturday, the Pentagon said in a statement yesterday. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has become the first U.S. senator to test positive for Covid-19.  Natalie Andrews and Lindsay Wise report for the Wall Street Journal.

The D.O.J. announced yesterday that it was taking measures to close down a website falsely claiming to have access to “vaccine kits” supposedly made by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) to prevent coronavirus. In a press release, Justice Department officials accused the unidentified operators of coronavirusmedicalkit.com of “engaging in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19.” John Bowden reports for the Hill.

Four U.S. senators are under scrutiny over allegations they used insider knowledge about the impending coronavirus crisis to sell shares before the virus-induced market meltdown. Republicans Richard Burr (N.C.) and Kelly Loeffler (Ga.) face calls to leave office after dumping millions of stocks last month. The BBC reporting.

A government watchdog is evaluating the Department of Health and Human Services (H.S.S.)’ response to the coronavirus outbreak and appraising nursing home preparedness after a number of elderly residents became poorly and died, a spokesperson for the H.H.S. inspector general said. Priscilla Alvarez reports for CNN.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has rejected America’s offer of aid to help the country with its battle against coronavirus. In a televised speech, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted at a conspiracy theory, also voiced by some Chinese officials, that America was responsible for the pandemic. “I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?” Khamenei said. “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.” Without offering any evidence, he also alleged that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.” Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq is pulling out some troops partly due to the coronavirus pandemic, the coalition confirmed Friday. “The coalition is adjusting our positioning in Iraq for two reasons: long-planned adjustments to reflect success in the campaign against Daesh; and short-term moves to protect the force during the coronavirus pandemic,” the coalition said in a statement, using a substitute name for the Islamic State group (ISIS). “Looking ahead, we anticipate the coalition supporting the Iraqi Security Forces from fewer bases with fewer people,” it added. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

Trump sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seeking to maintain good relations and offering help in the country’s fight against the coronavirus, Kim’s sister said yesterday, but she warned it was not enough to boost relations. A senior Trump administration official confirmed Trump sent a letter to the North Korean leader, saying that the move was “consistent with his efforts to engage global leaders during the ongoing pandemic.” Min Too Kim reports for the Washington Post.

Health officials in Syria have announced the first coronavirus infection in the country after weeks of rejecting opposition claims that the disease had already reached a nation with a wrecked healthcare system and thousands of Iranian-backed militias and Shi’ite pilgrims. The arrival of the global pandemic in Syria in addition to the Gaza Strip has sparked fears it could spread rapidly in some of the most vulnerable areas in the Middle East. Reuters reporting.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was self-quarantining after coming into contact with a doctor who has the virus. Her government also banned gatherings of more than two people, excluding families. Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Eddy report for the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday accused China, Russia and Iran of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, in what is a supposed effort to plant fear and confusion. Speaking at the White House, Pompeo described the disinformation campaigns as being “pretty diffused,” saying that the government has observed individuals, as well as the three foreign foes, circulate false information online. “There are coordinated efforts to disparage what America is doing and our activity to do all the things President Trump has set into motion,” the secretary said during a press briefing on the coronavirus. Olivia Beavers reports for the Hill.

Members of Congress should be allowed to vote remotely during the coronavirus emergency, Justin Ling argues at Foreign Policy, citing a powerful letter from three elective representatives urging House leadership to change the rules.

A compelling case for action to be taken through the Defense Production Act is made out by former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and National Security Council (N.S.C.) Legal Adviser James E. Baker at Just Security.

A look at what the Act would allow for and why Trump is reluctant to wield his federal powers is provided by Amber Phillips at the Washington Post.

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

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Kabul today on an unannounced visit to help bridge a political impasse that has undermined a U.S. peace deal with the Taliban, struck at the end of February. Pompeo is expected to meet separately with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, who is attempting to set up a parallel government, before the two Afghan rivals are due to come together for a one-on-one meeting. AP reporting.

Afghan government officials met by videoconference yesterday with Taliban delegates to discuss a prisoner exchange that is a part of a broader push for peace, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in a message sent Twitter, offering some prospect of a breakthrough on a matter that has paralyzed the two sides and threatened a budding peace process. The two sides deliberated for over two hours in a Skype meeting facilitated by the United States and Qatar, officials said. Reuters reporting.

IRAN

The White House apparently is divided over whether to escalate military action against Iran, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien calling for a strong response to rocket attacks that had killed two American soldiers at a base north of Baghdad, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arguing that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies lacked clear evidence that the attacks, launched by the Shiite militia group Khataib Hezbollah, had been directed by the Islamic Republic. The New York Times reporting.

The Trump administration yesterday condemned France for releasing an Iranian man wanted for prosecution by the United States in an apparent prisoner swap with Iran. The State Department said it “deeply regrets” the “unilateral” French move to free Jalal Rohollahnejad, who was the subject of a U.S. extradition request on charges of breaching American sanctions on Iran. Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that France had failed to uphold its commitments under a joint extradition treaty and harmed the cause of justice. AP reporting.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday offered to step down next year as part of a proposed power-sharing accord with his chief rival meant to guide the country through the coronavirus crisis and end a year-long political standoff. Netanyahu made his proposal during a nationally televised interview, calling for the creation of a three-year “emergency” unity government with the rival Blue and White Party. Netanyahu told Channel 12 TV that he would stay as prime minister for the first 18 months, and allow opposition leader Benny Gantz to assume the post for a second year-and-a-half term in September 2021. He said each party would have an identical number of seats in the Cabinet. AP reporting.

Netanyahu’s political opponents yesterday asked Israel’s Supreme Court to block what they described as a “power grab” by the caretaker government under the pretense of tackling the coronavirus epidemic. The petitioners asked the court to force parliament to resume its full activities, despite restrictions imposed by Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, because of public health concerns, citing a threat to Israeli democracy. Isabel Kershner reports for the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Lora Shiao, a career U.S. intelligence officer, has been tapped as the next acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the government’s principal clearinghouse for intelligence on terrorist threats, Trump administration officials said. The New York Times reporting.

The United States carried out a successful test on an unarmed prototype of a hypersonic missile, a nuclear-capable weapon that could speed up the arms race between superpowers. The Pentagon on Friday said a test glide vehicle traveled at hypersonic speeds – more than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5 – to a designated impact point. AFP reporting.

North Korea on Saturday test-fired two presumed short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, South Korea’s military said, as it continues to expand military capabilities following two months of relative silence. Al Jazeera reporting.

An excerpt from the untold story of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his unchecked rise to power, written by the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times, is available at The Times.

A look at what is driving the political resistance to repatriating the thousands of foreign fighters who fought on behalf of ISIS in Syria and what might be done to curb such resistance is provided by Dan E. Stigall at Just Security. 

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).