The Early Edition: April 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 new coronavirus has now killed more than 40,000 people in the U.S., accounting for nearly a quarter of all virus-related deaths worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 761,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus and at least 41,000 people have died of it. Global deaths now top 165,000, while confirmed cases of the virus have reached more than 2.41 million worldwide. Helen Regan, Jenni Marsh, Laura Smith-Spark, Fernando Alfonso III and Amir Vera report for CNN.

President Trump said yesterday he is planning to use the Defense Production Act to compel an unspecified company to increase production of test swabs by over 20 million per month. “We’re calling in the Defense Production Act and we’ll be getting swabs very easily,” Trump announced during a White House news briefing last night, adding, “Swabs are easy, ventilators are hard.” Alice Miranda Ollstein reports for POLITICO.

The announcement came after governors disputed Trump’s claim they have enough tests for Covid-19. U.S. governors have accused Trump of making “delusional” and “dangerous” statements amid growing tensions between the president and state leaders over coronavirus testing and pressure to relax stay-at-home measures. Richard Luscombe and Edward Helmore report for The Guardian.

The Trump administration and Congress expect to reach an agreement today on an aid package of up to $450 billion to replenish a small-business loan program that has run out of funds. Along with the small business boost, Trump said the deal would increase spending for hospitals, especially hard-hit rural health care providers. AP reporting.

Researchers at Harvard University have suggested the U.S. should conduct more than three times the number of coronavirus tests it is currently administering over the course of the next month. That level of testing is necessary to pinpoint the majority of people who are infected and isolate them from those who are healthy, according to the researchers. Keith Collins reports for the New York Times.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said yesterday that the state — the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic — would be expanding “aggressive” antibody testing to help confirm how many residents have been infected amid efforts to reopen the state. Cuomo announced that the state would test “thousands” of people to determine what percent of the population may “at least be short-term immune to the virus.” However, questions remain about the precision of the current antibody tests, many of which are being made in China without Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) approval, and as the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) cautioned Friday that there is no evidence that antibodies confer immunity from the coronavirus. Justin Baragona reports for The Daily Beast.

Over a dozen American researchers, physicians and public health experts, many of them from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), were working full time at the Geneva headquarters of the W.H.O. as the new coronavirus cropped up late last year and relayed real-time information about its discovery and spread in China to the Trump administration, according to U.S. and international officials. The presence of so many U.S. officials undermines Trump’s assertion that the W.H.O.’s failure to convey the extent of the threat, motivated by a desire to shield China, is largely to blame for the rapid spread of the virus in the United States. Karen DeYoung, Lena H. Sun and Emily Rauhala report for the Washington Post.

The Pentagon will extend the halt on service member travel and movement domestically and overseas to June 30, over a month past when it was due to expire, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday. The original 60-day stop movement order – which applies to all U.S. troops, civilian workers and their families – was implemented last month to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus among troops. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in cities across the United States against coronavirus-related stay-at-home rules over the weekend – with the explicit encouragement of the President. An estimated 400 people gathered in Concord, New Hampshire, to send a message that extended quarantines were not needed in a state with comparably few confirmed cases of Covid-19. AFP reporting.

Trump yesterday again criticized the handling of some states’ coronavirus mitigation measures, saying he believes some governors have “gone too far” in imposing restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Trump told reporters at a White House briefing that he did not have a problem with the protesters who have flouted social distancing guidelines to express disapproval with the restrictions, which have closed businesses and spiked unemployment. The president on Friday threw his support behind protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia who staged demonstrations to oppose stay-at-home orders and other such measures, calling to “LIBERATE” those states. Brett Samuels reports for the Hill.

A top Wuhan laboratory official has denied any role in spreading the new coronavirus, in the first public response from the facility accused of manufacturing the virus. Yuan Zhiming, vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, called the accusations a “conspiracy theory” in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN Saturday. “As people who carry out viral study, we clearly know what kind of research is going on in the institute and how the institute manages viruses and samples … As we said early on, there is no way this virus came from us,” Yuan added. Adela Suliman, Alex Shi and Eric Baculinao report for NBC News.

Iran today started opening intercity highways and key shopping centers to stimulate its sanctions-choked economy, chancing that it has brought under control its coronavirus outbreak — one of the worst in the world — even as some worry it could lead to a second wave of infections. AP reporting.

The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in Iran topped 5,209 today with 91 deaths in the last 24 hours, Health Ministry spokesperson Kianush Jahanpur said in a statement on state TV. Reuters reporting.

Trump said yesterday he would be willing to provide aid to Iran to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic if Tehran requested it. “They were hit very hard,” the President said, adding the country’s reported statistics “obviously … weren’t correct numbers.” Earlier in the pandemic, in March, the Islamic Republic had turned down the U.S.’s offer of humanitarian aid, saying if the country wanted to assist it would lift sanctions against Iran. Justine Coleman reports for the Hill.

New Zealand will relax some of its lockdown restrictions in a week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said today, as the reduction in new coronavirus cases indicates its strategy of elimination is working. The country has been hailed for its quick and strict response to the virus, and will shift from alert “Level 4” lockdown to “Level 3” late next Monday. The move means some businesses can reopen, along with some schools, while rules on local travel will be eased. The BBC reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The U.S.’s “maximum pressure” on Iran is akin to “medical terrorism” and could backfire on President Trump, comments Nic Robertson for CNN.

The good and the bad of Trump’s “Opening Up America Again” plan is provided in an analysis by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Cathy Zhand and Connor Boyle for the New York Times. 

The U.S.’s “countless” national security threats “may not be getting the full attention they deserve” during Covid-19, comments Samantha Vinograd for CNN.  

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 29 members of Afghanistan’s security forces were killed yesterday in a string of Taliban attacks on checkpoints across the country, officials said today. AP reporting.

The U.S. may reduce its C.I.A. presence in Afghanistan in order to advance the peace agreement with the Taliban, U.S. officials have confirmed, which has been a continuing request of the Taliban’s. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes report for the New York Times. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

North Korea has denied President Trump’s “ungrounded” comments that he had received “a nice note” from Kim Jong-un. The country’s foreign ministry press chief said: “there was no letter addressed recently to the U.S. president by the supreme leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Reuters reporting. 

The U.S. has condemned the arrests of at least 14 leaders of the pro-democracy anti-government protests that Hong Kong saw last year, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating: “Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law, and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to ‘enjoy a high degree of autonomy’.” Zen Soo reports for the Washington Post. 

Iran’s parliamentary Revolutionary Guard has blamed the U.S. Navy for the encounter between the two country’s naval forces last Wednesday, stating that whilst conducting drills they were faced with “the unprofessional and provocative actions of the United States and their indifference to warnings”, although no evidence has yet been provided to support the claims. Amit Vahdat reports for the Washington Post. 

Libya’s U.N.-recognized government – Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) – have said Saturday that its forces have killed eight fighters of the Libyan National Army (L.N.A.). Al Jazeera reporting. 

A federal judge has dismissed social media giant Twitter’s request to provide its users with details of U.S. government surveillance requests, which sees the end of a six-year legal battle. U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Rogers stated in an 11-page judgment that Twitter’s request “would be likely to lead to grave or imminent harm to the national security.” However, the judgment also revealed that under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.), “the requirement not to disclose a particular order is completely distinct from disclosing the aggregate number of orders.” John Gerstein reports for POLITICO. 

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) have called for an investigation into Attorney General William Barr’s comments about the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General (I.C. I.G.) Michael Atkinson. A letter was sent Friday to Jeffrey Ragsdale, acting director of the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Office of Professional Responsibility, and D.O.J. Inspector General Michael Horowitz, arguing that “This is a disservice to I.C. I.G. Atkinson … It also raises broader questions about whether Attorney General Barr is following Department policies and rules of professional conduct that demand candor and impartiality from lawyers, particularly those who serve the public trust.” Jordain Carney reports for The Hill. 

(Editor’s note: an earlier version of today’s Early Edition contained an outdated Syria item. It has since been removed.) 

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).