The Early Edition: May 22, 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.  

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday asked federal judge Emmet Sullivan to explain his rationale behind not allowing the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) to drop the case against President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. After Flynn’s lawyers argued that, “An innocent man has been the target of a vendetta by politically motivated officials at the highest level of the F.B.I. … The district judge’s orders reveal his plan to continue the case indefinitely, rubbing salt in General Flynn’s open wound from the Government’s misconduct and threatening him with criminal contempt,” the panel of judges has given Sullivan until May 31 to respond to Flynn’s attorney’s request for the higher court to drop the case and has also requested comments from the D.O.J.. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO. 

An NBC News report yesterday confirmed a Washington Post report a day earlier that Flynn’s name was never “masked” in the F.B.I.’s report on Flynn’s communications with Russia’s former ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Republicans have suggested that the unmasking was an improper attempt to incriminate Trump allies, while former Obama administration officials say they had sufficient reason to want to comb through the intelligence, given the serious and unprecedented nature of the covert Russian operation. Ken Dilanian reports for NBC News.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) warned in a letter yesterday that he will issue subpoenas for documents that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave to the Senate G.O.P. relating to former Vice President and Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden if they are not handed over by June 1. Olivia Beavers reports for the Hill. 

The criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office, which oversaw the case against Trump’s longtime friend and confidant Roger Stone, has been reorganized, according to officials briefed on the matter, which comes after an announcement last week that Timothy Shea, the interim U.S. attorney, will end his tenure this week. Katie Benner reports for the New York Times. 

INTERNATIONAL TREATIES

The Trump Administration yesterday revealed that the U.S. will withdraw from a major 35-Nation accord – the Open Skies Treaty – that permits unarmed surveillance flights over member countries, after it alleges that Russia continues to fail to adhere to the accord. “I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty … Until they adhere we will pull out,” President Trump said, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adding: “it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in America’s interest to remain a party to the Treaty on Open Skies.” The withdrawal is to formally take place in six months. Reuters reporting. 

NATO ambassadors are meeting today to consider U.S. plans to pull out from the Open Skies Treaty. AP reporting.

Trump’s new arms-control negotiator Marshall Billingslea said yesterday that the U.S. is planning to propose a new far-reaching accord that will significantly limit all Russian, Chinese and U.S. nuclear missiles, and will “get together to begin negotiations” with Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy Russian foreign minister. The announcement comes after the 2010 New START accord, which governs Russian and U.S. long-range nuclear arms, expires in February 2021. Michael R. Gordan reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

CORONAVIRUS

More than 5.1 million cases of the new coronavirus have been reported worldwide, including over 333,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. makes up more than 1.5 million of those cases and accounts for nearly 95,000 Covid-19-related deaths. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

Daily new hospitalizations across New York state for the novel coronavirus are down from rates observed before its March lockdown, more proof the state hit hardest by the pandemic has “turned the corner,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) said yesterday. Cuomo told a daily briefing the three-day rolling average for new coronavirus hospitalizations was at 246 on Wednesday, below 295 a day earlier and about half the level reported on March 20, the earliest available data for that metric. “It is actually lower than we were when this first started,” Cuomo said. “We got through it … We got over the mountain.” Reuters reporting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) has admitted that it is fusing the results of two different types of tests in the agency’s tally of testing for the coronavirus, raising worries among some scientists that it could be painting an inaccurate picture of the state of the pandemic in the United States. The C.D.C. combines the results of genetic tests that detect people who are actively infected, mostly by using a method known as polymerase chain reaction, with results from another, known as serology testing, which checks for antibodies in people’s blood.  Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, voiced concern that adding the two kinds of tests together “could leave the impression that more testing of active cases had been conducted than was actually the case.” Rob Stein reports for NPR.

The coronavirus mainly spreads from person to person and not easily from a contaminated surface, the C.D.C. said in an update to its “How COVID-19 Spreads” website. The revised guidance now states, the virus “is spreading very easily and sustainably between people.” It also clarifies what sources are not significant risks: under the new heading “The virus does not spread easily in other ways,” the agency explains that touching contaminated objects or surfaces does not seem to be a major mode of transmission; the same is true for exposure to infected animals. Ben Guarino and Joel Achenbach report for the Washington Post.

Sweden has revealed that despite imposing lighter measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, only 7.3% of people in Stockholm had developed the antibodies needed to fight the disease by late April. The figure is about the same as other countries that have data and well below the 70-90% needed to create “herd immunity” in a population. Niamh Kennedy reports for CNN.

Russia today disclosed 150 new deaths from the novel coronavirus in the past 24 hours, a record daily rise, bringing the country’s official nationwide death toll from the virus to 3,249. Reuters reporting.

Coronavirus testing is not where it needs to be to safely reopen the economy; to confront this complicated supply chain challenge, “the government needs to borrow a page from [vehicle manufacturer] General Motors (GM) or the Pentagon,” Jeremy Konyndyk, Kevin O’Connell and Dylan George argue in a piece for Just Security.

A fact check of Trump’s “inaccurate or incomplete” claims on hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the President is touting as a treatment for the coronavirus, is provided by Linda Qiu at the New York Times.

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.

CHINA

China is set to impose new national security legislation on Hong Kong after last year’s pro-democracy unrest, in a move that critics say will effectively end the territory’s autonomy. Beijing’s proposal would prohibit “subversion, separatism or acts of foreign interference against the central government” and would allow the central government to establish “security organs” in the territory, according to a draft decision. President Trump warned that Washington would react “very strongly” against the attempt to gain more control over the former British colony. Lily Kuo and Helen Davidson report for The Guardian.

China’s move will inevitably worsen the (already sour) relationship between Washington and Beijing, Michael Crowley and Edward Wong write for the New York Times.

Key questions on China’s action and the possible consequences are answered by Rick Gladstone for the New York Times.

IRAN

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today, in a 30-minute annual speech on state television in support of Palestinians, called Israel a “cancerous tumor” that “will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed,” further criticizing the West for providing Israel with “various kinds of military and non-military tools of power, even with atomic weapons.” AP reporting. 

Iran is gradually pulling its forces out of Syria due to repeated Israeli strikes and growing internal economic instability in Iran due to coronavirus, Israeli military officials confirmed yesterday. Israel has said the recent move by Iranian forces was “a backward movement from various locations to other locations that are further away and in reduced numbers,” although it made clear that the retreat was “not massive [and] not overwhelming,” but that it was also “undeniable.” AP reporting. 

LIBYA

Forces allied with Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli said yesterday that they have seized another major town from their rivals who have been trying to capture the Libyan capital for over a year. The fall of the town of al-Asabaa, roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Tripoli, represents another blow for the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, loyal to the administration based in the country’s east, which earlier this week lost command of a military base near the capital. AP reporting.

A series of wins by Turkish-supported forces in western Libya this week created a serious setback for the ambitions of the aspiring strongman Khalifa Hifter and signaled the arrival of Turkey as a potentially decisive force among the foreign powers fighting for supremacy in the Middle East’s biggest proxy war. The recent triumphs marked an impressive reversal of fortunes for the U.N.-backed Tripoli government, which appeared weak and badly assaulted by Hifter until Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent soldiers and armed drones in January. “It’s Turkey’s Libya Now,” read the headline on a briefing published by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Declan Walsh reports for the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Palestinians have stopped contacts with the C.I.A. after announcing a halt to security coordination with Israel and the United States in protest at Israeli plans to annex territory in the West Bank, a Palestinian official said yesterday. Reuters reporting.

The United States and Sudan have reached an accord over the “contours” of a future bilateral claims agreement related to the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for Africa said yesterday. “This final agreement will reflect Sudan’s agreement to pay … It would include compensation in connection with claims relating also to non U.S. nationals killed and injured in the embassy bombings,” Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for African Affairs, told a teleconference. Reuters reporting.

Trump administration officials have been quietly pressing diplomats from France and the United Nations to appoint David Gressly, a veteran American U.N. official who has held several senior posts at the world body, as the U.N. special representative for Mali, supervising a force of more than 11,000 African and European blue helmets. If picked, he would replace a former Chadian foreign minister, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who is due to step down at the start of next year after five years on the job. Foreign Policy reporting.

A shooting yesterday at a Texas naval air station that wounded a security force member and left the gunman dead is being investigated as “terrorism-related,” authorities said. NBC News reporting.

The Senate yesterday confirmed Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be President Trump’s next director of national intelligence. Senators voted 49-44 along partisan lines on Ratcliffe’s nomination. The New York Times reporting.

The Senate has confirmed that Kenneth Braithwaite, the current ambassador to Norway, will become the new Navy secretary, a senior position within the Pentagon. Braithwaite’s new role comes at a time when the Navy has been under scrutiny for its handling of the coronavirus. POLITICO reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressured State Department officials to figure out a way to justify the emergency declaration he had already decided to implement to facilitate the $8 million speedy arms sale he made with Saudi Arabia last year, numerous sources and officials told CNN. CNN reporting.

Pompeo has established a routine of adding potentially politically motivated events to official taxpayer-funded trips — without putting the visits on his public schedule. The New York Times reporting. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Assistant 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).