The Early Edition: July 16, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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. 

TWITTER HACK

Several prominent Twitter accounts, including those of former Vice President Joe Biden, former President Obama, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, were hacked yesterday in a major security breach. The social media giant confirmed the hack last night and attributed it to a “coordinated social engineering attack” on its own employees that enabled the hackers to access “internal systems and tools.” Twitter said it was “looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed” in addition to using the compromised accounts to send messages. Rachel Lerman, Cat Zakrzewski and Joseph Marks report for the Washington Post.

Reporting in Vice suggests it may have been an inside job. The accounts were taken over using internal Twitter controls, according to two sources, as well as screenshots of the tool obtained by Motherboard. One of the sources said they paid the Twitter insider. Joseph Cox reports for Vice.

US DEVELOPMENTS

The National Security Council (NSC) sent a catalog of allegations about Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to the Pentagon after he testified before the House in impeachment proceedings against President Trump, according to a source who has seen the document and two others who were briefed on it. The Pentagon received the list, which alleged that Vindman fostered a hostile work environment at the NSC, as he was on course to be promoted to colonel. The accusations outlined in it, if verified, would have kept him from moving up a rank in the Army, the people familiar with the document said. They said it was not the usual evaluation that military officers serving on the NSC are given when their temporary positions end and they are due to return to the Defense Department, as Vindman was scheduled to do roughly six months after the document was sent to the Pentagon. Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube report for NBC News.

Roger Stone yesterday accused two top House allies of Trump of privately lobbying against Trump’s decision to keep him out of prison last week. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik were among those who recommended Trump avoid granting Stone clemency before the election, fearing it could be bad politics for Republicans, Stone said during an appearance on a podcast hosted by fellow Trump supporter Charlie Kirk. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

Trump renewed his fight against a New York state grand-jury subpoena for financial records, including tax returns, telling a federal judge yesterday he would file additional objections to the Manhattan district attorney’s probe into hush-money payments made by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Last week, the Supreme Court dismissed the president’s claims of immunity from the subpoena, leaving Trump largely with the same mechanisms to fight the district attorney available to anyone under criminal investigation. In legal papers filed jointly with District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., lawyers for Trump said they intended to raise objections the Supreme Court laid out as potentially available, including possible claims that the subpoena was too broad, motivated by a desire to harass the president or to manipulate his policy decisions. Jess Bravin reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) yesterday declared that an operation has successfully led to the arrest of numerous leaders of the international criminal gang MS-13 as well as the first time one of its members has been charged with terrorism-related offenses. Trump, Attorney General William Barr and other law enforcement officials in a press conference disclosed that Project Vulcan led to dozens of arrests, including 13 in Nevada and eight in New York. Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

A senior Trump administration health official violated federal contracting rules by funneling millions of taxpayer dollars in contracts that ultimately profited GOP-aligned communications consultants, according to an inspector general report due to be released today. The contracts, which were ordered by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services chief Seema Verma, were only suspended after a POLITICO investigation raised questions about their legality and the agency had paid out more than $5 million to the contractors. The 70-page HHS inspector general report — the result of a 15-month review — urges HHS and CMS to take nine discrete actions to address the “significant deficiencies” that it identified. Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn report for POLITICO.

In an early morning, 5-4 order, the Supreme Court paved the way for the second federal execution this week. The decision, with all four liberal justices dissenting, comes after the court authorized the first federal execution since 2003 to go ahead on Tuesday. In an order put up after 3 a.m. today, the court lifted two separate injunctions blocking the execution of Wesley Purkey, who was convicted in 2003 of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl. Mark Berman and Tim Elfrink report for the Washington Post.

CORONAVIRUS

The tally of coronavirus infections reported in the United States is approaching 3.5 million, while over 137,400 Covid-19 related deaths have been recorded in the country, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 13.5 million cases of the novel coronavirus have been recorded worldwide, including at least 584,000 deaths. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

Public health experts and hospital officials are warning that a sudden change in how the Trump administration requires them to report coronavirus data will increase the pressure on facilities already overwhelmed by the pandemic. The opposition came after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notified governors and hospital leaders this week that it was changing the protocol for sending the federal government daily information about coronavirus hospitalizations, supplies and availability of intensive care beds. Administration officials say that replacing a database run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would “streamline reporting and lead to more efficient distribution of therapeutics, testing supplies and protective gear.” Officials also suggested that states might want to use the National Guard to help hospitals — an idea the industry has denounced. Amy Goldstein and Lena H. Sun report for the Washington Post.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, called White House attempts to discredit him “bizarre” in an interview with The Atlantic published yesterday. The interview with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director comes after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro wrote a brazen op-ed for USA Today saying Fauci had been “wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.” “Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that,” Fauci said in the interview. “When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts the president.” President Trump disavowed the Navarro op-ed yesterday, stating that Navarro was “speaking for himself.” Madeline Charbonneau reports for The Daily Beast.

More than 70 wealthy countries have signed up to a global coronavirus vaccine plan intended to ensure that any effective shots are fairly dispensed around the world — but which may also allow them to purchase more vaccines to stockpile for their own citizens. In a statement yesterday, the vaccines alliance Gavi reported that 75 countries have said they would take part in its new “Covax facility” along with another 90 low-income countries that hope to receive donated vaccines. The Associated Press reported this week that the Gavi initiative may allow rich nations to bolster their own coronavirus vaccine supplies while leaving fewer doses available for more vulnerable populations. AP 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.

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 AND POLICE REFORM

Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced several steps yesterday aimed at improving diversity and inclusion in the military — but was silent on the issues that have roiled the nation, including efforts to ban the Confederate flag and a growing movement to remove Confederate statutes and rename military bases honoring Confederate leaders. In a four-page memo released by the Pentagon, Esper ordered the military services to stop using service members’ photos for promotion boards, directed a review of grooming policies, and called for improved training for leadership to address prejudice. However, the memo made no mention of racially divisive symbols. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

A court yesterday made public new police body camera video taken during the arrest of George Floyd, showing him being distressed, apologetic and fearful before being pinned under an officer’s knee and ultimately dying. Footage from cameras worn by officers Thomas Lane and Alexander Kueng captured the scuffle between Floyd and the police, leading up to officer Derek Chauvin’s placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for about nine-and-a-half minutes — even longer than previously estimated. Shaquille Brewster and David K. Li report for NBC News.

The recent racial justice protests showed how American law enforcement has become militarized with free equipment from US armed forces. Army veterans Bishop Garrison, Benjamin Haas and Chris Purdy explain how Congress can halt that practice now in a piece for Just Security.

CHINA

The Trump administration is weighing a sweeping ban on travel to the US by members of the Chinese Communist Party and their family members, according to people familiar with the proposal, a step that would likely trigger retaliation against Americans seeking to enter or remain in China and worsen tensions between the two nations. The presidential proclamation is still in its draft form, and President Trump might ultimately reject it. The draft ban may also allow the U.S. to revoke visas of party members and their families who are already in the country, leading to their expulsion. Paul Mozur and Edward Wong report for the New York Times.

The Trump administration will place visa restrictions on certain employees of Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, who have been accused of enabling human rights abuses. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday said the U.S. would restrict unnamed workers of Chinese tech firms from coming to America. Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Primrose Riordan report for the Financial Times.

An analysis of Pompeo’s Monday statement on the South China Sea and the importance of international law, allies, and Law of the Sea is provided by Mark Nevitt at Just Security, who comments, “international law is not an optional switch that the United States can toggle on and off based upon policy preferences.”

IRAN

Iranian authorities are looking into a blaze that wrecked seven ships at a southern Iranian port, the latest in a series of fires and explosions that have raised suspicions of coordinated sabotage targeting the country’s infrastructure and a nuclear facility. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Benoit Faucon report for the Wall Street Journal.

Iran’s judiciary has indicated it might halt the executions of three young men convicted in connection with November’s mass anti-government protests, following an online campaign. The Persian hashtag #do_not_execute was used five million times in response to the Supreme Court’s announcement Tuesday that it had upheld their death sentences. Last night, the judiciary said its chief would consider any petition from the men to review their sentences. BBC News reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

At least 10 civilians, including six children and two women, were killed yesterday in an airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition in the mountainous northern Yemeni province of Jawf, Houthi rebels and a rights activist said. AP reporting.

The American military yesterday accused Russian mercenaries battling on the side of eastern Libya forces of planting land mines and improvised bombs in and around the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, said verified photographic evidence shows “indiscriminately placed booby traps and minefields” around the borders of Tripoli and all the way east toward the key coastal city of Sirte since mid-June. AP reporting.

Europe’s highest court today rejected a key trans-Atlantic agreement that allows thousands of businesses to move data between the European Union and the United States, causing uncertainty for companies who rely on transferring digital information seamlessly around the world. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that the accord, known as Privacy Shield, did not comply with European privacy rights. The ruling came in a clash between Facebook and Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems. Adam Satariano reports for the New York Times. 

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).