The Early Edition: June 23, 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. 

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS 

The House Judiciary Committee “has begun the process to issue [a] subpoena” to Attorney General William Barr to testify before the panel on July 2, chair of the committee Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) confirmed last night, a move that comes after the ousting of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman. Nadler and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-N.Y.) discussed the intention over the weekend and planned “to be ready” if Barr refused to show up to testify before the panel, according to Democratic sources familiar with the situation. Ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) responded to the House’s intention in a letter, stating: “The Attorney General had previously agreed to appear voluntarily in March, before you cancelled the hearing due to the coronavirus pandemic. Attorney General Barr remains willing to testify voluntarily once the pandemic concludes. Accordingly, there is no legitimate basis for you to compel his testimony at this time.” Hayley Talbot and Ann Caldwell report for NBC News. 

An extensive list of questions to be asked of Barr by Congress and news media is provided by Joshua Geltzer, Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa for Just Security. “At the very heart of the concerns about the current Attorney General is his apparent failure as the nation’s top law enforcement officer to apply the law equally to all Americans,” write the authors, inviting readers to send in their questions.

The White House admitted yesterday that President Trump was involved in the ousting of U.S. attorney Berman although Trump denied he was. Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, speaking from the White House yesterday and explaining the removal as a way to allow chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) Jay Clayton to take the post, said the president was “involved in the sign-off capacity … When Berman chose to respond in the way that he did, he (Barr) came to the president and the president agreed and fired this individual, Mr. Berman.” Reuters reporting. 

The day before Berman’s firing last week, he had refused to support the Department of Justice (D.O.J.)’s letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) urging him to ease certain Covid-19 restrictions, those familiar with the exchange confirmed yesterday. A letter was sent to de Blasio by head of the D.O.J.’s Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband Friday afternoon, which Berman had refused to sign the day before, and four hours later Barr announced plans to replace Berman. Shayna Jacobs reports for the Washington Post. 

Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, a top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee next week about the ousting of State Department Inspector General (I.G.) Steve Linick. Bulatao has become a central figure in the firing, after Linick testified before lawmakers on June 3 accusing the aide of attempting to “bully” him. Laura Kelly reports for the Hill. 

House Democrats of the Foreign Affairs and the Oversight committees yesterday called for senior State Department officials to testify over Linick’s removal. House chairs have currently scheduled depositions with at least six officials during over the next month, including: Pompeo’s executive secretary Lisa Kenna; Mike Miller, the deputy assistant secretary for defense trade; Toni Porter, a senior adviser in the department; Marik String, a former deputy assistant secretary; Charles Faulkner, a former principal deputy assistant secretary; and R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Political Military Affairs. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.  

A U.S. soldier has been accused of sending information to an “occult-based neo-Nazi and racially motivated violent extremist group,” known as Order of Nine Angles, in a plot to attack his own unit and cause mass causalities, prosecutors have confirmed. “Ethan Melzer, a private in the U.S. Army, was the enemy within,” said Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, adding that Melzer had tried “to orchestrate a murderous ambush on his own unit by unlawfully revealing its location, strength and armaments to a neo-Nazi, anarchist, white supremacist group.” The solider has allegedly admitted his intentions, with William Sweeney Jr., the assistant director in charge of the F.B.I.’s New York field office, stating: “Melzer declared himself to be a traitor against the United States, and described his own conduct as tantamount to treason. We agree.” BBC reporting. 

Ex-U.S. marine Paul Whelan who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage will not appeal his sentence, the Interfax news agency reported today, citing Whelan’s lawyer. Reuters reporting. 

IMMIGRATION

President Trump yesterday signed the executive order that will suspend some work visas – including H-1B, L-1 and other temporary work visas – to the end of 2020, senior officials have confirmed. The order has been criticized as further limiting immigration into the country, and will include: H-1B visas, designed for skilled works such as those working in tech industries; L-1 visas, which are for executives of large corporations; H-2B visas for seasonal staff such as hospitality and construction work; and J-1 visas, which are designated for research scholars. Michael D. Shear and Miriam Jordan report for the New York Times. 

An explainer of who will be affected by Trump’s new immigration executive order is provided by Catherine E. Shoichet for CNN. 

ANTI-RACISM PROTESTS

Members of the White House press corps were told to immediately leave the White House grounds by Secret Service personnel yesterday while a demonstration was taking place in Lafayette Square, where protesters were attempting to pull down a statue of former President Andrew Jackson. The U.S. Secret Service issued a statement early today, saying “On Monday evening, in response to the increasingly violent demonstrations in Lafayette Park, four members of the media were misdirected by the Secret Service to leave the White House grounds … The members of the press were rerouted to exits on the south side of the complex for their own safety.” The decision to evacuate members of the media from White House grounds is “highly unusual;” normally in security situations at the White House, the press corps is locked down inside the complex. Paul LeBlanc reports for CNN.

Questions about whether troops have experienced racism, anti-Semitism and supremacism while on duty would be added to Pentagon workplace checks under a provision in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill. The provision is included in the military personnel subcommittee’s section of the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) unveiled yesterday. The bill would also require the Pentagon to establish a way to monitor and report supremacist, extremist and criminal gang activity in the armed forces. The language comes at a time when the military is contending with racial issues in the wake of nationwide protests over police violence and racial injustice. But a committee aide told reporters that the two provisions follow a hearing the panel held in February on white supremacism in the military. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

Live updates on the protests are available at CNN.

CORONAVIRUS

More than 9.1 million cases of the novel coronavirus have been recorded worldwide, including over 472,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. There are now 2.3 million coronavirus infections in the United States and over 120,000 Covid-19 related deaths. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

Senate Democrats are asking the Health and Human Services Department (H.H.S.) watchdog to probe President Trump’s weekend claim that he ordered administration officials to “slow the testing down” in response to the recent surge in Covid-19 cases. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) sent a letter to the department’s acting inspector general yesterday asking to examine all coronavirus testing funding streams and programs “to determine whether any programs have been ‘slowed down’ at the request of President Trump.” While Congress has approved bipartisan legislation extending coronavirus testing, they wrote, “it appears, however, that President Trump does not support federal efforts to expand access to COVID-19 tests and has undermined efforts to increase testing.” Caroline Kelly reports for CNN.

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.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

The Trump administration said yesterday it will start treating four major Chinese media outlets as foreign embassies, accusing the Beijing-backed news organizations of promoting propaganda, in a move that is likely to worsen already-fraught diplomatic ties and prompt retaliation from China. “In order to ensure greater transparency of CCP-run operations in the United States, I directed the designation of four additional PRC propaganda outlets as foreign missions,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Twitter post. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the designations apply to China Central Television, the China News Service, the People’s Daily and the Global Times. Sabrina Rodriguez reports for POLITICO.

President Trump said he held off on imposing sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the Xinjiang mass detention camps to avoid interfering with his China trade deal. Trump admitted in an interview with Axios that he had not retaliated against Chinese Communist Party Officials or companies over Beijing’s internment camps that are used to hold Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities so as not to disturb negotiations. Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal. And I made a great deal, $250 billion potentially worth of purchases,” the president told interviewers, adding, “And when you’re in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden you start throwing additional sanctions on — we’ve done a lot. I put tariffs on China, which are far worse than any sanction you can think of.” Kristen Holmes reports for CNN.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels launched a “large-scale attack” on Saudi Arabia, the movement’s Al Masirah television said today, without providing further details. The Saudi-led coalition fighting the group for five years said it had intercepted and destroyed drones and missiles fired by the Houthis toward the capital Riyadh, in what it called a “deliberate hostile action designed to target civilians.” Reuters reporting.

The attack came after Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that Yemen’s southern separatist forces — backed by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and the country’s internationally recognized government — agreed to a ceasefire and will begin talks on implementing a peace deal after months of infighting. Al Jazeera reporting.

Two dozen human rights and humanitarian organizations called on U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres yesterday to reconsider his decision to remove the Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen’s government from a global blacklist of parties whose actions have killed or wounded children in conflict. The 24 non-governmental organizations also urged the U.N. chief to rethink taking Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, off the blacklist for recruiting and using children in conflict. In a letter to the secretary-general released yesterday, the organizations said they were “deeply disappointed and troubled” by the de-listings and “dismayed” at the discrepancies between information in his annual report on children in armed conflict published a week ago and his decisions on the blacklist. AP reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

The Taliban has killed more than 290 Afghan security personnel over the last week, a senior government official said, accusing the insurgent group of unleashing a wave of violence ahead of potential peace talks. The previous week was the “deadliest” in the country’s 19 years of conflict, Javid Faisal, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said yesterday. The Taliban group conducted 422 attacks in 32 provinces during the past week, killing 291 security personnel and injuring 550 others, Faisal said on Twitter. “Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence is meaningless, and their actions inconsistent with their rhetoric on peace,” he said. Al Jazeera reporting.

U.S. and Russian negotiators held much-anticipated nuclear talks yesterday, as the Trump administration pushes for an ambitious new deal to replace the New START treaty, which expires in February. Marshall Billingslea, the top U.S. envoy on arms control, posted a message on Twitter that his daylong meeting in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had been “constructive.” Technical working groups, he added, had been set up, and the two sides had agreed in principle to hold a further round of talks. The U.S. and China exchanged gibes yesterday over Beijing’s refusal to join the negotiations. Michael R. Gordon reports for the Wall Street Journal.

A fact-finding mission to Libya has been set up by the United Nations’ top rights body after prosecutors from the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) said that mass graves uncovered recently may amount to war crimes. The U.N. Human Rights Council yesterday adopted by consensus a resolution strongly denouncing all acts of violence in Libya and urging U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet to send a fact-finding mission to the North African country. Al Jazeera reporting.

Prosecutors at the I.C.C. said “grave errors” were made in acquittal last year of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo on charges of crimes against humanity for his part in post-election violence in Ivory Coast in 2010-2011, as they started their bid to overturn the decision at an appeals hearing yesterday. The I.C.C. said in January last year that prosecutors had not succeeding in proving any case against Gbagbo. Prosecutors at the Hague-based court in the Netherlands have appealed the decision mostly on procedural grounds, arguing that there were legal faults with the way the decision was announced and the way evidence was weighed up. Reuters 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

Assistant 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)