The Early Edition: July 30, 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.

GERMAN-US RELATIONS

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday that the United States would pull nearly 12,000 troops out of Germany and move some of those forces around the continent on a “rotational” basis, including relocating some units to Belgium and Italy. Roughly 5,600 of the 11,800 troops to be removed from Germany would be sent to other NATO allies in Europe; another 6,400 would return to the U.S.. The decision fulfills President Trump’s stated desire to cut the number of American troops in Germany, mostly because of its failure to meet spending targets on defense. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports for the New York Times.

The plan to withdraw US forces from the long-time NATO ally was met with broad bipartisan opposition amid concerns that it will weaken the US military’s position with regard to Russia. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) slammed the move as a “grave error,” while Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Trump shows a “lack of strategic understanding.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The US military yesterday also announced plans to move its headquarters out of Stuttgart, Germany, to Belgium. Reuters reporting.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Gov. Kate Brown (D) of Oregon and President Trump’s administration announced yesterday that they aim to start withdrawing federal agents from Portland but that such withdrawal was conditional on local police forces satisfactorily protecting federal buildings. Brown said that agents would start to pull out from today; however, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf made clear that withdrawal was a question of if, not when, stating that it would only go ahead “should circumstances on the ground significantly improve.” He added: “Our entire law enforcement presence that was currently in Portland yesterday and the previous week will remain in Portland until we are assured that the courthouse and other federal facilities will no longer be attacked nightly.” Mike Baker and Zolan Kanno-Youngs report for the New York Times.

A number of protesters arrested by federal officers during protests in Portland have had attached to their release conditions that include a ban on participating in any protests, demonstrations or rallies,court records have revealed. CNN have found, after reviewing numerous federal cases between July 23 and July 27, that at least nine out of 21 defendants arrested for failing to follow a lawful order or assaulting a federal officer were released on the condition that they “[do] not attend any other protests, rallies, assemblies or public gatherings in the state of Oregon,” court orders have shown. The orders vary in their content, but include prohibiting defendants from protesting in Portland, specifically, whereas some include a general ban on protesting anywhere in the U.S.. All were forbidden from being within a five-block radius of the federal courthouse in Portland. Konstantin Toropin reports for CNN.

Christof Heyns, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, discusses the newly issued General Comment No.37 by the committee on the right of peaceful assembly with World Justice Project Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen for Just Security. The pair discuss the new guidance’s relevance and importance at a time when the U.S. and the world are seeing growing numbers of protests and demonstrations.

RUSSIAN BOUNTIES

President Trump said in an interview published yesterday that he did not confront Russian President Vladimir Putin with intelligence reports that Russia had secretly offered bounties to kill American troops during a phone call last week seemingly his first opportunity to discuss the CIA assessment directly with Putin since its existence became public late last month. “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said in an interview with “Axios on HBO.” But the president alluded for the first time to blaming subordinates for failing to bring the issue to his attention. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he said. Officials have said the assessment was in his written intelligence brief in February, although he only occasionally reads it. Charlie Savage, Michael Crowley and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

A potential case for indictment against members of the Russian military intelligence agency (known as the GRU) involved for providing material support to terrorists under 18 U.S.C. 2339A is laid out by Peter Machtiger in a piece for Just Security.

US ELECTION INTERFERENCE

The Gang of Eight, a partisan group of both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders responsible for reviewing the country’s most top-secret information, is currently battling between themselves over how much information they should disclose to the public about election interference, an internal disagreement, fraught with tension, which is uncharacteristic for the group that rarely airs its disagreements publicly. Acting Senate Intelligence Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and member of the Gang of Eight, said: “When those things start to become politicized and publicized, it’s not just a bad look — it’s bad for the country. It’s harmful,” adding that his committee’s annual hearing may have to be postponed, referring to “heavy politicization.” Andrew Desiderio and Natasha Bertrand report for POLITICO.

The House Intelligence Committee voted yesterday to allow all members of the House access to classified intel that Democrats have said evidences “a concerted foreign interference campaign” against Congress officials ahead of the presidential elections. The intel was submitted to the FBI earlier this month by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.). Schiff made clear that the information would be made public for all House lawmakers, adding: “In the absence of an FBI defensive briefing to the Congress, more than two dozen Members have requested access to the classified addendum to our July 13 letter, which addresses the concrete, specific, and alarming reporting that the congressional intelligence committees have seen regarding our elections.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Former CIA director John Brennan has criticized senior Republicans for their silence and inaction on evidence of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Brennan, speaking in his new book, recounts a meeting between the Gang of Eight, in which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY.) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the then chair of the House Intelligence Committee, remained silent on the issue. “I was not surprised that McConnell and Nunes, early and ardent partisan defenders of Mr. Trump, were silent in the face of what everyone else recognized was a clear national security threat,” an excerpt of Brennan’s book states. Julian E. Barnes reports for the New York Times.

US DEVELOPMENTS

Members of the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee yesterday grilled the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google over their alleged abuse of market power to topple competitors and gather huge amounts of data on customers. Four key takeaways from the hearing are provided by Bobby Allyn and Shannon Bond for NPR.

The State Department announced yesterday that veteran career official Jim DeHart will take on the role as special envoy for the Arctic, reporting to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a move that hopes to boost the U.S.’s presence and leadership in the region and protect the country’s national security against Russia and China. The announcement comes after Pompeo recently pledged to increase U.S. engagement in the Arctic as part of the country’s new Arctic strategy. AP reporting.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has said that his report into GOP investigations into the Obama administration and Hunter Biden, the son of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is not progressing as planned. Johnson has indicated that there has been difficulty in arranging interviews with many relevant people, and so hinted that he will soon start issuing subpoenas. He added that he hopes an interim report can be released by mid-September. “We’re trying to work with all these people to bring them in voluntarily, but even that takes time. There’s wrangling over conditions on interviews,” Johnson said, adding: “You might start seeing some subpoenas too.” Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

Companies linked to two Russian oligarchs under US sanctions were able to bypass those sanctions and exploit the non-transparent art world, according to a report published yesterday by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Oligarchs Arkady and Boris Rotenberg were able to purchase art worth over $18 million by hiding behind intermediaries that bought the art on behalf of companies owned or funded by the Rotenberg family. Graham Bowley reports for the New York Times.

The House Oversight Committee questioned Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham yesterday over Trump’s recent announcement that directs the Commerce Department to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count next year when Congress reapportions House seats. Tara Bahrampour reports for the Washington Post.

Eight major flaws in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights — introduced last year as an extensive effort to redefine human rights and its role in U.S. foreign policy — are explained by Aya Fujimura-Fanselow, Jayne Huckerby and Sarah Knuckey for Just Security.

CORONAVIRUS

The US has crossed the threshold of 150,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 17 million confirmed coronavirus cases (4.4 million of those in the US) and 667,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Stimulus negotiations between Democrats and Republicans stalled again yesterday. The weekly $600 federal unemployment enhancement expires tomorrow. Sahil Kapur, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Julie Tsirkin report for NBC News.

The GDP report from the Commerce Department showing the catastrophic economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic will be released today. The report is expected to show that the economy contracted at an annual rate of about 35% in the three months between April and June as shops and factories shut in a desperate effort to halt the spread of the virus —  the sharpest decrease in modern American history and roughly four times the drop during the worst quarter of the Great Recession. Scott Horsley reports for NPR.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she would now require all members to wear masks on the chamber floor, a decision spurred by the news that Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) who frequently refused to wear a mask while at the Capitol during the pandemic had tested positive for the coronavirus. Pelosi said that members would be allowed to remove their masks when addressing the chamber, adding she expects everyone to “adhere to this requirement as a sign of respect for the health, safety and well-being of others present in the chamber and surrounding areas.” Masks will be provided for any member who forgets theirs, Pelosi said, adding that failure to comply will be considered a “serious breach of decorum” that could result in the lawmaker being removed from the chamber floor. Paul Kane and Colby Itkowitz report for the Washington Post.

Attorney General William Barr will be tested for coronavirus, after coming in close contact with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) on Tuesday when Barr testified before the House Judiciary Committee, a Justice Department spokesperson confirmed. Reuters reporting.

A federal judge yesterday blocked the Trump administration from advancing with plans to deny green cards to immigrants who have received Medicaid, food stamps or housing vouchers, even on a limited basis — a wealth test that multiple states, led by New York, sued over during the coronavirus outbreak. The judge, George B. Daniels of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, granted a nationwide temporary injunction, suspending the eligibility requirements that were brought in last year and that attracted several legal challenges, including before the Supreme Court. The New York Times 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.

CHINA AND HONG-KONG

Hong Kong police have detained four people, the youngest just 16, for suspected offenses under the city’s new controversial national security law, the first such arrests outside of street protests since the legislation went into force a month ago. In a press conference shortly before midnight yesterday, a police spokesperson said the three men and a woman, all students, were suspected of being implicated in an online group that pledged to fight for an independent Hong Kong. Al Jazeera reporting.

Trump’s reversals on China are a “danger to national security,” Philip H. Gordon, former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, write for Foreign Policy, commenting, the country is “a real threat … that requires a serious U.S. strategy, not bellicose rhetoric designed to distract voters from the administration’s failures.”

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard said it fired ballistic missiles from “the depths of the Earth” yesterday during the last day of military drills near sensitive Gulf waters. A video shared online by a news agency connected to Iran’s state TV showed clouds of dust before the missiles streaked into the sky. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said in a statement it was “the first time in the world” that such an exercise had been conducted. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Trump administration yesterday imposed a fresh round of sanctions on Syrian government officials aimed at pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad to negotiate a political settlement to end the nearly decadelong civil war. “It is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war to end.  This, above all, is what our sanctions campaign is meant to bring about,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, and urged a political solution under the agreed terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

Over 100 civilians including women and children were killed by ground battles, explosive remnants and airstrikes in Libya between April and June, an increase of 65% from the first quarter, the United Nations said yesterday. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya said in a report that more than 250 civilians were injured during the period. Most of the casualties were in Libya’s western region, which has seen fighting between the east-based forces of military commander Khalifa Hifter and a bunch of militias loosely allied with the weak U.N.-backed government in the capital, Tripoli, the report said. AP reporting.

Ukraine’s law enforcement authorities will consider an issue of a possible extradition of suspected Russian mercenaries, held in Belarus, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said today. Belarusian security forces arrested over 30 suspected Russian mercenaries near Minsk after receiving information that more than 200 fighters had come into the country to destabilize it in the run up to a presidential election. Reuters 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).