The Early Edition: May 11, 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 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has surpassed 4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University data although some countries, including China, are thought to have underreported their figures. Officially, the United States has the most Covid-19 cases: 1.3 million, followed by Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Russia. More than 282,000 people have died globally, nearly 80,000 of those in the U.S. Tracy Connor reports for The Daily Beast.

The United States on Friday prevented a vote in the U.N. Security Council on a resolution drafted by France and Tunisia on the coronavirus pandemic after diplomats said it had agreed to compromise language with China that did not directly refer to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), an issue of growing discord between the world’s two major economic powers. The U.S. objection to the text leaves the U.N.’s most powerful body impotent on reacting to the biggest crisis facing the world — and unable to support Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ March 23 call for a worldwide cessation of hostilities in conflict zones so governments can address the pandemic, which diplomats said all 15 Security Council members agree on and is the key point of the resolution. AP reporting.

China has hit back at what it calls “24 lies” by American politicians in the most extensive and detailed refutation yet of accusations over its handling of the outbreak. An 11,000-word article published Saturday on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website gave a point-by-point reply to the 24 “preposterous allegations and lies” that it said were invented by U.S. politicians and media outlets to “shift the blame to China for their inadequate response to Covid-19.” The article was also carried yesterday by Xinhua, China’s government-run news agency, and shared by its official account on Twitter. Nectar Gan reports for CNN.

The Office of Special Counsel has decided there were “reasonable grounds” to believe the removal of Rick Bright, a vaccine expert at Health and Human Services (H.H.S.), was retaliatory and advised he stay in his position until an investigation is finished, according to a statement from his attorneys. Dr. Bright has said he was ousted in April from his job heading H.H.S.’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and moved to the National Institutes of Health in retaliation for expressing concerns about the safety of hydroxychloroquine — the drug touted by President Trump, without evidence, as a treatment for Covid-19. By  Stephanie Armour reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) are planning to issue a warning that hackers tied to the Chinese government are attempting to steal information from American researchers working on the global race to develop vaccines and effective treatments for the coronavirus. The alert from the nation’s top security agencies is expected to accuse Beijing of working to pilfer intellectual property and health information related to vaccines, treatments and testing through hacking and other illicit means. The efforts are part of a spike in cyber-theft and attacks by countries seeking advantage in the pandemic. David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth report for the New York Times.

Iran-linked hackers have targeted American drug company Gilead Sciences Inc. in recent weeks as the firm scrambles to develop treatments for the Covid-19 virus. The hackers posed as journalists and sent emails to Gilead employees that were intended to trick them into sharing their passwords. It is not known whether any of the attempted attacks were successful. The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) last week approved an emergency use authorization of Gilead’s drug remdesivir to help treat patients with serious Covid-19. Reuters reporting.

The Trump administration unveiled its plan to administer remdesivir — the only drug proven to help coronavirus patients — to areas with the greatest need, after a backlash over its disordered initial rollout. H.H.S. will dispatch 14,400 vials of the medicine to state health departments, putting the onus on them to determine which hospitals receive some of the country’s limited supply. Previously the administration had sent a total of 35,360 vials direct to a selected list of hospitals, via its contractor AmerisourceBergen. Rachel Roubein and Zachary Brennan report for POLITICO.

The F.D.A. on Saturday approved a new kind of coronavirus test that administration officials have promoted as a key to reopening the country. The regulators announced emergency authorization for antigen tests produced by Quidel Corp. of San Diego that can quickly detect particles of virus proteins in samples collected from swabs swiped inside the nose. The antigen test is the third type of test to be authorized by the F.D.A.. AP reporting.

The Senate’s top Democrat yesterday demanded the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) explain why it authorized the use of an unproven drug on veterans for the coronavirus, charging patients may have been put at “unnecessary risk.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the V.A. needs to provide Congress more details about a recent large order for $208,000 worth of hydroxychloroquine. AP reporting.

A model often cited by the White House to predict the severity of the coronavirus outbreak has slightly upped its projection of U.S. deaths while pinpointing five states where increased population mobility could pose a significant likelihood of new infections. Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Georgia have seen at least a 20 percentage point spike in mobility patterns in the past few weeks, partly due to the easing of social distancing measures, according to the the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The model now estimates 137,184 U.S. deaths through early August, up nearly 3,000 from a previous prediction on May 4. Allowing for a margin of error, the new projection ranges from 102,783 to 223,489 U.S. deaths. Darius Tahir reports for POLITICO.

Trump is drawing up plans to send 8,000 ventilators to foreign countries by the end of July to help in their battle against the coronavirus. Far from the early days of the outbreak when U.S. medical workers were worried a shortage of ventilators would force them to make agonizing decisions about which patients would get them, the U.S. now has a surplus and the president is sharing the breathing machines with other nations — a goodwill gesture that also helps him offset criticism about his own initial response to the pandemic. AP reporting.

In the initial days of the virus, the U.S. government rejected an offer to manufacture millions of N95 masks in America. “Even today, production lines that could be making more than 7 million masks a month sit dormant,” Aaron C. Davis reports for the Washington Post.

Three members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Dr Anthony Fauci, are quarantining themselves for two weeks after possible exposure to the illness. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will self-isolate after he made a “low risk” contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. F.D.A. commissioner Stephen Hahn and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) director Robert Redfield also disclosed plans to self-quarantine. The BBC reporting.

Vice President Mike Pence is not intending to self-isolate after his press secretary tested positive for the virus on Friday raising fears about a possible outbreak in the president’s inner circle and plans to be at the White House today, his office said yesterday. Pence spokesperson Devin O’Malley said the vice president “will continue to follow the advice of the White House Medical Unit and is not in quarantine.” “Additionally, Vice President Pence has tested negative every single day and plans to be at the White House tomorrow,” O’Malley said in the statement. Jeremy Diamond, Paul LeBlanc and Kevin Liptak report for CNN.

The head of U.S. naval operations is self-quarantining after coming into contact with a family member who has contracted coronavirus. Adm. Michael Gilday took a test for Covid-19 on Friday, which came back negative, but he will self-quarantine out of an abundance of caution, an official said yesterday. Meanwhile, Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, tested positive for Covid-19 Saturday afternoon, but a subsequent test the same day was negative. Lengyel will undergo a third test early today “to confirm his negative status,” according to a Defense Department spokesperson. Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report for CNN.

Federal health regulators are drafting guidelines for reopening nursing homes, according to people familiar with the matter, suggesting steps that would allow visitors to return to facilities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic despite lockdowns. A draft copy of the proposals, which recommend a multiphase reopening of nursing homes, is raising fears among industry officials and infection-control experts worried that advancing too quickly in reopening these facilities could increase the risks for frail and elderly residents, who have been dying in the thousands due to the virus. Industry officials also criticized the draft guidelines as being too vague. Anna Wilde Mathews and  Jon Kamp report for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS: WORLD

South Korea and China both reported an uptick in coronavirus cases over the weekend, prompting concerns over fresh outbreaks in countries that had claimed success in containing their domestic contagions. South Korea yesterday recorded its largest one-day increase in new infections in a month, with more than 50 linked to an outbreak at nightclubs and bars in Seoul. China also documented new coronavirus cases, charting 14 on Saturday, including 12 locally transmitted infections — its biggest daily domestic spread in little over four weeks. Laura Kusisto and  Chun Han Wong report for the Wall Street Journal.

Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, reported today its first cluster of infections since a lockdown on the city was lifted a month ago, spurring concerns of a wider resurgence of the disease. The Chinese city reported five new confirmed cases, all from the same residential compound. Reuters reporting.

Germany also noted a jump in its coronavirus spread, just days after Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country could gradually return to normal. Official data said Germany’s closely monitored reproduction rate (R0) had climbed to 1.1, meaning 10 people with Covid-19 infect on average 11 others. As recently as Wednesday, Germany’s number stood at 0.65. AFP reporting.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said yesterday that it had given two million medical face masks to the U.S. to help address shortages in hospitals hit hardest by the coronavirus. A press release from the agency confirmed that a cargo plane transporting the masks would arrive in the U.S. today. John Bowden reports for the Hill.

At least six people were killed Saturday when protesters angry at the distribution of food aid clashed with security forces in western Afghanistan, officials said. The violence began after demonstrators gathered in Ghor province to complain about the perceived failure to help the poor during the coronavirus pandemic, allegedly favoring people with political connections. Reuters reporting.

Washington has not yet responded to Iran about a prisoner exchange, Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei was quoted as saying by the government’s website yesterday, repeating that Tehran was prepared for an unconditional full prisoner swap with the United States. Both countries have urged the release of prisoners because of the new coronavirus outbreak. Reuters reporting.

The W.H.O. has directed its staff to leave Houthi rebel-held areas in war-torn Yemen, a move sources said was designed to pressure the group to be more honest about suspected coronavirus cases. A W.H.O. directive issued late on Saturday informed staff in Sanaa, the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the northern province of Saada, and the central province of Ibb that “all movements, meetings or any other activity” for employees in those regions were suspended until further notice. Al Jazeera reporting.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was slammed for being “divisive, confusing and vague” as he outlined his plan yesterday for a gradual easing of the lockdown he put in place seven weeks ago. Johnson said schools in England and certain retail stores might be able to open next month, and the government was “actively encouraging” people to return to work if they cannot do so from home. The Guardian reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The renewed outbreaks of coronavirus in South Korea, Germany and China is a warning to other countries that plan to ease lockdowns, James Griffiths writes in an analysis for CNN.

There are six flaws in the arguments put forward in favor of reopening, argues Leana S. Wen for 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.

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

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The U.S. Supreme Court Friday granted a request by the Trump administration to temporarily block the disclosure of redacted grand jury materials relating to the Robert Mueller case. Brian Taylor reports for NPR. 

Former President Barack Obama said Friday that the Department of Justice (D.O.J.)’s decision to drop the case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn threatens the rule of law. Obama also strongly criticized his successor Trump over his response to the coronavirus crisis, calling the U.S. handling of the pandemic “an absolute chaotic disaster.” Hannah Knowles and Meryl Kornfield report for the Washington Post.

The former Assistant Attorney General for U.S. National Security Mary McCord has, in an opinion piece written for the New York Times, accused the D.O.J. of twisting her words in order support the argument that Flynn should not be prosecuted for lying to the F.B.I..

Michael Flynn’s lies to the F.B.I. were “material, as required by the statute to which he pleaded guilty,” argues Chuck Rosenbery, former U.S. attorney, senior F.B.I. official and acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in an analysis for the Washington Post, in which he lists various others that agree.

The INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY

The chief operating officer of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) Deirdre Walsh confirmed Friday that she will be stepping down from her position: “I have served in this challenging role for nearly three years and look forward to taking on my next opportunity.” It has yet to be confirmed who will take over from Walsh, who has held several senior positions with the office during her ten years of service. Betsy Woodruff Swan, Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO. 

Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Richard Grenell announced Friday a new intelligence community (I.C.) “cyber executive” position, which will be created to “provide a single O.D.N.I. focus point for the cyber mission, which will strengthen the I.C.’s cyber posture to better defend U.S. national security interests.” Other changes include a “Director’s Advisor for Military Affairs” role, who will act as Grenell’s main adviser on defense matters, and the removal of the office’s Directorate of National Security Partnerships, whose functions will be delegated to other O.D.N.I. offices. Maggie Miller reports for the Hill. 

LIBYA

Forces of the renegade military leader Khalifa Haftar killed six civilians in a targeted rocket attack on the country’s last standing airport Saturday. Al Jazeera reporting. 

Libya’s international-recognized government – Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) – responded yesterday with a strategic counter attack on one of Haftar’s key military bases. “The forces of war criminal [Haftar] fired more than a hundred rockets and missiles at residential areas in the centre of the capital,” the G.N.A. said in a statement on Facebook. Al Jazeera reporting. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An Iranian navy warship was accidentally struck by a “friendly-fire” missile during naval exercises yesterday, leaving 19 dead and many more injured. AP reporting. 

President Trump’s lawyers will appear before the Supreme Court on Wednesday to argue that Congress does not have the powers to subpoena members of the government and to block a state grand jury investigation into his business deals and financial records. Ruth Marcus reports for the Washington Post.  

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).