The Early Edition: July 24, 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. 

US-CHINA RELATIONS

China today ordered the US to shut its consulate in Chengdu in response to the American closure of China’s consulate in Houston, another escalatory move between the two superpowers. China had warned the U.S. that it would retaliate if forced to vacate its Houston consulate and urged America to reconsider. “The measure taken by China is a legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the United States,” said a foreign ministry statement, adding: “The current situation in Chinese-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see. The United States is responsible for all this … We once again urge the United States to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track.” Lily Kuo reports for The Guardian.

The head of China’s Houston consulate has made clear the office’s doors will not be closing “until further notice,” in an act of defiance to State Department demands that the consulate must close by today. Cai Wei, the Chinese Consul General in Houston, said in an interview with POLITICO: “Today we are still operating normally, so we will see what will happen tomorrow … We think that the demand from the U.S. side … is not according to the Vienna convention on consular affairs and also is not according to international practice or [diplomatic] norms, and it violates the China-U.S. consular treaty,” He added: “We prepared for the worst scenario but we’ve also launched a strong protest … so we urge the U.S. to abandon and revoke that wrong decision.” Gavin Bade reports for POLITICO.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday blasted China and called for an end to “blind engagement” with the communist country.  Pompeo’s remarks at the Nixon Library yesterday, titled “Communist China and theFree World’s Future,” said: “If the free world doesn’t change Communist China — [it] will surely change us … We, the free nations of the world, must induce change in the [Chinese Communist Party’s] behavior in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity.” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

US DEVELOPMENTS           

A US judge yesterday ordered the release of President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen after concluding he was put back in jail due to a retaliation that he planned to publish a tell-all book on the president. Judge Alvin Hellerstein said that Cohen must be released from prison today and returned to home confinement, stating: “How can I take any other inference but that it was retaliatory?” He added that Cohen’s return to prison was “retaliatory because of his desire to exercise his First Amendment rights to publish a book and to discuss anything about the book or anything else he wants on social media and with others.” BBC reporting.

Trump’s first intelligence briefing as a candidate in Aug. 2016 was led by FBI agents who had just recently initiated investigations into Trump’s team’s ties to Russia, according to newly declassified documents POLITICO obtained. A seven-page summary document of the intelligence briefing by an FBI agent formed part of the Crossfire Hurricane probe, the bureau’s wide-spanning Russia investigation. The document was declassified by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe yesterday and sent to Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who are currently investigating the origins of the Russia probe. Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report for POLITICO.

The National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned yesterday that foreign hackers have been attempting to target critical infrastructure in the US. NSA and CISA made specific reference in their warnings to internet-connected operational technology (OT) assets often being the target of cyber-attacks. The agencies have warned in a joint statement that infrastructure operators and owners should take “immediate action” to ensure their systems are protected. They added: “Due to the increase in adversary capabilities and activity, the criticality to U.S. national security and way of life, and the vulnerability of OT systems, civilian infrastructure makes attractive targets for foreign powers attempting to do harm to US interests or retaliate for perceived US aggression.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

House Democrats have condemned a plan by the DHS to redistribute nearly $170 million in federal funds, $21 million of which the agency wants to use for surge operations at the southern border. Chair of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), sent a letter to DHS Secretary Chad Wolf criticizing him of the announcement. Caitlin Emma reports for POLITICO.

House Democrats pushed forward legislation yesterday that would provide lawmakers with a new authority to scrutinize the use of executive clemency. The measure was approved by the House Judiciary Committee and is arguably the biggest attempt by Congress to curtail the clemency powers of the president provided by the Constitution. The legislation is far from becoming law, but if it were to then it would most likely be challenged in the courts by Trump. Nicholas Fandos reports for the New York Times.

As part of the Senate’s new annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), DHS would be given new cybersecurity agency subpoena powers. The provision was introduced by Chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Sen. Maggie Hassan, and would allow CISA to issue subpoenas to internet service providers and require them to hand over information on cyber vulnerabilities detected on critical infrastructure organizations’ networks. “Every day our adversaries target our critical infrastructure, including our electric grids, dams, and airports, and every day, CISA is made aware of vulnerabilities to these systems — some easily fixable — but is powerless to warn the potential victims,” Johnson said in a statement. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz yesterday announced that his office will be investigating the actions of DOJ law enforcement at protests in recent months. A statement by Horowitz said that he intends to review the actions of DOJ personnel in Portland and Washington D.C., particular the much-criticized response to protests in Lafayette Square on June 1. “The review will include examining the training and instruction that was provided to the DOJ law enforcement personnel; compliance with applicable identification requirements, rules of engagement, and legal authorities; and adherence to DOJ policies regarding the use of less-lethal munitions, chemical agents, and other uses of force,” the statement read. Also, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG) Joseph Cuffari announced yesterday that his office will too be investigating allegations that against DHS’s enforcement during protests. Max Cohen reports for POLITICO.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked federal law enforcement officers deployed in Portland from targeting journalists and legal observers at protests against police violence and racial injustice. U.S. District Judge Michael Simon yesterday issued a temporary restraining order (TRO), lasting for 14 days, prohibiting federal agents from “arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force” journalists and legal observers, unless they have cause to believe they have committed a crime. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

President Trump’s administration yesterday expanded its federal enforcement presence in Seattle.Federal agents from the Special Response Team, which operates under the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will be in the area on duty, but on standby, “should they be required,” the Federal Protective Service said in a statement. Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Adam Goldman and Mike Baker report for the New York Times.

King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee yesterday ordered five news organizations, including Seattle Times, to hand over to Seattle’s Police Department unpublished photos and videos that capture a scene of protestors smashing windows, setting cars on fire and looting business. However, the order has been criticized as putting reporters and journalists at risk, with the Times’s executive editor, Michele Matassa Flores, stating: “The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public … We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.” Tim Elfrink reports for the Washington Post.

The Senate yesterday passed its defense policy bill that plans to remove Confederate names from military bases. A vote of 86-14 on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) means that threats by Trump to veto the proposals could be overrode. The Senate’s passing of their defense bill comes a day after the House passed its own version, and so now the two must hash it out between themselves over the final details and version of the bill. Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected almost 4.04 million and killed over 144,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 15.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 634,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The White House and Senate Republicans were yesterday unable to reach an agreement on a wide-ranging coronavirus legislative relief package due to be announced this week, pushing the release of any final details back until next week. “The administration has requested additional time to review the fine details, but we will be laying down this proposal early next week. We have an agreement in principle on the shape of this package,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday released its new guidelines for reopening schools in the US, putting great emphasis on the importance of getting students back in classrooms. The guidelines make clear that it is of “critical” importance for schools to open in-person, removing a statement from earlier guidelines that “virtual-only classes, activities, and events” are “lowest risk.” The CDC makes clear that students remaining at home will be impacted by social, emotional and mental health risks. Shannon Pettypiece reports for NBC News.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert and key member of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said yesterday that the US “could start talking about real normality again” in 2021. Fauci, speaking to CNN’s David Axelrod, said companies leading the race to find a new vaccine had told him that “that they would have doses to the tunes of tens of millions early in the year, and up to hundreds of millions as we get well into 2021, and some companies say that even after awhile, you could get as many as a billion doses.” He added that getting back to normality was going to be a “gradual process,” dependant on a vaccine being rolled out to the majority of the population. 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.

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.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Several passengers aboard an Iranian airline were injured yesterday over Syria after the pilot suddenly changed altitude to avoid a collision with a US fighter jet, according to Iranian media, However, U.S. military officials have said the F-15 warplane was at a safe distance from the airliner. Al Jazeera reporting.

The US military has accused Russia of conducting anti-satellite weapons tests in space earlier this month. U.S. Space Command said in statement yesterday that Russian satellite Cosmos 2543 released a new object into orbit, characterizing the move as a “non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill. 

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)