The Early Edition: May 21, 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 106,000 new coronavirus cases were reported yesterday — the most in a single day since the outbreak began in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) said. The biggest one-day jump came as President Trump offered to host world leaders for the annual Group of 7 (G-7) summit as a sign of “normalization.” AFP reporting.

The United States continues to be, by far, the world’s coronavirus hot spot, accounting for 1.55 million of the 5 million confirmed global cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. More than 328,000 people have died worldwide from Covid-19, including 93,400 people in America. Chong Koh Ping reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) this week quietly released detailed guidelines for reopening restaurants, schools businesses and public transit during the coronavirus pandemic. The 60-page document is the most extensive guidance yet offered by the health agency and comes weeks after several states have already ended or partly ended their lockdowns. Elizabeth Chuck reports for NBC News.

The quick spread of coronavirus in the southern hemisphere suggests it is likely to “flare up” again in the U.S. this autumn and winter, raising the prospect of a second round of lockdowns this year, the head of the C.D.C. has told the Financial Times. Robert Redfield warned the U.S. would have to boost its disease-tracking capabilities rapidly in the next few months to avoid another public health crisis as seasonal flu coincides with a second wave of Covid-19. Kiran Stacey in Washington and David Crow report for the Financial Times.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that has been docked in Guam since March 27 battling an outbreak of the coronavirus is now back at sea, the Navy announced late yesterday. The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt departed Naval Base Guam and entered the Philippine Sea on May 21 “to conduct carrier qualification flights,” basic drills that will allow the crew to increase use of the carrier after 55 days away from sea. The ship left port with just a fraction of its almost 5,000-member crew, as the qualification flights “requires fewer personnel than other missions, and bringing fewer Sailors on board will enable enhanced social distancing while underway,” Capt. Carlos Sardiello, the ship’s commanding officer, said in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

The commanding scientist brought on to lead the Trump administration’s vaccine efforts has recently been trying to disentangle pieces of his stock portfolio and his intricate links to large pharmaceutical companies, as critics cite the potential for significant conflicts of interest. The scientist, Moncef Slaoui, is a venture capitalist and a former longtime executive at GlaxoSmithKline; most recently, he sat on the board of Moderna, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company with a $30 billion valuation that is working on a coronavirus vaccine. He quit when Trump named him last Thursday to the new position as chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the federal initiative for coronavirus vaccines and treatments. Sheila Kaplan, Matthew Goldstein and Alexandra Stevenson report for the New York Times.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has been notably absent from national television interviews over the past fortnight, as the White House advances with reopening the economy. Fauci’s absence was particularly conspicuous this week, given the positive preliminary results regarding a vaccine developed by the biotech company Moderna in partnership with the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.), which Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (N.I.A.I.D.) falls under; despite the N.I.H.’s part in helping to develop the vaccine, Fauci did not appear for interviews to talk about the promising results. While Fauci has been on “modified quarantine” after potential exposure to the virus, he has still been present at the White House and testified remotely before the Senate last week. Oliver Darcy reports for CNN.

The W.H.O. says the science is still uncertain on an old malaria drug Trump is taking to protect against the novel coronavirus and recommends hydroxychloroquine’s use for Covid-19 “only in controlled clinical trials for now.” The comments by Dr. Michael Ryan, the W.H.O.’s emergencies chief, late yesterday suggested the U.N. health agency remains undefeated by Trump’s repeated criticism over its response to the coronavirus pandemic — including most recently his threat to halt all funding for the W.H.O. from its biggest donor, the United States, if it does not reform. AP reporting.

The U.S. has secured 300 million doses of AstraZeneca’s potential coronavirus vaccine after offering $1.2 billion to support the company’s development of the vaccine. Although the vaccine has not been proven as effective against the virus, many health world leaders support the progress made, with U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar stating that: “This contract with AstraZeneca is a major milestone in Operation Warp Speed’s work toward a safe, effective, widely available vaccine by 2021.” Reuters reporting.

All 50 states in the U.S. have at least partially relaxed tight restrictions on businesses, with a combination of policies allowing restaurants or shops to welcome customers. Just after midnight yesterday, Connecticut became the last state to let businesses serve customers more directly than they have in weeks. The state is now permitting outdoor seating at restaurants, and non-essential retail stores and malls can also reopen. Across the U.S., certain cities and counties are keeping strict measures in place, with officials pointing to persistent levels of hospitalizations and/or new cases. Bill Chappell reports for NPR.

Authorities in 23 nations across five continents have tried to gain access to contact tracing technology from Apple and Google, the tech giants announced yesterday as they unveiled the first version of their system. But authorities would have to stop demanding phone numbers from users under the companies’ rules, one of several restrictions that have left governments battling the novel coronavirus irked that the world’s top two smartphone software makers undermine the technology’s usefulness by prioritizing user privacy. Reuters reporting.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said yesterday a program to test and trace those suspected of having come into contact with people who have tested positive for Covid-19 would be in place by June 1. Earlier this month, Johnson unveiled a blueprint to relax measures that have shuttered much of the economy for weeks, including a move to begin the opening of shops and to return some pupils to school. Reuters reporting.

Chinese authorities have locked down a northeastern city after the emergence of dozens of fresh coronavirus cases in the area, initiating a limited return to tight controls at a time when the government is trying to stimulate economic activity. Residents in some parts of Jilin province are being directed to stay home, and traffic into and out of some localities is being halted in an effort to prevent the virus that causes Covid-19 from spreading, according to government notices, state media and residents. James T. Areddy reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab countries are seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, spurring governments to reimpose some restrictions that had been lifted late last month in the run-up to the holy month of Ramadan. Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab gulf country, had recorded roughly 15,000 cases when Ramadan started; but in less than a month, the kingdom’s numbers quadrupled, with nearly 60,000 confirmed cases as of yesterday, making it the Arab world’s new hotspot of infection. In response, the kingdom has announced it will enforce a nationwide 24-hour curfew starting Saturday and going on into next week during the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of Ramadan. Sarah Dadouch reports for the Washington Post.

A fact-check and assessment of Trump’s letter of condemnation to the W.H.O. is provided by Pien Huang for NPR.

Beijing’s influence within the World Health Organization means the results of an evaluation into the origins of the coronavirus are “likely to be delayed — and compromised,” James Palmer argues for 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.

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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday temporarily blocked the House Judiciary Committee from receiving secret grand jury material redacted from Robert Mueller’s investigation report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, following a request from the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) after the Court of Appeals said in March that the material must be disclosed. The justices short order gave no reasons for blocking the disclosure and has given the D.O.J. until June 1 to submit its full petition as to why the court should proceed the case to full review. Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow report for the Washington Post. 

Leading Democrat of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) yesterday requested that acting director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell release all intelligence reports between President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia’s former ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Warner also asked for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) to disclose to senators all intelligence reports compiled during the Trump presidential transition. Dustin Volz and Lindsay Wise report for the Wall Street Journal. 

Warner has also called upon the O.D.N.I. to provide investigation reports in which Flynn’s name was “unmasked,” stating: “As you are well aware, there are substantial protections built into the process for requesting that identities of U.S. persons be unmasked in intelligence reports, ensuring that the rights of individual Americans are protected and that unmasking requests are granted only to those who need the information in order to protect U.S. national security.” “Selective declassification for political purposes undermines the integrity of our system for protecting classified information, undermines the Intelligence Community’s credibility, and erodes public trust in institutions critical to protecting the nation,” Warner added. Zack Budryk reports for the Hill.

The F.B.I.’s report on Flynn’s communications with Kislyak never redacted Flynn’s name and so his name was never “unmasked,” former U.S. officials have stressed. “When the F.B.I circulated [the report], they included Flynn’s name from the beginning … There were therefore no requests for the unmasking of that information,” one former official told the Washington Post. Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post. 

The Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday approved the subpoena of Democratic public-relations firm Blue Star strategies as part of its investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President and election runner Joe Biden, and his relationship with Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings where he sat as a board member. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO. 

Leaked recordings between Joe Biden and Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko will be formally investigated by Ukrainian law enforcement, the country’s current president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said. Andrew Roth reports for the Guardian. 

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel must stop threats of annexing the occupied West Bank, warned U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov when speaking to the Security Council yesterday, charging that “continuing threat of annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank would constitute a most serious violation of international law, deal a devastating blow to the two-state solution [and] close the door to a renewal of negotiations.” Reuters reporting. 

The President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’s declaration on Tuesday that he is pulling out of all peace and security agreements with Israel has been branded as “Judgement Day” by Palestinian officials who fear the conflict that could ensue. David M. Halbfinger, Adam Rasgon and Mohammed Najib report for the New York Times. 

IRAN

The U.S. yesterday imposed sanctions on Iran’s interior minister after accusing him of serious human rights violations, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in statement “[sends] a message of support to the Iranian people that we will continue to support their demands for transparent and accountable governance.” Reuters reporting.

Iran will “support and assist any nation or any group” that fights against the “Zionist regime” in Israel, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday in a post on twitter. Khamenei made clear in a second message that, “Eliminating the Zionist regime doesn’t mean eliminating Jews … We aren’t against Jews.” Reuters reporting. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Defense Department has not kept back $1 billion in funding from Afghan security forces despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pledge on March 23 to slash that sum “immediately,” five sources familiar with the matter said. Reuters reporting.

Iraq has arrested Nasser al-Qirdash, a favored candidate to succeed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the slain leader of ISIS, the Iraqi Intelligence Service announced yesterday. Al Jazeera reporting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu showed support for an immediate truce in Libya during a phone call today, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The two diplomats spoke one day after the Libyan National Army of eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar said it had retreated from some Tripoli frontlines, calling into question its ability to sustain a year-long offensive aimed at seizing the capital. Reuters reporting.

The U.S. repeatedly supplies aid to questionable partner and proxy forces; the problem seems to lie in enforcement of the law, Brittany Benowitz and Alicia Ceccanese write in the second of a three-part series for Just Security addressing the challenges associated with proxy warfare. The authors explore what Congress can do about it. 

The Trump administration is considering a face-saving strategy for preventing an Obama-era nuclear treaty from expiring while it pursues a more extensive arms pact with both Russia and China, according to current and former administration officials with direct knowledge of the discussions. Under the plan, the White House would temporarily extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty while seeking a new accord with Moscow that also attempts to persuade China to come to the table, they said. POLITICO reporting.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation yesterday that could block some Chinese firms from listing their shares on U.S. exchanges unless they follow standards for American audits and regulations. The measure, backed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), passed by unanimous approval; however, it must pass the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump to become law. Reuters reporting.

Google Cloud said yesterday it has reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Defense to help identify and respond to cyber threats. The deal enables the Defense Innovation Unit to run applications across platforms including Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure while being managed through the Google Cloud Console, the company said. Reuters reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday defended his request to have the State Department inspector general sacked, saying that it was not in retaliation for probes the watchdog was conducting. “Frankly, I should have done it some time ago,” Pompeo told reporters at a news conference. NBC News reporting.

A look at Pompeo’s “disturbing actions,” including two dozen luxurious dinners hosted by him and his wife at the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms, all paid for by taxpayers, with guest lists comprising more of Republican donors and activists than foreign diplomats and policy experts, is provided by Frida Ghitis at CNN. 

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)