The Early Edition: July 27, 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.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Protests and riots erupted across US states over the weekend in response to police violence against black people and racial injustice in the country. Many protests turned violent this weekend, including in Portland, Seattle, Texas, California and Virginia: in Portland, Oregon thousands gathered Saturday evening, attacking a federal courthouse building and pulling down part of a perimeter fence put up to protect the building, and throwing rocks and bottles at federal agents; in Seattle, Washington protesters set ablaze buildings and cars, including a King County court building, and attempted to destroy security cameras; and in Austin, Texas a man protesting was shot dead by an individual that drove a car at protesters. Matthews S. Schwartz reports for NPR.

The United Nations (UN) human rights office Friday called for federal security forces to limit their use of force in response to protesters, responding to particular concerns with recent policing in Portland, Oregon. “Peaceful demonstrations that have been taking place in cities in the U.S., such as Portland, really must be able to continue without those participating in them — and also, the people reporting on them, the journalists — risking arbitrary arrest or detention, being subject to unnecessary, disproportionate or discriminatory use of force, or suffering other violations of their rights,” said the office’s spokesperson, Elizabeth Throssell. She expressed particular “worry” that some officers were not wearing any identifiable markings or badge numbers, and made clear that “any victims of unnecessary or excessive use of force do have the right to remedy, and there should be, as we often say, prompt, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into any allegations of human rights violations, and that should ensure that those responsible are held accountable.” Throssell also announced that the U.N. Human Rights Committee will issue guidance on Wednesday covering protests, public order and the media’s involvement in such. The UN News Centre reporting.

The FBI made clear Friday that it is investigating “criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security,” not ideology, in protests in Portland. Renn Cannon, special agent who leads Portland’s FBI field office, said in a statement Friday that the bureau is investigating “specific violations of federal law, including arson, the use of improvised explosive devices, and interstate transportation of stolen goods,” making clear that the bureau’s focus is on people who commit federal crimes. “The FBI does not and will not police ideology,” the top agent stressed. J. Edward Moreno reports for The Hill.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) opined Sunday that slavery was a “necessary evil” on which the US nation was built. Whilst speaking to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cotton dismissed arguments that America was systemically racist. He is also introducing legislation that aims to block federal funds for New York Times’ 1619 Project, an initiative aimed at focusing on the historicity of the U.S. and slavery. “The entire premise of the New York Times’ factually, historically flawed 1619 Project … is that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable,” Cotton said. Bryan Armen Graham reports for The Guardian.

An insightful perspective on the surge in violent protests is provided by Associated Press reporters – one of whom was inside federal buildings with federal officers during violent protests, and another who was outside with crowds – in a Twitter thread by Mike Balsamo, which highlights the significance of reporting during nationwide protests that continue to grow in fury and violence.

Federal enforcement agents deployed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “are not there to enforce the law … they are acting as a paramilitary wing to assist the president in his longstanding goal to (in his words) “take over” US cities run by Democrats,” writes Elizabeth Goitein for Just Security. Goitein explains why President Trump has resorted to using federal forces, why the DHS is the president’s go to weapon of choice and what this means for the 2020 elections.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected 4.2 million and killed nearly 147,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 16.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 650,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Florida has reported more coronavirus cases (423,855) than New York state (411,736), which was once the epicenter of the outbreak in the US. Only California, the most populous state in America, has more, with 450,242 cases. Rachel Treisman reports for NPR.

Republicans plan to release their proposals for a fresh round of stimulus today, including $1,200 per person in direct payments, an extended moratorium on evictions and reduced federal unemployment benefits. Trump administration officials previewed text of the proposed bill yesterday, with benefits passed in March due to expire by the end of the month — risking an abrupt end to measures that have supported the U.S. economy during the coronavirus pandemic. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin mentioned in a Fox News Sunday interview the possibility of passing a new round of stimulus bit by bit, rather than in one single bill, an approach previously dismissed by Democrats. Kadhim Shubber reports for the Financial Times.

The Trump administration is going to invest another $472 million into expanding Moderna’s clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of its coronavirus vaccine candidate. Moderna announced yesterday that the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA, is providing the additional dollars the day before the phase three trial of the vaccine candidate is slated to commence. Rachel Roubein reports for POLITICO.

North Korea declared a state of emergency and a lockdown in a border town yesterday after one person in the country was suspected of being positive for Covid-19. State news agency KCNA reported yesterday North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened an emergency politburo meeting after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned to the North Korean border city of Kaesong with symptoms of “the vicious virus.” Reuters reporting.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the US is available at the New York Times.

US and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian.

INTEL ASSESSMENT ON FOREIGN ELECTION INTERFERENCE

China, Russia and Iran are “expanding [their] influence efforts” in the US ahead of the 2020 presidential election, National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) director William R. Evanina said in a statement 100 days before Americans will vote. “We’re primarily concerned with China, Russia and Iran — although other nation-states and nonstate actors could also do harm to our electoral process,” the statement read. Evanina’s warning did not go as far as to say China was attempting to hack the vote but did say they were using their influence “to shape the policy environment in the United States.” He said that Russia was continuing to “spread disinformation in the US that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process,” and that Iran is “recirculating anti-US content” in an attempt to spread disinformation and interfere with elections. However, the warning has received criticism from many who say the Trump administration has treated warnings as far less serious than they should have. David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes report for the New York Times.

Democrats have criticized Evanina’s assessments of foreign election as not going “far enough,”sparking a debate between Congressional Democrats and President Trump’s administration. Evanina’s statement “omits much on a subject of immense importance … [and] does not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in a joint statement with House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). The lawmakers further stressed that statement does not help identify the level of risk posed by different countries and, therefore, “gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together.” They added that Evanina’s statement “fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election, information the American people must have as we go into November.” Martin Matishak reports for POLITICO.

Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio (Fla.) have defended Evanina’s intelligence assessments and dismissed Democrats’ criticisms. The pair made clear that the U.S. is “safer” with Evanina and his center. In a joint statement yesterday, the Republicans expressed disappointment with the statement from Senator Schumer, Senator Warner, Speaker Pelosi, and Representative Schiff, adding that the Democrats’ statement “baselessly impugns his character and politicized intelligence matters. Their manufactured complaint undercuts Director Evanina’s nonpartisan public outreach to increase Americans’ awareness of foreign influence campaigns right at the beginning of his efforts.” Rebecca Klar reports for The Hill.

ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR

A comprehensive Backgrounder on Attorney General William Barr and the investigation by John Durham, U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, is provided by George Croner, former principal litigation counsel at the National Security Agency, for Just Security. Croner also touches on potential dangers being inflicted on the intelligence community.

Four themes the House Judiciary Committee should concentrate on in its July 28 Barr hearing are proposed by Lisa Gilbert for Just Security.

US DEVELOPMENTS

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Friday that students who were not already enrolled on courses as of March 9 will “likely not be able to obtain” visas if they take courses delivered entirely online, a move that comes a week after ICE and President Trump’s administration revoked their initial plans that would ban all foreign students form taking online courses. The new guidance issued said: “Nonimmigrant students in new or initial status after March 9 will not be able to enter the U.S. to enroll in a U.S. school as a nonimmigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online.” ICE have also made clear that the announcement will not affect international students already in the U.S. or returning from abroad, who will be allowed to continue their online courses. Rachel Treisman reports for NPR.

Trump administration has bypassed an arms control pact in order to allow the US to sell large armed drones to foreign militaries, a State Department official told reporters Friday. The administration has sidestepped provisions within the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an agreement between 35 countries that aims to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which will allow the U.S. to sells arms to countries barred from buying them under the MTCR. Currently, only the U.K., France and Australia can purchase the larger, armed drones from American manufacturers; however, Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, said the new measure will help the U.S. meet “urgent national security and commercial requirements.” According to Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the measures are a “reckless decision,” which will make it more “likely that we will export some of our most deadly weaponry to human rights abusers across the world.” Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen was released from prison Friday and will serve the remainder of his criminal sentence at home, Cohen’s attorney confirmed, following an order by Judge Alvin Hellerstein that Cohen must be released as the decision to bring him back to prison was “retaliatory.” Reutersreporting.

CHINA

Chinese authorities have taken over the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu today in retaliation for a Washington order to shut the Chinese consulate in Houston last week. At dawn today, the American flag outside the consulate was lowered as police cordoned off streets around the facility. A statement from China’s foreign ministry said that the mission was closed at 10 a.m.. Lily Kuo reports for The Guardian.

The Chinese Consulate General in Houston has shut following Tuesday’s order to do so after US officials alleged it was part of a larger Chinese espionage scheme using diplomatic facilities around the US, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to CNN late Friday. US officials speaking to reporters Friday said the consulate had been involved in a fraud investigation at a Texas research institution and that Chinese consulate officials “were directly involved in communications with researchers and guided them on what information to collect.” The actions of consulate officials in Houston “are a microcosm, we believe, of a broader network of individuals in more than 25 cities that network is supported through the consulates here,” a U.S. Justice Department official said Friday. Nicole Gaouette and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.

A Chinese researcher who took refuge at China’s San Francisco consulate in an effort to evade visa fraud charges has been arrested, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and is due to appear in court today. Juan Tang, who is accused of hiding her connections to the Chinese military when she applied for a visa to work in the United States, was being detained at a jail in Sacramento County, California, records showed on Friday. Al Jazeera reporting.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is “raising the temperature with China to force decoupling,” James Palmer argues in an opinion piece for Foreign Policy that covers Pompeo’s recent speech on China following months of intensifying hostile actions between Beijing and Washington.

IRAN

Iran’s judiciary has said passengers of an airliner “harassed” by a US fighter jet over Syria can sue the “terrorist” United States military for damages in Iranian courts. Iranian media on Friday said multiple passengers on the flight heading from Tehran to Beirut were hurt on Thursday after the pilot quickly changed altitude to avoid collision with the U.S. jet. Ali Bagheri-Kani, head of the judiciary’s human rights office, said complainants could also take an international legal route through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body that oversees international civil aviation accords. Al Jazeera reporting.

For some Iranians the passenger flight incident “offered a grim echo of an accidental shootdown by American forces over 30 years ago.” Amin Hossein Khodadadi and Isobel van Hagen report on the interaction for NBC News.

Iran has moved a mock aircraft carrier to the strategic Strait of Hormuz amid increased tensions between Tehran and the US, satellite images released today show, likely signaling the Islamic Republic soon plans to use it for live-fire exercises. A photograph from Maxar Technologies taken yesterday shows an Iranian fast boat hurry toward the carrier, sending waves up in its wake, after a tugboat pulled her out into the strait from the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. AP reporting.

RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Russian Navy will be loaded with hypersonic nuclear strike weapons and underwater nuclear drones, which the defense ministry said were in their final stage of testing. The weapons, some of which have yet to be deployed, include the Poseidon underwater nuclear drone, developed to be carried by submarines, and the Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, which can be deployed on surface ships. The mix of speed, maneuverability, and altitude of hypersonic missiles, capable of traveling at over five times the speed of sound, makes them hard to track and intercept. Reuters reporting.

Russia dismissed US and British claims that it tested an anti-satellite weapon in space and announced Friday that the accusations served to defend Washington’s own plans to deploy weapons in orbit. U.S. and British officials claimed Thursday that the July 15 test of an anti-satellite weapon indicated a continuing Russian effort to design technologies that could threaten space assets of the United States and its allies. The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the allegations, saying in a statement that the July 15 experiment did not threaten any other space objects and observed the international law. It characterized the claims as part of an “information campaign to discredit Russia’s space activities and its peaceful initiatives aimed at preventing an arms race in space.” AP reporting.

The United States military has said Russia seems to be dispatching more military supplies to its mercenaries in Libya, including in the flashpoint city of Sirte, in violation of an arms embargo. The U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) said on Friday there was growing evidence from satellite photos of Moscow’s military cargo planes, including IL-6s, bringing equipment to fighters from Russian private military contractor Wagner Group. Al Jazeera reporting.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban has accused the Afghanistan government of recapturing previously freed prisoners from its ranks, an allegation dismissed by the Afghan authorities. The government has released over 4,000 Taliban fighters, while the insurgent group has released nearly 700 prisoners under a U.S.-Taliban deal that aims to pave the way for peace talks among the Afghans. Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesperson at its Doha office, on Saturday wrote on Twitter that the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Intelligence, had carried out surprise operations against the released fighters. Al Jazeera reporting.

Washington has sent a special envoy for Afghanistan to push for peace talks between the government and Taliban fighters, with the diplomat scheduled to visit Kabul on a trip with stops in five countries, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad left on Friday to travel to Doha, Kabul, Islamabad, Oslo and Sofia, the department said in a statement. Reuters reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

An Israeli military drone crashed in southern Lebanon yesterday as regional tensions ran high, days after a spate of cross-border exchanges between Israel and Syria and the killing of a Hezbollah militant in an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital. The military said the drone went down over Lebanese soil “during operational activities” along the border. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that Israeli warplanes and drones coasted over southern Lebanon throughout yesterday. AP reporting.

Sudan will send security forces to conflict-stricken Darfur to “protect citizens and the farming season” after a string of attacks, the prime minister has said. Abdalla Hamdok’s announcement on Sunday came two days after gunmen in the region killed at least 20 civilians, including children, as they went back to their fields for the first time in years, the latest in a series of violent incidents. Al Jazeera reporting. 

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).