The Early Edition: May 18, 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.  

WATCHDOG FIRING

President Trump late Friday evening sacked State Department Inspector General (I.G.) Steve Linick after Trump said he no longer commanded his full confidence  — the latest in a series of dismissals of independent government watchdogs in recent months. Trump’s move — his fourth such firing during the coronavirus pandemic — drew immediate condemnations from Democrats. Linick’s replacement, Stephen Akard, served as a foreign service officer from 1997 to 2005 and is a trusted ally of Vice President Mike Pence. Meredith McGraw and Nahal Toosi report for POLITICO.

Linick apparently was investigating alleged misconduct by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including allegations that he ordered a staffer to perform a variety of personal errands for him, such as walking the family dog, handling dry cleaning and making restaurant reservations for him and his wife. A White House official told NBC News that Pompeo personally made the recommendation to fire Linick and that Trump agreed with the move. Josh Lederman and Andrea Mitchell report for NBC News.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez (N.J.), jointly launched a probe Saturday into Linick’s dismissal. “We unalterably oppose the politically-motivated firing of inspectors general and the President’s gutting of these critical positions,” Engel and Menendez wrote in a letter to the White House  demanding that the White House, State Department and Office of the Inspector General preserve all records related to Linick’s ouster and turn over information to the committees within one week. Laura Kelly reports for the Hill.

Separately, Trump also notified Congress on Friday night of his intent to nominate Eric Soskin, a Justice Department lawyer, for the permanent Department of Transportation Inspector General position. The decision came the same day the White House named Howard “Skip” Elliott, the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, as the department’s new acting inspector general. Philip Rucker, Karen DeYoung, Lisa Rein and Hannah Knowles report for the Washington Post.

“With the firings [of internal government oversight officials], [Trump] is demolishing the ideal that inspectors general can operate independently without fear of retribution as they attempt to uncover waste, fraud and abuse that does not serve the interests of the American people,” CNN’s Maeve Reston writes in an analysis of the consequences of Trump’s “oversight purge.”

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 90,000 today, while the global figure stands at 315,000. The United States continues to be, by far, the world’s coronavirus hot spot, accounting for nearly 1.5 million of the 4.7 million confirmed cases worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

The House on Friday narrowly passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package to send money to struggling state and local governments and a further round of direct $1,200 payments to taxpayers, advancing a measure with no prospects of becoming law over near-unanimous Republican opposition. Emily Cochrane reports for the New York Times.

A stunning report suggesting that the coronavirus was “release[d from] the Wuhan Institute of Virology” in China is now going round U.S. military and intelligence circles and on Capitol Hill — but a Daily Beast analysis of the 30-page report, produced by the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (M.A.C.E.), reveals some of its most seemingly convincing evidence is “provably false.” The report’s claim focuses on missing location data for up to seven phones, which is too small a sample size to prove much of anything; the M.A.C.E. document also alleges a November 2019 conference was called off because of some calamity — in fact, there are selfies from the event; additionally, imagery collected by DigitalGlobe’s Maxar Technologies satellites and provided to The Daily Beast reveals a simpler reason for why analysts thought “roadblocks” went into place around the lab after the purported accident: road construction. Erin Banco, Adam Rawnsley and Lachlan Cartwright report for The Daily Beast.

A major question at the annual meeting today of World Health Organization (W.H.O.) members will be whether the United States and others will call for the W.H.O. to investigate China’s response to the coronavirus. Trump and other world leaders have blamed China for allowing the global spread of the virus by concealing or withholding information about it after it emerged in Wuhan in December. In recent weeks, European and Australian officials have joined Trump in urging an investigation. The New York Times reporting.

Russia has joined roughly 100 countries in supporting a resolution to be presented at today’s World Health Assembly (W.H.A.), calling for an independent inquiry into the pandemic. The European Union-drafted resolution does not single out China or any other nation, but instead calls for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of “the (W.H.O.)-coordinated international health response to Covid-19.” James Griffiths writes at CNN.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to be distancing himself from a theory he and Trump were promoting that the coronavirus pandemic may have originated at a lab in Wuhan, China. Pompeo said in an interview that aired Saturday that “we know it began in Wuhan, but we don’t know from where or from whom, and those are important things.” Pompeo has for weeks publicly embraced the theory that the virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, claiming in an interview earlier this month that there was “enormous evidence” and a “significant amount of evidence” this was the case; he later admitted that he could not be certain of its origin and that the evidence that it came from “the vicinity” of the Wuhan lab “could be wrong.” Jennifer Hansler and Devan Cole report for CNN.

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell warned yesterday that a complete U.S. economic recovery could take until the end of 2021 and require the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. Powell told CBS News it was likely there would be a “couple more months” of job losses, with the unemployment rate rising to as high as 20 or even 25 percent. He reiterated that both Congress and the central bank may need to do more to help workers and businesses “to avoid longer-run damage to the economy.” Lauren Fedor and James Politi report for the Financial Times.

Peter Navarro, trade adviser to Trump, yesterday criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.)’s handling of the pandemic, charging the public health agency “let the country down” with its approach to testing during the early days of the outbreak. “Early on in this crisis, the C.D.C., which really had the most trusted brand around the world in this space — really let the country down with the testing,” Navarro said in an interview. “Not only did they keep the testing within the bureaucracy, they had a bad test and that set us back,” the top economic adviser added. Felicia Sonmez and Darryl Fears report for the Washington Post.

A half-dozen states have announced they are developing their own Apps to pinpoint the spread of coronavirus so they will not have to depend on similar efforts from distrusted big tech firms. So far, the effort is not proceeding as they had hoped: North Dakota is obtaining patchy data from cell phone towers; Utah has experienced technical difficulties with a GPS tracking function; and other states, like Georgia, are pushing tools that rely on people to self-report new Covid-19 infections, possibly creating gaps in the effort to track the spread of the virus. Alice Miranda Ollstein and Mohana Ravindranath report for POLITICO.

Legal challenges are continuing to be mounted against Democratic governors across the country — even as governors who extend their state’s shelter-in-place orders begin easing some restrictions. The plaintiffs are business owners, upset private citizens, pastors and in certain cases, state legislators and legislatures. Caitlyn Oprysko reports for POLITICO.

China’s top medical adviser Zhong Nanshan said the country is still vulnerable to a second wave of Covid-19 infections, with the lack of immunity among the community a major concern as the race to create a vaccine continues. In an interview with CNN, Zhong also said that local officials in Wuhan were not being honest at first about the scale of the pandemic. David Culver and Nectar Gan report for CNN.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Two of the President’s top officials — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Aza and Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro — “are now pointing the finger at the administration’s own scientists and Americans’ pre-existing health conditions to explain the country’s world-leading Covid-19 death toll,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis.

Reflections on how the coronavirus pandemic will permanently expand government powers around the world — for good or for bad — are provided by 10 leading global thinkers at Foreign Policy.

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

President Trump is appealing directly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his push for Congress to more vigorously look into the origins of the 2016 Russia investigation. Trump’s plea to McConnell (R-Ky.) comes after Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) swiftly rebuffed Trump’s demand for the panel to haul in former President Barack Obama for testimony about the F.B.I.’s handling of the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced Friday it has lodged the fifth and final volume of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election for classification review, marking one of the final steps before the sprawling investigation winds up. The committee sent the fifth bipartisan report, which relates to its counterintelligence findings, to the Office of Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) for review. The panel also said it submitted almost 1,000 pages with redaction recommendations in the hopes that it may help expedite the review process for an unclassified version of the report to be approved. Olivia Beavers reports for the Hill.

Republican calls for an investigation into the “unmasking” of former national security adviser Michael Flynn was likely an attempt to “create a political spectacle,” Former deputy C.I.A. director Michael Morell comments in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

A look at Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr’s likely efforts to deceive the American public using the Durham criminal leak investigation is provided by Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security, after a review of F.B.I. transcripts, recently declassified House Intelligence testimony and more.

AFGHANISTAN

At least seven members of Afghanistan’s intelligence service were killed and 40 others were injured early today in a suicide bomb attack near the city of Ghazni claimed by the Taliban. AP reporting.

The bombing comes a day after President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a new power-sharing accord in Kabul, ending their months-long political stalemate. The agreement overcomes one of the hurdles to negotiations with the Taliban, which has repeatedly warned that talks cannot open until a gradual prisoner swap is completed. Reuters reporting.

The United States is on track to meet its commitment to the Taliban to pull out several thousand troops from Afghanistan by mid-July, even as violence spikes and the peace process is stalled. American officials say they will reduce to 8,600 troops by July 15 and vacate five bases; by the second quarter of 2021, all foreign forces are expected to withdraw, ending the U.S.’s longest war. AP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Israel’s parliament swore in a new unity government yesterday led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz, ending the longest political crisis in the nation’s history. The Netanyahu-Gantz deal also hints at the potential annexation of portions of the Palestinian territories this summer, stating that Netanyahu could present President Trump’s “vision for peace” to the cabinet for discussion from July 1. Oliver Holmes reports for The Guardian.

Forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognized government said today they had seized an air base south-west of Tripoli in what could be their most significant advance for nearly a year. Watiya air base, 80 miles from the capital, has been a key strategic foothold for forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April last year. Reuters reporting.

Americans will be ejected from Iraq and Syria, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday, reviving Iran’s demand for U.S. troops to be pulled out from the Middle East. Reuters reporting.

The Justice Department has signaled opposition to an intelligence reauthorization bill passed by the Senate, raising new questions about the fate of the legislation. “We appreciate the Senate’s reauthorization of three expired national security authorities. As amended, however, [it] would unacceptably degrade our ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, spies and other national security threats,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement. The Senate approved on Thursday a bill that paired a reauthorization of three provisions of the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a 2015 intelligence reform bill, with some amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) Court. Jordain Carney reports for the Hill.

Trump on Friday showed off a mysterious new military asset: a missile that could travel significantly quicker than any warhead the U.S. currently has in its arsenal. “We are building, right now, incredible military equipment at a level that nobody has ever seen before … We have, I call it the super-duper missile, and I heard the other night — 17 times faster than what they have right now,” Trump said in the Oval Office. Marty Johnson reports for the Hill.

A group of cybercriminals claimed in a post to the dark web on Friday that it had acquired documents on Trump, and is threatening to release them and other hacked records unless it receives a $42 million ransom. The criminal gang apparently hacked the major entertainment law firm Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks and obtained a cache of documents on Trump and other well-known figures. Brooke Seipel reports for the Hill. 

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).