The Early Edition: July 29, 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.   

ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR TESTIMONY

Attorney General William Barr clashed with Democrats at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, a highly-anticipated and long-awaited meeting that would certainly see numerous charges hurled against the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s chief. In a nearly 5-hour congressional hearing, Barr was reportedly bombarded by Democrats’ questions but given little chance to respond; “This is a hearing; I thought I was the one who was supposed to be heard,” Barr said. Committee chair, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), also initially refused the attorney general’s request for a five-minute break, prompting Barr to sarcastically respond: “You’re a class act.” He was also interrupted by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Col.) when questioned over the White House’s cooperation with the Robert Mueller investigation; Barr interjected, stating: “You said under penalty of perjury, I’m going to answer the damn question.”  Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Karoun Demirjian and Felicia Sonmez report for the Washington Post.

Democrats focused much of their questioning of Barr on the alleged politicization of the DOJ, in which they argued the Department had showed itself on numerous occasions to serve the political agenda of President Trump. Nadler, in his opening remarks, did not hold back and said that Barr had “aided and abetted the worst failings of this president … The message these actions send is clear: In this Justice Department, the president’s enemies will be punished and his friends will be protected, no matter the cost.” Barr rejected claims that he had meddled in the prosecutions of Trump’s associates Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and made clear that he thought Stone “should go to jail.” But he also said he saw no basis to investigate Trump’s commuting of Stone’s 40-month sentence. Barr was also questioned over the ousting of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman; which Barr had said was actually a “stepping down” by the top prosecutor. Kyle Cheney and Betsy Woodruff Swan report for POLITICO.

Barr defended the policing of nationwide protests but accepted that the death killing of George Floyd had “understandably jarred the whole country and forced us to reflect on longstanding issues in our nation.” First addressing issues around systemic racism and police violence against black people, Barr made comparisons between the number of police-caused deaths of black and white males and the main causes of deaths for black males in the U.S.. “According to statistics compiled by The Washington Post, the number of unarmed Black men killed by police so far this year is eight. The number of unarmed white men killed by police over the same time period is 11,” he said, adding: “The threat to Black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct. The leading cause of death for young Black males is homicide.” The attorney general was condemned by the committee for his complicity in the much-criticized policing of mainly peaceful protests, particularly the deployment of federal officers in Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon. Barr retorted that the deployment of federal agents “has nothing to do with the problem of violent mob rioting” and instead is “designed to help state and local law enforcement to meet their basic responsibility to solve crimes and keep their communities safe.” Rebecca Shabad and Allan Smith report for NBC News.

Bill Barr backtracked when questioned over whether it was appropriate for a president to receive foreign assistance in an election. When asked by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) if it was ever appropriate for the president to solicit or accept foreign support in their election campaign, Barr responded: “It depends what kind of assistance.” Barr was pressed further by Cicilline: “Is it ever appropriate for the president or presidential candidate to accept or solicit foreign assistance of any kind in his or her election?” “No, it’s not appropriate,” Barr finally accepted. “OK, sorry you had to struggle with that one,” Cicilline replied. Rebecca Klar reports for The Hill.

Barr accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) of potentially putting at risk the lives of federal agents policing protests in Portland when she likened them to the “stormtroopers” of Nazi Germany. When asked by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) whether Pelosi’s comparison, which was made in a series of posts on Twitter, encouraged the increase in violence by protesters against federal officers, Barr replied: “I think that’s possible, and I think it’s irresponsible.” Quint Forgey reports for POLITICO.

Barr confirmed the potential for a pre-election release of the much-anticipated reported by John Durham, US Attorney for Connecticut, into the Trump-Russia investigations by the FBI and Mueller. Barr opined that releasing Durham’s report before the presidential election will not go against a DOJ policy prohibiting interference in elections: “I will be very careful. I know what Justice Department policy is,” Barr said, adding: “Any report will be, in my judgment, not one that is covered by the policy and would disrupt the election.” Josh Gertsein reports for POLITICO.

Five key takeaways from Barr’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee are provided by Jeremy Herb for CNN.

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, what DOJ attorneys should do if faced with a request to engage in politically motivated prosecutions is explained by Kirsty Parker and Erica Newland writing for Just Security. They conclude in such a situation, attorneys should: “Refuse to Participate,” “Report (aka Blow the Whistle)” and, if necessary, “Resign.”

RACIAL INJUSTICE PROTESTS

Federal officers deployed in Portland, Oregon to respond to anti-racism and police violence protests fired shots and mace at reporters and legal observers in violation of a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by U.S. District Judge Michael Simon last week, according to documents filed before a court yesterday. Evidence provided by journalists and observers gives testimony to and video footage of federal agents acting in breach of the TRO, prompting their lawyers to request Simon to hold the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Marshals Service in contempt of court. “Every day it has existed, federal agents have intentionally violated the Court’s TRO. As a result of the federal agents’ defiance of the Court’s order, the free press remains unsafe while trying to document and observe the cataclysmic violence that federal authorities are inflicting on Portland. The federal agents — and their commanders, whom the Court ordered to be notified of the TRO — are not above the law,” the lawyers wrote. Zoe Tillman reports for BuzzFeed News.

President Trump’s administration and the Oregon governor’s office have started talks intended to plan a strategy for reducing federal officers in Portland, a senior White House official said yesterday. It was made clear by the official that talks are in their infancy and no agreement had yet been made between the government and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s office. AP reporting.

The FBI have long demanded a prompt mobilization of federal officers to police social unrest during protests, a memo from FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich, dated June 2, has revealed. In the memo, Bowdich declared the violent protests as “a national crisis,” and supported not only investigating “violent protestors [and] instigators” but also pushed for bureau leaders to collect information with “robust social media exploitation teams” in order examine what appeared to be “highly organized behavior.” The top agency also said the bureau could use the Hobbs Act, used in the 1940s to address racketeering in labor groups, to charge protestors. Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Sergio Olmos, Mike Baker and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times.

New York police officers were filmed yesterday arresting a female protestor and forcing her into an unmarked minivan. The footage has been circulating online and received a lot of backlash. The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the arrest in a post on Twitter, calling it “dangerous, abusive, and indefensible.” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also said in a post on Twitter: “There is no excuse for snatching women off the street and throwing them into unmarked vans.” Allyson Chiu reports for the Washington Post.

US DEVELOPMENTS

A watchdog group have filed a lawsuit yesterday against President Trump accusing his campaign and a connected fundraising campaign committee of not properly reporting nearly $170 million in campaign spending which was “laundered” through several companies, including some connected to Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale. The lawsuit, filed by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) before the Federal Election Commission, argued that the Trump campaign and the committee broke the law when they did not disclose this expenditure to the public. It goes further, charging that there was a conscious and deliberate effort to conceal details of campaign spending and where the funds were actually directed. Ryan Nobles and Gregory Krieg report for CNN.

Staffers at the State Department, under the lead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are “besieged,” “demoralized,” “battered,” “beaten,” “mistreated,” “paralyzed,” and “at a new low,” according to a new report released yesterday by Democrats of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The report makes clear that there are grave concerns within the department that point to a lack of accountability, unfit and improper administration nominees, politically motivated targeting of career staff, and a diminishing of honesty and integrity. It reports the process for vetting nominees as being very poor, which has allowed a woman who has a restraining order against her for leaving a bullet-riddled target sheet on an acquaintances chair to be nominated. Nicole Gaouette reports for CNN.

The Trump administration said yesterday it will reject any new applications made under the eight-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals progam (DACA), which has allowed work permits to be provided to almost 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, the administration announced yesterday. The announcement follows a recent decision by the Supreme Court that ruled the administration’s threats to completely withdraw DACA lacked proper legal justification. The program currently offers one-year, renewable visas; however, this will be reduced to one year, according to memo released yesterday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Matthew Choi reports for POLITICO.

House Democrats yesterday withdraw their Homeland Security spending bill from the floor just days before it was to be voted on, after it received strong disagreement from across the political spectrum. The bill was slated for a vote this Friday; however, some have argued the bill went too far on addressing immigration enforcement, whilst others say it didn’t go far enough to address Trump’s policies. A House Democratic aide said yesterday: “Front-line members raised serious concerns that the Homeland bill was a tough vote in swing districts because of its progressive provisions,” adding: “At the end of the day, front-liners are our majority makers and there is no reason to force them to take a tough vote.” Caitlin Emma and Sarah Ferris report for POLITICO.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is this week advancing a bill, The Libya Stabilization Act, that would force the Trump administration to place sanctions on Russia and Turkey for their contributions to the escalating civil war in Libya. The bill, which is expected to be passed this Friday would impose mandatory sanctions on the countries within six months. A House aide familiar with the bill said: “We don’t want Russia to establish a foothold on what is essentially the soft underbelly of NATO in Europe .. Other than chastising them there haven’t been significant penalties.” They added: “With [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Vladimir] Putin and more broadly, they act when there’s a stick involved or a penalty held above their head.” Jack Detsch and Amy Mackinnon report for Foreign Policy.

CHINA RELATIONS

Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday called on Asian allies to join the US in addressing an increasingly hostile and aggressive China, which saw two U.S. Navy ships and ally ships conduct drills in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Esper accused China of bullying nations located in the Pacific and for their “brazen disregard of international commitments.” “Make no mistake, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has been engaged in this sort of behavior for many years … But today, its true intentions are on full display for all to see,” Esper said. Speaking to the U.K.’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, Esper made clear the U.S. is prepared to uphold its promise to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. Brad Lennon reports for CNN.

The US and Australia bolster a joint security cooperation in the face of China and the coronavirus. The countries have pledged to set up a working group that would focus on addressing disinformation across the Indo-Pacific region, warning that “state-sponsored malicious disinformation and interference in democratic processes are significant and evolving threats.” A joint statement by the allies expressed “deep concern” over a breadth of actions by China, including human rights violations committed against Uighur Muslims and the recent new security laws in Hong Kong; however, Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, made clear that her country had “no intention of injuring” its important relationship with China. Daniel Hurst reports for The Guardian.

The European Union, as part of a joint response to China’s new security legislation in Hong Kong, will limit its export of “sensitive” technology that could be used for surveillance in the once autonomous region. European foreign ministers have long expressed “deep concern” of the situation transpiring in China. In conclusions revealed yesterday, the E.U. said: “The purpose of the various measures and of the package as a whole is to express political support for Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, and solidarity for the people of Hong Kong.” It added: “The EU is particularly concerned about the extensive erosion of rights and freedoms that were supposed to remain protected until at least 2047; about the lack of safeguards and clarity in the law; and about its extraterritorial provisions.” Giorgio Leali reports for POLITICO.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 4.35 million and killed more than 149,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been almost 16.8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 660,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Six US states yesterday saw record high coronavirus deaths. Arkansas, California, Florida, Montana, Oregon and Texas all reported record numbers of Covis-19 deaths, with more than 1,300 lives lost in the U.S. yesterday, a daily record not seen since May. Reuters reporting.

The Russian military intelligence unit, the GRU, is spreading disinformation about the novel coronavirus, refining its techniques used in the 2016 presidential election, according to newly declassified intelligence reports. The campaign of disinformation includes the circulation of hundreds of news articles with unsupported claims about the virus’s origins and how the U.S. and Russia have responded to it. The articles were posted on websites such as InfoRos.ru, which is controlled by the Kremlin, and OneWorld.Press, which U.S. officials say is linked to the GRU. Julian R. Barnes and David E. Sanger report for the New York Times.

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.

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

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard launched a missile at a replica US aircraft carrier in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, according to state media yesterday. The exercise, which has been viewed as an attempt by Iran to warn the U.S. during a time when the two countries’ tensions are high, has been criticized by the U.S. Navy as “irresponsible .and reckless behaviour by Iran” and attempt “to intimidate and coerce.” BBC reporting.

The Taliban have announced a three-day ceasefire starting Friday in Afghanistan for Eid al-Adha. “In order for our people to spend the three days of Eid in confidence and happiness, all fighters are instructed not to carry out any operations,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said. Reuters reporting.

Southern separatists in Yemen have promised to withdraw their declaration of and aspirations for self-rule, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) announced today. The STC also confirmed it would implement a Saudi-brokered power-sharing agreement with the Yemini government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. 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)