The Early Edition: July 9, 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

Three “dimensions” of President Trump’s response to intelligence that Russia was paying bounties to Taliban-linked groups to kill US troops are likely to have contributed to Russia feeling like they could get away with what they are accused of, writes Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman for Just Security. He reveals that “Trump directed the CIA to share intelligence information on counterterrorism with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward,” according to former intelligence officials who served in the Trump administration.

Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov yesterday called reports on Russian bounties a “downright lie,” which are “poisoning the atmosphere of cooperation” between the two counties on Afghan peace matters. Speaking from Washington, Antonov said: “No concrete evidence has been presented” to substantiate the claims made in the report, adding that the report’s authors are “trying to create an impression that our country is an enemy of the United States.” He made clear that the accusations would negatively affect U.S.-Russia relations, which could lead “to the collapse of strategic stability [in Afghanistan].” Karen DeYoung reports for the Washington Post.

Many top US officials have questioned the credibility and conclusiveness of the intelligence reports, but this detracts from the fundamental issue that the US intelligence community has long been suspicious of, and conducted investigation into, Russian support for enemy groups in Afghanistan, yet Trump has said little publicly about this. Trump’s attempts to foster healthy relationships with Russia have contradicted many officials’ suspicion of the country; Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command told reporters this week that: “We should always remember, the Russians are not our friends … And they are not our friends in Afghanistan. And they do not wish us well.” Ken Dilanian, Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report for NBC News.

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in the impeachment hearings against President Trump, announced yesterday that he is retiring from the military, with his lawyers stating that Vindman was the victim of a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” by the president. Vindman, who was dismissed from the White House after testifying in the impeachment case, was expected to be promoted to full colonel this year. However, a number of government officials had indicated that the promotion would potentially be blocked by the White House, although Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed in writing that he had no intention of blocking Vindman’s “expected and deserved promotion.” Dareh Gregorian and Courtney Kube report for NBC News.

Social media giant Facebook yesterday removed a network of over 100 Roger Stone-affiliated accounts as they engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Stone, a longtime friend and confidant of Trump, is soon to serve a 40-month sentence after being convicted last year for lying to Congress and witness tampering in the congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post that Stone had used the network to intentionally deceive the public. Kyle Cheney and Steven Overly report for POLITICO.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday filed a lawsuit against Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over an order announced recently that would withdraw visas from foreign student whose courses are fully online, a move that many have condemned as pressuring students to attend in-person classes, despite a surge in coronavirus cases. Harvard’s president, Lawrence S. Bacow said, “We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students — and international students at institutions across the country — can continue their studies without the threat of deportation,” but Trump said the move was “ridiculous.” BBC reporting.

The US Supreme Court is set to decide whether President Trump’s tax returns and other financial records can be released to Congress and prosecutors, a decision which if answered in the affirmative will have a huge impact on the future relationship between lawmakers and the White House. The court’s ruling is likely to be given today; if it rejects Trump’s challenge to block subpoenas by Congress or New York prosecutors, the public are likely to see Trump’s tax returns, which he has long fought hard to keep private. Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is expected to resume federal executions next week, the first of their kind since 2003. Three executions by legal injection will happen next week at a prison in Indiana, according to the Associated Press. Despite a ban on family members being able to visit prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic, relatives are expected to be permitted to observe the execution. John Bowden reports for The Hill.

Over 100 House Democrats have urged the Trump administration to end a ban on transgender people serving in the military, following a recent Supreme Court decision that prohibited discrimination against LGBT workers. The 116 Democrats, led by Rep. Suzan DelBene (Wash.), sent a letter yesterday to Esper and Attorney General William Barr calling for the Department of Defense to end its discriminatory policy and the D.O.J. to negotiate an end to the many lawsuits brought against the ban. “Prolonging the litigation in the face of almost certain defeat, and thereby prolonging the existing policy, will continue to inflict serious harm on transgender people seeking to serve our country and on those already serving while living in the shadows, enduring the dignitary harm of being told they’re a burden,” the letter read, continuing: “This policy is an attack on transgender service members who are risking their lives to serve our country, and it should be reversed immediately.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee yesterday approved its fiscal 2021 defense spending bill and will now be voted on by the full committee next week. The $694.6 billion bill would include $626.2 billion in base budget funding and $68.4 billion for the overseas contingency operations account. Most notably, the bill has designated $1 million for renaming army bases or property named after Confederate military officers. It also includes provisions that seek to block Trump’s attempts to use defense funding to finance his U.S.-Mexico border. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The United States reported more than 60,000 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, the biggest increase ever reported by a country in a single day and the fifth national record set in nine days, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The U.S., with a total of 3 million cases and 132,300 deaths, accounts for about a quarter of the world’s 12 million cases and 549,800 deaths. Helen Sullivan reports for The Guardian.

The top health official in Tulsa, Okla., suggested yesterday that a rise in cases in and around the city was likely connected to the contentious indoor campaign rally President Trump held there last month. The New York Times reporting.

Trump yesterday threatened to cut off federal aid to schools that refuse to fully reopen as he pressured the government’s top public health experts to tone down recommendations for how the nation’s schools could reopen safely this fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) yesterday said that it would issue new guidelines, after President Trump bashed its previous ones. Peter Baker, Erica L. Green and Noah Weiland report for the New York Times.

Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the World Health Organization (WHO) will undermine global efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic as well other deadly diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and HIV, public health experts say. The Trump administration formally notified the United Nations and Congress of the decision to leave the W.H.O. on Tuesday; the U.S. withdrawal would become effective July 6, 2021. Dan De Luce reports for NBC News.

The Trump administration plans to deny asylum to immigrants who are deemed a public health risk. The soon-to-be published rule would allow the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to block migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. based on “potential international threats from the spread of pandemics,” according to a notice announcing it yesterday. The rule would cover immigrants seeking asylum and those seeking “withholding of removal” — a protected immigration status for those who have demonstrated they may well face danger if sent back to their home countries. Julia Ainsley and Adiel Kaplan report for NBC News.

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.

RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM 

Newly released transcripts of the minutes leading up to George Floyd’s death reveal he told officers “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times, only to have his plea dismissed by Derek Chauvin, the white officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, who yelled back at him to “stop talking, stop yelling, it takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.” The chilling transcripts of body camera video recordings were disclosed in court yesterday as part of an effort by one of the officers on the scene, Thomas Lane, to have charges that he aided and abetted Floyd’s murder dismissed. Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Kim Barker report for the New York Times.

The transcripts make clear Floyd tried to cooperate with police and complained of being claustrophobic as they tried to get him in a squad car. Holly Bailey reports for the Washington Post.

New York Attorney General Letitia James recommended that New York City’s mayor relinquish sole control over the city police commissioner’s hiring, in a preliminary report released yesterday on her probe into the policing of recent protests. She called for the creation of a commission with representatives from the mayor, City Council, public advocate and comptroller who would manage hiring and promotion of senior New York Police Department officials. The commission would have the last word on the department’s budget and officer discipline. “There should be an entirely new accountability structure for NYPD,” James said in her report, which also recommended giving more power to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city agency that examines police misconduct. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office dismissed the idea of a new commission. Reuters reporting.

SYRIA

A Russian attempt to get the United Nations to reduce cross-border humanitarian aid to war-torn Syria was voted down by the Security Council yesterday with just four countries on the 15-member body backing the measure, an official said. Russia presented the proposal after it joined China on Tuesday in vetoing a one-year extension to aid deliveries from Turkey through the two border junctions at Bab al-Salam, which leads to the Aleppo region, and Bab al-Hawa, which serves the Idlib region. The Russian resolution suggested halving humanitarian access by using only one crossing for six months. Al Jazeera reporting.

The United States’ new Caesar Act sanctions on Syria, which came into force last month, apply even to transactions with no direct link to the US. In a piece for Just Security, Rebecca Barber argues these sanctions contribute to the humanitarian crisis and violate international law, but there are alternatives.

CHINA

The FBI is looking into exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui and the money used to finance his media efforts in the US, including his work with Steve Bannon, a former senior adviser to President Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. F.B.I. national security agents in recent months have asked people who know the pair for details on Guo’s activities, including the source of funds of a media company tied to him that hired Bannon in 2018 as a consultant, the people said. The probe has been going on for over six months, and prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn have been involved, some of the people said. Aruna Viswanatha, Brian Spegele and Rebecca Davis O’Brien report for the Wall Street Journal.

NATO has been so fixed on Moscow that it has missed Beijing’s growing political clout across Europe, Lauren Speranza argues in a piece for Foreign Policy.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned the United Nations Security Council that the conflict in Libya has entered a new phase with “unprecedented levels” of foreign interference. “Time is not on our side in Libya,” Guterres told a video-teleconference meeting of the Council, calling on the international community to seize every opportunity to push for a truce. The UN News Centre reporting.

The United States criticized yesterday at a United Nations investigation into the American drone attack that killed a top Iranian general, saying it gave “a pass to terrorists.” A top United Nations investigator denounced the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January as unlawful, saying Washington failed to provide adequate evidence that he posed an immediate threat to American interests to justify the drone strike. Agnes Callamard, the U.N.’s expert on extrajudicial killings, also deemed illegal Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes five days later, which targeted a base in Iraq accommodating U.S. troops. Sune Engel Rasmussen reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

About the Author(s)

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)

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).