The Early Edition: March 30, 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

More than 732,000 people have been infected with coronavirus worldwide with 34,000 total deaths, according to a tracker run by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. death count crossed 2,400 over the weekend, more than double the level from Thursday. The United States has now recorded more than 143,000 cases of the virus, the most of any country in the world. Fatalities also continued to climb in Italy, where there have been more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths. Amy Woodyatt, Julia Hollingsworth, Ben Westcott and Adam Renton report for CNN.

President Trump said yesterday that he would extend nationwide social distancing guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus for another 30 days through the end of April, a shift from his optimistic predictions of a few days ago when he said he hoped to restart the economy by Easter. At the daily White House task force briefing, Trump said that the peak of the U.S. death rate from the new coronavirus was expected to hit in two weeks but stressed that he hopes the country will be on its way to recovery by June 1. Michael D. Shear reports for the New York Times.

Trump’s announcement followed a projection by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the U.S. death toll from coronavirus could reach between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Fauci said that it was “entirely conceivable” that millions of Americans could eventually be infected. Allan Smith reports for NBC News.

Trump said Saturday night that he would not impose a federal quarantine on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The president instead asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a “strong” travel advisory for the three states, urging the residents to “refrain from nonessential domestic travel for 14 days effective immediately.” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) had called the idea of a lockdown of the New York City metro region “preposterous” and equated it to imprisonment and “a declaration of war.” The BBC reporting.

Trump on Friday invoked the Korean war-era Defense Production Act to force General Motors to make hospital ventilators for coronavirus patients. As COVID-19 cases surge in New York and around the country, officials say hospitals are rapidly running out of ventilators to treat patients with critical symptoms. The impending shortfalls are bound to force doctors to make painstaking life-or-death decisions about which patients they connect to the devices. Derek Hawkins reports for the Washington Post.

The president has also authorized Defense Secretary Mark Esper to call up former U.S. troops and members of the National Guard and Reserve to supplement forces already involved in the U.S. military’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s executive order allows the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Homeland Security to recall up to 1 million reserve members to active duty for up to 24 months. Dan Lamothe reports for the Washington Post.

Trump on Friday signed a bipartisan $2 trillion economic relief package aimed at helping American workers and businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The bill includes $1,200 one-time payments to many Americans; sets up a $500 billion loan reserve for large corporations including airlines; allocates $377 billion for aid to small businesses; and dramatically expands unemployment assistance. The massive bill, dubbed the CARES Act, was the result of days of days of negotiations between the Trump administration and Senate leaders. AFP reporting.

The Justice Department, in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is investigating stock selloffs by U.S. lawmakers who had been privately briefed about the brewing coronavirus crisis, according to two people familiar with the matter. The F.B.I. has already reached out to Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who dumped as much as $1.7 million worth of stock but claims the transactions were “appropriate.” Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) also reported stock sales, but have not been contacted by investigators. David Shortell, Evan Perez, Jeremy Herb and Kara Scannell report for CNN.

The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) has green-lighted the emergency use of devices that can be modified into ventilators, in a bid to address their shortage amid the sprawling coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.. Under the emergency-use authorization, F.D.A. Commissioner Stephen Hahn said Friday the agency would permit anesthesia gas machines and positive-pressure breathing devices to be altered for use as ventilators in health-care settings. Dave Sebastian reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Moscow has enacted an indefinite citywide quarantine starting today as the city’s number of coronavirus cases surpassed 1,000 over the weekend, taking Russia’s total to 1,836. According to the decree, Moscow residents will only be allowed to leave their homes to seek emergency medical care, shop for food or medicine, go to work, walk pets or take out the trash. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin asked regional governors to consider introducing a partial lockdown similar to that announced in the capital to halt the spread of coronavirus. Jake Rudnitsky and Henry Meyer report for Bloomsberg.

A careful analysis of whether international law imposes an obligation on China to pay financial compensation for coronavirus-related harm is provided by international health law expert David Fidler at Just Security.

Trump accused hospitals of wasting masks and “hoarding” ventilators, and said that states were requesting equipment despite not needing it — without substantiating his claims, Aaron Blake writes in an analysis for the Washington Post of the president’s White House coronavirus briefing in the Rose Garden.

After playing down the threat of the coronavirus for weeks, Trump bowed to public health experts, and scientific reality, and accepted that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to come, CNN’s Stephen Collins writes in an analysis.

Has any secretary of state been worse in an emergency? Jackson Diehl asks in a piece for the Washington Post, critiquing Mike Pompeo’s performance during a time of serious international crisis.

A look at how international law can protect hospitals treating coronavirus patients against cyber attacks as targeted operations continue around the world is provided by Kubo Mačák, Laurent Gisel and Tilman Rodenhäuser at Just Security.

An account of the past two weeks inside the White House, based on interviews during that period with employees and outside advisers, is provided by Meridith McGraw and Caitlin Oprysko at POLITICO. 

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.

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

AFGHANISTAN

At least 11 Afghan troops and policemen were killed this weekend in Taliban attacks in Afghanistan’s north and south, the country’s Defense Ministry and a provincial official said today. According to the Defense Ministry, the insurgents targeted a military checkpoint in a multi-pronged assault in the district of Argandab in southern Zabul province last night, killing at least six soldiers. In northern Baghlan province, at least five members of the security forces were killed and six others were injured when their checkpoint came under a Taliban attack on the edges of the provincial capital, Pulikhomri, a provincial council member said. AP reporting.

The Taliban refused to begin talks with the Afghan government’s new negotiating team on Saturday, in a knock-back to the U.S.-brokered peace process. The group’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants could not talk with the 21-member team named on Thursday as it was not selected in a way that included “all Afghan factions.” The team is lead by Masoom Stanekzai, a former security chief and supporter of president Ashraf Ghani, and includes politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Reuters reporting.

IRAQ

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq withdrew yesterday from a military base in the country’s north that nearly propelled Washington into an open war with neighboring Iran. The K1 Air Base is the third site coalition forces have departed this month, in line with U.S. plans to consolidate its troops in two locations in Iraq. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Pentagon has instructed military commanders to prepare for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to plan a campaign to dismantle an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops. But the United States’ top commander in Iraq has cautioned that such a campaign “could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran.” In a candid memo last week, the commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American soldiers be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the main American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast yesterday, the latest in an unprecedented flurry of launches that South Korea decried as “inappropriate” given the global struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic. AFP reporting.

Saudi Arabia appears to be exploiting flaws in the global mobile telecoms network to track its citizens as they move around the U.S., according to a whistleblower who has shown the Guardian millions of alleged secret tracking requests. Data revealed by the whistleblower seems to point to a systematic spying campaign by the kingdom, according to experts. The data suggests that millions of secret tracking requests emerged from Saudi Arabia over a four-month period beginning in November 2019. Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports for The Guardian.

Efforts to hold Saudi officials responsible for the killing of the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi continue, “but any punishment appears unlikely,” Ben Hubbard reports for the New York Times, explaining: none of the 20 suspects are in Turkey, and Turkish courts do not typically try defendants in absentia; meanwhile, calls for international legal action have gained little pull and human rights advocates are skeptical that Saudi Arabia’s justice system will ever punish the suspects charged there. 

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi group in Yemen conducted multiple air strikes today on the capital Sanaa, where bombings have been rare in recent months owing to U.N.-backed de-escalation efforts, witnesses said. The strikes on Sanaa came after Saudi Arabia intercepted two ballistic missiles the Houthis said they had fired off on Saturday towards Riyadh and southern parts of Saudi near the Yemeni border. Reuters reporting.

The leaders of the House Armed Services Committee have formally commenced the process for crafting the annual defense policy bill, introducing the “by request” version. The churning of the legislative process for the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) comes despite the coronavirus pandemic that has disturbed business as usual in Congress and the country. The Hill 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).