The Early Edition: May 27, 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.  

INSPECTORS GENERAL

A top watchdog at the Pentagon quit yesterday, weeks after President Trump effectively ousted him as the head of a panel overseeing $2 trillion in pandemic-stimulus funds. Despite apparently wishing to continue his work at the Department of Defense, Glenn Fine had voiced concerns that after years of serving as the department’s top inspector general prior to his demotion last month, a new chief could shift the direction and nature of the oversight being conducted by the watchdog’s office, according to someone familiar with the matter. Fine’s departure is the latest in a series of shake-ups within the ranks of inspectors general across the federal government in recent months, as Trump has sacked or displaced watchdog officials. Ben Kesling reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has criticized the White House for “failing” to adequately explain Trump’s recent firing of watchdogs after the White House’s counsel Pat Cipollone yesterday told Grassley that Trump had acted appropriately. The top Republican senator said in response to Cipollone’s statement that: “I don’t dispute the president’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general … If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is … Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame.” Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO. 

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. death toll from the new coronavirus is nearing 100,000, with just under 99,000 deaths as of early today, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 5.6 million cases of Covid-19 have been recorded worldwide, including 1.68 million cases in the United States, as well as at least 350,000 global deaths. Chong Koh Ping reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The Justice Department is dropping its investigations into stock trades made by three senators in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, but is continuing a related probe into G.O.P. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), according to people familiar with the matter. Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock in late January and early February after receiving private briefings on the outbreak — before markets collapsed as the public became fully aware of the scale of the threat from the virus. The decision comes after the F.B.I. served Burr a search warrant and seized his cellphone earlier this month, as part of its investigation into his financial transactions. Aruna Viswanatha reports for the Wall Street Journal.

When President Trump took office in 2017, his team halted work on new federal rules that would have required the health care industry to prepare for an airborne infectious disease pandemic like Covid-19, according to federal documents reviewed by NPR. “If that rule had gone into effect, then every hospital, every nursing home would essentially have to have a plan where they made sure they had enough respirators and they were prepared for this sort of pandemic,” said David Michaels, who was head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration until January 2017. Brian Mann reports for NPR.

Coronavirus diagnostic tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) may be “missing” up to 20 percent of positive cases, experts told NBC News as questions mount about Covid-19 test accuracy. One major reason behind these so-called false negatives may be how the testing samples are gathered. Lauren Dunn reports for NBC News.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) yesterday pledged a speedy review of data on hydroxychloroquine, probably by mid-June, after safety concerns prompted the group to pause the malaria drug’s use in a large trial on Covid-19 patients. Trump and others have promoted hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment, but the W.H.O. on Monday suspended trials after the British journal The Lancet reported that the medicine actually increased irregular heartbeats and the risk of death. Reuters reporting.

The Americas have emerged as the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the W.H.O. said yesterday, as a U.S. study predicted deaths rising sharply in Brazil and other Latin American countries through August. “Now is not the time for countries to ease restrictions,” Carissa Etienne, W.H.O. director for the Americas and head of the Pan American Health Organization (P.A.H.O.), said via videoconference. The Americas have documented over 2.4 million cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 143,000 Covid-19-related deaths. The Guardian reporting.

South Korea reported 40 new coronavirus cases today, its biggest daily jump in nearly 50 days, bringing the country’s total number to 11,265, as one of the country’s largest e-commerce companies tackled an outbreak linked to a now-closed logistics facility. Al Jazeera reporting.

Chinese scientists in recent days said they had dismissed both a laboratory and an animal market in the city of Wuhan as possible origins of the coronavirus pandemic, in their most comprehensive pushback to date against claims from U.S. officials and others over what might have triggered it. The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the heart of allegations around a potential laboratory accident, Wang Yanyi, over the weekend told China Central Television that the coronavirus was “significantly different” from any live pathogen that has been examined at the institute and that there therefore was “no chance” it could have escaped from there. Separately, China’s top epidemiologist said yesterday that testing of samples from a Wuhan food market, initially suspected as a route for the virus’s spread to humans, failed to show ties between animals being sold there and the pathogen. James T. Areddy reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Trump must choose between suspending U.S. funding to the W.H.O. and following through on his threat of withdrawal — he cannot do both, writes Jean Galbraith for Just Security.

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.

F.I.S.A.

House leaders have agreed to allow a vote on an amendment to a peripatetic bill related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) which will limit the F.B.I.’s power to collect the internet browsing records of Americans during national security investigations, after the amendment was introduced by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and negotiated over the Memorial Day weekend. The House intends to vote on the bill this week, with Davidson stating: “For too long, Americans’ most private information has been compromised by vague laws and lax privacy protections … With the vote on the Lofgren-Davidson Amendment to F.I.S.A. reform this week, we take an important step toward restoring Americans’ long-neglected Fourth Amendment rights … Protecting Americans’ internet browser searches from warrantless surveillance is a modest, though important first step.” Chris Mills Rodrigo reports for the Hill. 

President Trump has urged House Republicans to vote against the amendment to F.I.S.A. in this weeks’ vote, writing in a post on twitter: “I hope all Republican House Members vote NO on FISA until such time as our Country is able to determine how and why the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history took place!” Dustin Volz and Andrew Restuccia report for the Wall Street Journal. 

CHINA

President Trump is “displeased” with China’s recent move to introduce new security laws on Hong Kong and confirmed that the U.S. will announce its response this week. White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany told reporters yesterday that Trump found it “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over,” with the President adding at the White House news briefing, “We’re doing something now. I think you’ll find it very interesting … I’ll be talking about it over the next couple of days,” further adding that the U.S.’ response would not involve sanctions. Brett Samuels reports for the Hill. 

China will respond accordingly to any foreign interference in the country’s plan to push forward with new security laws in Hong Kong, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said yesterday in response to Trump’s earlier announcement. Reuters reporting. 

RUSSIA

Russia supports an immediate ceasefire in Libya between the internationally-recognized government and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told allies of Haftar yesterday. Reuters reporting. 

However, the U.S. yesterday accused Russia of sending fighter jets to Libya in support of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside eastern based commander Haftar’s forces. The U.S. African Command (Africom) said the planes had been “repainted to camouflage their Russian origin,” with Africom commander Gen. Stephen Townsend saying in a statement: “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya … For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia.” Sudarsan Raghavan and Robyn Dixon report for the Washington Post. 

Russia is in the process of building its first stealth bomber and could be completed by next year, the state-controlled TASS news agency reported yesterday, confirming it received its information from military sources. Reuters reporting. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least seven people were killed yesterday after Houthi fighters in Yemen targeted a military base of the Saudi-backed government in Marib province, northeast of the capital Sanaa. The missile assault occurred after the expiry of a one-month ceasefire announced on April 24 by the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting the Iran-aligned movement and which was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Reuters reporting.

Top military officials in the coming days are expected to present President Trump with several options for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, including a proposal that would pull out forces before the presidential election in November. The defense leaders also plan to propose and push for a slower draw down, as a sped-up timetable would threaten the peace deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes report for the New York Times.

Iran’s new parliament convened today, dominated by conservative lawmakers and under strict health protocols, as the country struggles to tackle the spread of the coronavirus that has hit the nation hard. The lawmakers were sworn in after many of them arrived for the opening ceremony donning face masks and observing social distancing regulations. Iranian media said temperatures were taken before entering the parliament building and all 268 lawmakers who were in attendance had tested negative for the virus. AP reporting.

Social media giant Twitter for the first time put a fact-check warning on two of Trump’s posts yesterday, describing the president’s claims about California’s plan to expand access to voting by mail in November due to the coronavirus outbreak as “unsubstantiated” and false. The move drew an angry response from Trump, who took to the platform to accuse Twitter of “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election.” “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!” Trump wrote. AFP reporting.

Trump’s outgoing acting director of national security Richard Grenell is expected to join Trump’s 2020 election campaign as a senior adviser focused on fundraising and strategy, those familiar with the matter said yesterday. Gabby Orr and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO. 

Trump’s defense of allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used staff for personal errands undercuts well settled ethics rules that apply to senior Executive Branch officials, writes professor of law and former Department of Defense (D.O.D.) Special Counsel Chris Jenkins for Just Security. 

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)