The Early Edition: May 13, 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.  

MICHAEL FLYNN

A federal judge confirmed yesterday that he will accept written arguments from interested parties before he will allow the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) to drop the case against President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “At the appropriate time, the Court will enter a Scheduling Order governing the submission of any amicus curiae briefs,”confirmed the judge – however, Flynn’s lawyers attempted to oppose this decision in a court filing sent to the court last night, stating: “It is no accident that amicus briefs are excluded in criminal cases … A criminal case is a dispute between the United States and a criminal defendant. There is no place for third parties to meddle in the dispute, and certainly not to usurp the role of the government’s counsel. For the Court to allow another to stand in the place of the government would be a violation of the separation of powers.” Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO. 

Trump’s acting intelligence chief Richard Grenell has given the D.O.J. a list of names from the former Barack Obama administration who were responsible for “unmasking” Flynn and his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in 2016, U.S. officials confirmed. A D.O.J. official has said that Grenell’s office “delivered information related to unmasking to the department, and to the extent it’s relevant to any investigation, the department will take a look at it,” adding that the Department “does not intend to release the list” of those who initiated the unmasking. Shane Harris and Matt Zapotosky report for the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

The death toll from the militant attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul early yesterday has risen to 24, including two newborn babies, their mothers and an unspecified number of nurses, the deputy public health minister Wahid Majroh announced today. Initially, 16 people were believed to have been killed in the attack. AP reporting.

The Afghan government yesterday ordered its forces to resume offensive operations against the Taliban and other militia groups after over 30 people were killed in separate attacks yesterday. The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said in a televised speech that: “In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defense mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies.” Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday called for the Afghan government and the Taliban to cooperate in finding those responsible for the “appalling” attacks on a maternity ward yesterday. “We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous,” he said, stressing that, “The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice … As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism.” Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The global death toll from the coronavirus outbreak passed 291,900 today, with nearly a third of those deaths (82,000) in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. More than 4.2 million cases of the coronavirus have been recorded worldwide, again led by America which accounts for 1.37 million cases.  Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

The nation’s top infectious diseases expert warned Congress yesterday that ending lockdowns prematurely could trigger new and uncontrollable outbreaks of Covid-19. In his first appearance on Capitol Hill in two months, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, delivered a cautionary message at odds with the upbeat rhetoric of President Trump, who has pushed to quickly restart the economy. “My concern is we might see spikes that turn into outbreaks,” Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (H.E.L.P.) Committee during a hearing on how to safely reopen the nation. “The consequences could be really serious.” Fauci also said the real U.S. death toll is probably higher than the official figure of 80,000, and predicted Americans would experience additional economic damage if states ignore federal guidelines. AFP reports.

At the Senate hearing, Fauci reiterated his cautious optimism that an effective vaccine would be developed but said there was no guarantee that would happen. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), painted a grim picture of the months ahead, noting that the United States still lacked critical testing capacity and the ability to trace the contacts of those infected. Katie Thomas, Denise Grady, Michael Mason and Sheila Kaplan report for the New York Times.

House Democrats yesterday proposed $3 trillion in new economic aid to respond to the coronavirus crisis, including another round of stimulus checks and money for states and the Postal Service. The more than 1,800-page bill extends unemployment benefits to January, adds hazard pay for front-line workers and expands virus-testing and contact tracing efforts. “We must think big for the people now, because if we don’t, it will cost more in lives and livelihood later,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday. “Not acting is the most expensive course … We are presenting a plan to do what is necessary to deal with the [coronavirus] crisis and make sure we can get the country back to work and school safely.” Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan report for POLITICO.

The Senate Banking Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Brian Miller, the White House lawyer whom Trump selected to oversee his administration’s handling of the huge relief effort for the economic crisis. The nomination proceeded on a 14-11 vote, with nearly all Democrats opposed. Katy O’Donnell reports for POLITICO.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A.) said it canceled a $55.5 million contract for respiratory masks, signed last month with a little-known Virginia firm, Panthera Worldwide LLC, with no history in the mask business and a parent company in bankruptcy. The company had pledged to deliver the urgently-needed personal protective equipment by May 1 but sought a 10-day extension to May 11 and ultimately did not supply the items. The unfulfilled contract “leaves the U.S. government without an expected delivery of 10 million of the sought-after masks [and] was the latest misfire by the Trump administration in its frantic quest for medical supplies, in this case relying on an untested company for critically needed masks.” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for the Washington Post.

The safety of Russian-made ventilators dispatched to the United States is being investigated by Moscow after two of the devices — used in the treatment of coronavirus patients — apparently burst into flames, claiming the lives of six people. One fire, which killed five patients in Saint George’s Hospital in St Petersburg yesterday, is believed to have started with one of the ventilators being utilized in an intensive care unit, a local lawyer told the TASS news agency. Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.N. Security Council is attempting again to reach accord on its first resolution since the coronavirus pandemic started spiraling the globe over two months ago, but a feud between the U.S. and China over mentioning the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) remains unresolved. The 15 council ambassadors discussed how to advance in private consultations yesterday after the United States on Friday objected to a proposed resolution drafted by France and Tunisia. After yesterday’s meeting, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said “all council members are willing to come to a final agreement.” AP reporting.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) yesterday outlined his administration’s proposals to expand coronavirus testing and set up a contact tracing body in advance of the state’s economic revival. Sam Sutton reports for POLITICO.

European Union (E.U.) plans for a multibillion-euro defense fund have been called into question by the economic impact of the coronavirus, officials and diplomats say, potentially jeopardizing three years of unprecedented military cooperation. With E.U. governments fixated on a trillion-euro plan to offset the worst economic contraction since the 1940s, the billions for defense in the 2021-2027 budget are at risk. Deep cuts would thwart E.U. ambitions to reduce a military reliance on the United States, frustrate efforts to streamline a confusing plethora of military systems in Europe, and obliterate contracts for the European defense industry. Al Jazeera reporting.

Republican senators put forward legislation yesterday that would empower Trump to impose sanctions on China if Beijing does not give a “full accounting” for the coronavirus outbreak. The “Covid-19 Accountability Act” will give Trump 60 days to verify to Congress that China has provided a full accounting on the Covid-19 outbreak to a probe that could be led by the United States and its allies, or a United Nations body like the W.H.O.. The Guardian reporting.

A northeastern Chinese city has partially closed its borders, cut off transport connections and shut schools after the emergence of a local coronavirus cluster that has sparked fears about a second wave of infections in China. Jilin, with a population of more than four million, halted bus services today and said it will only permit residents to leave the city if they have tested negative for Covid-19 in the past 48 hours and undergo an unspecified period of “strict self-isolation.” AFP reporting.

Chinese officials have yet to share any findings from the animals sampled four months ago. Despite initial efforts to quickly determine the origin of the virus, Beijing now appears to be delaying finding the source of the pathogen amid an escalating U.S. push to blame China for the pandemic, according to interviews with dozens of health experts and officials. Jeremy Page and Natasha Khan report for the Wall Street Journal.

South Korea has delayed the planned reopening of schools by a week as dozens of new coronavirus cases linked to nightclubs in Seoul continue to emerge daily. Since a clubgoer tested positive last Wednesday, 102 infection cases from the cluster have been confirmed. Se Eun Gong reports for NPR.

Yemen has more suspected coronavirus cases and deaths than the authorities have so far publicly disclosed, four sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, as the U.N. warned the virus is spreading in the war-ravaged country. The Saudi-backed government based in the south and the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement headquartered in the north have so far officially reported a total of 67 cases with 11 deaths. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A fire in a hospital treating people infected with coronavirus killed five patients in St. Petersburg yesterday, “further testing the Russian government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic amid a growing crisis that has reached the Kremlin’s inner circle,” Nathan Hodge writes in an analysis for CNN.

Critical insights and lessons from the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic can be used to inform our preparedness as a nation to respond to a similar cyber crisis, Mark Montgomery and Robert Morgus write in a piece for Just Security.

An explainer on the virus “reproduction rate” and its importance in understanding the implications of lifting economic lockdowns aimed at containing the spread is provided by Reuters.

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 state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

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

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Supreme Court expressed yesterday concerns over the House Committee’s wide-spanning request for President Trump’s financial records but seems more open to requests made by the grand jury investigation led by a New York prosecutor. Rather than disallowing either subpoena requests, it is expected the court will insist on more stringent standards and criterion for allowing the requests. Adam Liptak report for the New York Times. 

The F.B.I. has mistakenly revealed the name of a Saudi diplomat who is suspected of supporting the 9/11 attack. The identity was revealed in a declaration by an F.B.I. official in response to a lawsuit filed by the families of 9/11 victims who accuse Saudi Arabia of being involved in the attacks. Al Jazeera reporting. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel yesterday to discuss with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz their plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. They are also expected to discuss Iran and the ongoing pandemic in the country. Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood and Andrew Carey report for CNN.  

Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said yesterday that Moscow will oppose U.S. attempts to extend the arms ban and impose further sanctions on Iran. The ambassador said, in response to the possibility that the U.S. will use the “snapback” provisions within the 2015 U.N. Security Council to further sanctions, that in order “to trigger a snapback you have to be a participant of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.), and the U.S. proudly announced on May 8, 2018 that they withdrew from the J.C.P.O.A. and closed the door behind.” AP 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).

Siven Watt

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter (@SivenWatt)