The Early Edition: June 30, 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 was given a written briefing in late February about intelligence suggesting Russia privately offered and paid bounties for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported last night, citing two officials, after the president said on Sunday he was not told of the allegations because the information was not “credible.” Further, a description of the intelligence assessment was also deemed “serious and solid” enough to distribute more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium more commonly known as The Wire, the two officials said. Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times.

CNN said an official with direct knowledge confirmed that the intelligence was included in a daily written briefing “sometime in the spring.” Barbara Starr and Paul LeBlanc report for CNN.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that senior White House officials were aware as early as March 2019 of intelligence relating to the Russian bounties and the assessment was included in at least one of the president’s written daily briefings at the time, citing multiple officials. That timeline would mean the White House knew of the intelligence one year earlier than other news outlets have reported — and before an April 2019 car explosion that killed three Marines could be linked to the alleged plot. AP reporting. 

The reports emerged after White House officials briefed House Republicans yesterday on the issue and explained that there was an ongoing review of the bounty claims even before the story broke. A group of Democratic members is set to receive a similar briefing this morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confirmed yesterday, as Democrats were notably absent from yesterday’s meeting. Kyle Cheney, Jake Sherman and Heather Caygle report for POLITICO.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers made clear yesterday that they will press the White House for answers about the intelligence assessments and why President Trump apparently was not briefed on the threat to U.S. troops. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded that all members of Congress be briefed on the news reports; in a letter to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel, Pelosi said, “Congress and the country need answers now.” Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, joined the panel’s chair, Adam Smith (D-Wash.), in asking the Department of Defense for a briefing. “The American people – and our service members – deserve to know the truth about what the White House knew about these Russian operations that may have directly resulted in the deaths of American service members,” Smith said. Rebecca Kheel and Olivia Beavers report for The Hill.

While making her case yesterday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany appeared to contradict Trump on two major points, CNN’s Marshall Cohen writes in an analysis for CNN. 

IRAN

Iran has issued an arrest warrant for President Trump over the January killing of top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani and appealed to Interpol for help in detaining Trump. Tehran prosecutor Ali Alqasimehr said Iran has charged Trump and 35 others with “murder and terrorism” in connection with the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed the commander of Iran’s Quds Force in Baghdad, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. No other officials were immediately identified in the warrant, but said Iran would continue pushing for Trump’s prosecution after he leaves office. Interpol said it would not consider the Iranian request, and Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, dismissed the warrant as a propaganda stunt that nobody would take seriously. AP reporting.

Saudi and U.S. officials yesterday urged the U.N. Security Council to extend the 13-year old arms embargo on Iran, which is currently set to end in October under Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, saying that failing to do so would risk a renewed weapons race in the Middle East. BBC News reporting.

Commercial satellite photographs show that a huge explosion on the edge of Tehran last week occurred at a missile production facility not far from Parchin, a base laced with underground tunnels and long thought to be a key site for Iran’s expanding arsenal, even though the Iranian government quickly dismissed the incident as a gas explosion at the Parchin military base. “But beyond Tehran’s effort at misdirection … it is unclear whether the cause was an accident, sabotage or something else,” David E. Sanger, Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi report for the New York Times.

HONG KONG

Beijing has passed a wide-ranging national security law for Hong Kong that many fear will erode civil and political freedoms and clear the way for China to cement its control over the semi-autonomous territory. Less than 40 days after Chinese lawmakers first proposed imposing an anti-sedition law on Hong Kong, Beijing’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), today adopted the measure, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature, according to officials and multiple media reports. The full text of the law had not yet been disclosed to the public. Lily Kuo and Verna You report for The Guardian.

The U.S. will halt defense exports to Hong Kong and take steps to impose new restrictions on shipments of dual-use technologies in response to Beijing pushing forward on national security legislation for Hong Kong, top Trump administration officials said yesterday. “The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to eviscerate Hong Kong’s freedoms has forced the Trump Administration to re-evaluate its policies toward the territory,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

More than 10.3 million cases of the novel coronavirus have been recorded worldwide, including over 505,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. There are now almost 2.6 million coronavirus infections in the United States and at least 126,000 Covid-19 related deaths. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over and “is actually speeding up,” the World Health Organization (W.H.O.)’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned yesterday. Speaking at a briefing in Geneva, Tedros denounced governments that have failed to establish reliable contact tracing to halt the spread of the coronavirus. He said the solution is the same as it has been since the initial days of the pandemic: “Test, trace, isolate and quarantine.” Scott Neuman reports for NPR.

W.H.O. is sending a team to China next week to probe the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tedros said. “Knowing the source of the virus is very, very important,” the W.H.O. chief told a virtual press conference yesterday. The United States, the W.H.O.’s biggest critic which has said it is quitting the U.N. agency, has previously urged an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. Reuters reporting.

At least 16 U.S. states have halted their reopening plans as new coronavirus cases are spiking there and nationwide compared to the previous week. In an about-face, Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered the states bars, nightclubs, gyms, cinemas and water parks to close down amid thousands of new coronavirus cases in the state. Florida and Texas have also performed U-turns on lifting restrictions as the whole U.S. Sun Belt region becomes a new virus epicenter. BBC News reporting.

Gilead Sciences Inc. outlined its pricing plans for Covid-19 drug remdesivir, saying it will charge American hospitals $3,120 for a typical patient. The drugmaker yesterday shared its pricing plans as it prepares to start charging for the drug in July. The U.S. has been distributing remdesivir donated by Gilead since the medicine was approved for emergency use in May. Joseph Walker reports for the Wall Street Journal.

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. 

ANTI-RACISM PROTESTS

A judge has tentatively set a trial date of March 8 for the four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death. Ex-officer Derek Chauvin, who was filmed May 25 holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for around eight minutes, is charged with second-degree murder, while the other three former officers — Tou Thao,  J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — are charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin. The four men appeared before a judge yesterday for a joint hearing, with Chauvin appearing remotely from a state prison and Thao, Kueng and Lane in person. Julie Wernau and Joe Barrett report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate is ready to challenge President Trump this week with legislation compelling the military to rename bases bearing the names of Confederate generals, a proposal that is turning out to be one of the most controversial items in this year’s annual defense bill. In the Senate, the key issue seems to be timing: the bill that emerged from the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision giving the Pentagon three years to submit new names, while an amendment filed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and 35 other Senate Democrats last week would accelerate that process, requiring the name changes within a year. Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post.

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS 

Roger Stone’s underlying health issues are “medically controlled” and the prison he is being sent to has no confirmed cases of coronavirus, Judge Amy Berman Jackson noted in a newly unsealed opinion that adds rationale to her decision to reject the longtime Trump ally’s request for an additional 60-day delay of his prison term. Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO. 

The G.O.P. Steering Committee yesterday selected Rep. James Comer of Kentucky to be the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, placing him at the fore of fighting Democratic oversight efforts and filling a major post that has gone without a permanent leader for months. During a private Steering panel meeting in the basement of the Capitol, Republicans tapped Comer — a businessman and farm owner who served as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture — to be the ranking member of the Oversight panel. Melanie Zanona reports for POLITICO. 

“While the opinion of the [federal appeals court] panel is grievously wrong, and as premature and ill reasoned as its decision [to order Judge Emmett Sullivan to dismiss the prosecution against former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the F.B.I.] was, the court reached the result that almost certainly will be required by law after any hearing that the full court could constitutionally authorize Judge Sullivan to conduct,” former U.S. Court of Appeals judge J. Michael Luttig argues in an op-ed for the New York Times.

An Open Letter from former U.S. military commanders and Judge Advocates to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives that addresses three points of similarity between the §540F proposal and the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2020 (MJIA 2020) is available on the Just Security website, with an introduction by Geoffrey S. Corn, Chris Jenks and Timothy C. MacDonnell.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

At least 23 civilians were killed and dozens of others wounded when rockets struck a crowded livestock market in southern Afghanistan yesterday, with the government and the Taliban blaming each other for the attack. Reuters reporting.

The United Nations is pushing governments at a virtual conference today for nearly $10 billion in aid for Syria, to help refugees enduring Syria’s ninth year of armed conflict, as the coronavirus and soaring food prices exacerbate the plight of millions. Al Jazeera reporting.

President Trump’s Executive Order declaring the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) to be a national security threat is “likely only the tip of the iceberg,” Special Adviser to the I.C.C. Leila Sadat writes as part of a series for Just Security, commenting, “if the administration can deem the I.C.C. a threat to national security, it could use the same tactic on every international institution with which it has a difference of view and any person or entity with whom it disagrees” — including the World Health Organization and the Human Rights Council.

A bipartisan group of senators is trying to impose limits on Trump’s ability to remove troops from Germany unless the administration is able to meet a bunch of requirements.  The proposal, led by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), would bar the administration from slashing the number of active-duty troops in Germany below 34,500 unless the Pentagon can certify to Congress that it “is in the national security interest of the United States” and would not negatively weaken European alliances or N.A.T.O.. Jordain Carney reports for The Hill. 

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).