The Early Edition: June 29, 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. 

RUSSIAN BOUNTY INTELLIGENCE

President Trump yesterday denied that he had been briefed by officials on information that alleged Russia had secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militia groups for killing coalition groups in Afghanistan, including several U.S. troops — despite intelligence officials claiming that the president was informed about the matter earlier this year. The initial report by the New York Times, which came out Friday, stated that classified American intelligence assessments had found that Russian spy units paid members of the Taliban movement to carry out lethal attacks on American troops and that this information was included in the President’s Daily Brief. However, in a series of posts on Twitter, Trump maintained that his officials did not find the information “credible” and so did not report it to him. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also confirmed neither the president or vice president were “ever briefed on any intelligence alleged” by the Times’ report.  Barbara Starr, Devan Cole and Sarah Westwood report for CNN. 

Officials said the intelligence had been treated as a tightly held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it last week — including sharing details about it with the UK government, whose troops are among those said to have been targeted. Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz report for the New York Times.

Former national security adviser John Bolton said that Trump’s denial of being briefed on Russian bounties in Afghanistan shows his “fundamental focus” is not on the country’s national security. Bolton, who is currently going through a legal battle with the Trump administration over the publication of his White House memoir, said: “The fact that the President feels compelled to tweet about the news story here shows that what his fundamental focus is, is not the security of our forces, but whether he looks like he wasn’t paying attention,” adding that Trump denied knowledge “because it looks bad if Russians are paying to kill Americans and we’re not doing anything about it.” Devan Cole reports for CNN. 

Russia and the Taliban have denied claims that money was offered to Taliban-linked groups to killed coalition groups in Afghanistan. The Russian embassy said in a post on Twitter that the accusations were “baseless and anonymous,” with Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid taking a similar stance, describing the claims as “baseless” and an attempt to defame the group. Al Jazeera reporting.  

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS 

The National Security Agency (N.S.A.) accused Russia’s military intelligence unit, known as the G.R.U., of targeting email servers around the world in an announcement Thursday. The N.S.A. said a group of G.R.U. hackers attempted to use a vulnerability in computer networks to gain access to them, but would not state any specific networks. The announcement has been said to be unusually specific; “There has been a reluctance to be critical of Russia because of echoes of investigations,” said retired Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding: “For the N.S.A. to do that, in this climate, they must have absolutely incontrovertible evidence.” Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger report for the New York Times. 

Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Roger Stone, President Trump’s longtime friend and confidant, to report to prison by July 14 after being convicted last year for lying to Congress and witness tampering in the congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Stone requested his sentence be postponed until September due to fears over his health and coronavirus in prison; however, Jackson denied the request, giving him two weeks to report to Federal Correctional Institution, Jesup, where he will serve his 40-month sentence. Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO. 

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee has ordered that the Trump administration must release migrant children being detained with their parents in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania during the coronavirus pandemic. Gee ruled that any child detained for more than 20 days must be released; she cited the recent outbreak of Covid-19 in two centers, stating that these centers “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures.” Tal Axelrod reports for the Hill. 

The legal team of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. during investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, “found powerful allies” in government, including Attorney General William Barr, write Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman for the New York Times, explaining how these relationships were forged. 

Antitrust experts are alarmed by Department of Justice (D.O.J.) whistleblowers’ allegations against Barr but are even more concerned by the Office of Professional Responsibility (O.P.R.)’s rejection of the complaints, writes Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman for Just Security, detailing what 11 top antitrust experts told him on the matter. 

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus pandemic reached a grim milestone yesterday, with confirmed deaths topping half a million around the world and the number of cases surpassing 10 million, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The United States continues to lead in the number of infections, with more than 2.5 million and a death toll of 125,800 as of this morning. The countries with the next highest totals are Brazil, Russia, India and the United Kingdom. Yuliya Talmazan reports for NBC News.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said a Covid-19 vaccine may not be enough to produce herd immunity to stamp out the outbreak in the United States, partly because many Americans say they will not be vaccinated against the virus. Fauci noted that “there is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country.” He said given the strength of the anti-vaccine movement, “we have a lot of work to do” to educate people on the truth about vaccines. A CNN poll last month found one-third of Americans said they would not try to get vaccinated against Covid-19, even if the vaccine is widely available and inexpensive. Elizabeth Cohen reports for CNN.

At least 12 U.S. states, including Washington, have paused their reopening plans in an effort to lower spiking infection rates. With July 4 approaching, officials are trying not to repeat scenes of Memorial Day, when thousands across the country gathered at beaches, bars and parties while experts warned the crowds could lead to surges in cases later on. In Texas and parts of California, bars were ordered to shut back down while beaches in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach were ordered off-limits to the public during the upcoming holiday weekend; in Florida, on-premise alcohol consumption was suspended in pubs statewide. Christina Maxouris reports for CNN.

China has placed about 400,000 people under strict lockdown in Anxin county in Hebei province near Beijing, after just 18 fresh cases were detected. Officials announced yesterday that “all villages, communities and buildings will be fully closed” in Anxin. Only essential workers are permitted to leave their homes, while one member of a household is allowed to go out once a day to shop for necessities. BBC News reporting.

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. 

ANTI-RACISM PROTESTS

A suspect has been arrested after a fatal Saturday night shooting at a protest in Louisville, Kentucky over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman shot to death in her home, authorities said. The victim was identified yesterday as Tyler Gerth, 27, of Louisville. Suzanne Nuyen and Jason Slotkin report for NPR.

President Trump shared a video on Twitter yesterday showing one of his supporters shouting “white power” at anti-Trump protesters. The two-minute video, which was later deleted from the president’s feed, showed profane exchanges between protesters and Trump campaign supporters in Florida. After a protester called a Trump supporter a racist, the man responded by raising his fist and loudly shouting, “white power,” a slogan often used by white supremacists. Allan Smith reports for NBC News.

The legislature in Mississippi voted yesterday to remove the Confederate battle emblem from their state flag after 126 years, drawing broad bipartisan support for the historic decision. The Republican-dominated House and Senate voted 91 to 23 and 37 to 14, respectively, yesterday to retire the state flag — the last one in the country to prominently feature the Confederate emblem. The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who has pledged to sign it, saying the dispute over the flag had become as divisive as the flag itself. Scott Calvert and Talal Ansari report for the Wall Street Journal.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper will today present to the White House the different options available to the U.S. for reducing its military presence in Germany by around 10,000 troops, Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. Pentagon officials have said that Esper will propose bringing someone troops back to the U.S., rotating some around European countries and permanently stationing some in those countries. Nancy A. Youssef reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

Two employees of Afghanistan’s human rights body have been killed in a bomb attack in Kabul, the agency said. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said the workers died when a homemade “sticky bomb” attached to their vehicle exploded. No group has claimed responsibility for the incident. Al Jazeera reporting.

The United Nations top human rights official Michelle Bachelet urged Israel today to suspend its “illegal” plans to annex part of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and warned it could result in deadly clashes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the territory has drawn sharp criticism from the Palestinians, U.S. Arab allies and other foreign governments. His cabinet is set to start formal annexation deliberations on Wednesday, July 1. Reuters reporting.

A U.N. arms embargo against Iran due to expire later this year should be renewed to prevent it from “becoming the arms dealer of choice for rogue regimes and terrorist organizations around the world,” the Trump administration’s top envoy to Iran said yesterday. Brian Hook told The Associated Press that the world should ignore the Islamic Republic’s threats to retaliate if the weapons embargo is renewed, calling it a “mafia tactic.” AP reporting.

Beijing said today it will place visa restrictions on U.S. individuals with “egregious conduct” on Hong Kong-related matters, mirroring U.S. sanctions against unnamed Chinese officials thought to be responsible for curbing freedoms in the city. The announcement comes as the top decision-making body of China’s parliament considers a draft national security law for Hong Kong that pro-democracy activists in the city fear will be used to wipe out dissent and tighten Beijing’s control. Reuters reporting.

Eastern-based forces allied with renegade Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar have dispatched thousands of foreign mercenaries to fight in an imminent battle for the key city of Sirte. Local sources from the city of Kufra, in southeastern Libya, told Al Jazeera that several convoys of foreign fighters yesterday traveled through the city Ajdabiya, which is located between Benghazi and Sirte. Al Jazeera 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)