The Early Edition: July 31, 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 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has drawn up “intelligence reports” about the work of American journalists covering protests in Portland, in what current and former officials described as a disturbing use of a government system designed to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors. Over the past week, the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has circulated three Open Source Intelligence Reports to federal law enforcement agencies and others, summarizing Twitter messages written by two journalists — a reporter for the New York Times and the editor in chief of the blog Lawfare — and noting they had shared leaked, unclassified documents about DHS operations in Portland. After The Post published a story online yesterday evening spelling out the department’s practices, the acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, directed the intelligence office to stop gathering information on journalists and announced a probe into the matter. Shane Harris reports for the Washington Post.

Yesterday marked yet another juncture in the more than two months of protests for racial justice in Portland: It was the first night in over three weeks that federal officers were not in attendance. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown reached an agreement with federal officials early Wednesday to remove Department of Homeland Security and other federal officers from Portland streets. Ryan Haas and Jonathan Levinson report for OPB.

Former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at John Lewis’s funeral in Atlanta yesterday, hailing Lewis as a modern-day founding father of a “fuller, fairer, better America” that has not yet come to fruition. In his 40-minute speech, Obama chronicled Lewis’ journey as a young civil rights activist to a 16-term congressman, and assailed the Trump administration, the brutality of police officers toward Black people and attempts at voter suppression. Richard Fausset and Rick Rojas report for the New York Times. 

No charges will be brought against the former Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson after a reinvestigation into the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said yesterday. Wilson’s shooting of Brown in August 2014 set off a federal civil rights inquiry, protests, and a national debate. Raja Razek reports for CNN.

A boiled down commentary on the new statement on law of peaceful protests by the UN Human Rights Committee is provided by leading human rights expert Martin Scheinin for Just Security.

US ELECTIONS

President Trump yesterday raised the idea of delaying the Nov. 3 US elections, a suggestion immediately rejected by experts and critics, as well as leading members of his own party. The president, who is trailing badly in polling of the race for the White House, in a Twitter post claimed without evidence that widespread mail balloting would result in a “fraudulent” result. Ed Pilkington, Joanna Walters, Julian Borger and David Smith report for The Guardian.

The president has no power to cancel a federal election, Alexander Burns writes for the New York Times, answering key questions about holding votes in a crisis.

US DEVELOPMENTS

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and other senior officials took steps to preserve memos penned by former Director James Comey and other crucial documents related to the Russia probe over fears that President Trump would try to close down the investigation, according to an adapted excerpt from CNN legal analyst Jeffery Toobin’s book, “True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump.” Jeffrey Toobin reports for CNN.

A US appeals court yesterday agreed to reconsider whether the judge assigned to the criminal case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, must dismiss the charges against him. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit set oral argument for Aug. 11. Reuters reporting.

Michael Cohen is free to speak to the media and finish his tell-all book about Trump while on home confinement, according to an agreement he struck with federal authorities filed in court yesterday. The deal came a week after a federal judge ruled the government improperly retaliated against Cohen when it returned him to prison following his release on medical furlough. Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro report for NBC News.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered the Pentagon to change the wording in a mandatory training course that identifies protesters and journalists as “adversaries.” The training material has been in force since 2010 and was last updated in 2015, but it was shared with a wider audience following Esper’s new guidance aimed at getting tough on leaks released this month, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman told reporters yesterday. Lara Seligman reports for POLITICO.

The FBI said yesterday that it found mostly “minor errors” during an audit of more than two dozen applications for national security surveillance warrants, indicating the problems were less serious than the Justice Department inspector general had made them out to be earlier this year. The FBI statement appeared aimed at offsetting the findings of a harshly critical review issued in March by the Justice Department’s watchdog, which identified problems in all 29 wiretap applications that it had inspected, including apparent errors or inadequately supported facts in 25 of them. AP reporting.

The confirmation hearing for Anthony Tata, Trump’s controversial nominee to lead the Pentagon’s policy shop, was canceled yesterday shortly before it was scheduled to begin. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the hearing was called off because “many” Democrats and Republicans “didn’t know enough about Anthony Tata to consider him for a very significant position at this time.” Democrats have been urging Tata, a retired Army brigadier general most known for his regular guest appearances on Fox News, to withdraw from consideration as under secretary of Defense for policy since inflammatory and racist tweets were brought to light by CNN last month. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that he and his team have warned Russian officials about all dangers that Russia poses to Americans and US interests in various parts of the world. Pompeo also defended the Trump administration’s firm stance on China, saying the communist nation represents a powerful threat to the U.S. and Western-style democracy. Pompeo would not say whether he had specifically brought up allegations that Russia is paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan, but he said the conversations with the Russians involved “all manner of threats,” including threats from Russia against Americans in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine. AP reporting.

Trump administration officials who are responsible for reinstating the US sanctions regime on the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine could be prosecuted for contempt before the ICC, Uzay Yasar Aysev, a legal consultant at Global Rights Compliance LLP, argues for Just Security.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected nearly 4.5 million and killed 152,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 17.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 673,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The US economy shrank nearly 10 percent from April through June, the worst quarterly drop since the government began publishing such data 70 years ago, the Bureau of Economic Analysis said yesterday. Gross domestic product, or the value of all goods and services produced, contracted at a 32.9% annual rate, according to the Commerce Department. Matthew Rocco and James Politi report for the Financial Times.

A key coronavirus model by the University of Washington now predicts there will be over 230,000 American deaths from Covid-19 by November, based on the current scenario. The latest update represents an increase of about 11,000 deaths due to a rise in infections and the refusal by some people to wear face coverings, to practice social distancing, and to perform other measures to halt the transmission of the virus. Haley Brink reports for CNN.

Gun sales are skyrocketing during the coronavirus pandemic, but background checks are not keeping pace, according to the FBI system that vets gun buyers. In March, the FBI received nearly 1.5 million requests for background checks, according to data the bureau released to FiveThirtyEight in response to a public records request. On March 20 alone, 104,084 background check requests were sent to the bureau, the biggest single-day number of background checks on record; in fact, by that wider measure, five of the gun background check system’s 10 busiest days were in March 2020. While March is typically a busy month for background checks, it was way above the average this year. Joshua Eaton reports for FiveThirtyEight.

Congressional leaders and White House officials failed to reach an agreement on coronavirus relief last night, just hours before federal jobless benefits were due to officially expire today. Kristina Peterson and  Siobhan Hughes report for The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, will testify today before a House committee in Congress on the US response to the pandemic, weeks after Trump’s administration first blocked him from addressing the panel. Reuters reporting.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that September’s Legislative Council elections have been postponed for a year due to the coronavirus outbreak in the city. BBC News 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. 

GERMAN TROOP PULLOUT

Washington will deploy at least 1,000 troops in Poland and manage forces on NATO’s eastern flank, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said today after the U.S. announced a massive troop withdrawal from Germany. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday the Pentagon will be returning home roughly 6,400 military personnel from Germany, and deploy nearly 5,600 in other NATO countries, including Italy and Belgium. The Defense Post reporting.

Senators from both parties grilled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the decision to withdraw US forces from Germany, slamming the move as alienating allies and weakening the United States in the face of Russia and China. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

At least 17 people were killed in Afghanistan in a powerful car bomb blast in Logar province. The explosion came on the eve of a ceasefire declared by the Taliban during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Al Jazeera reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday hailed a move by the European Union (EU) to sanction for the first time individuals and entities allegedly implicated in cyber attacks and that originate from China, North Korea and Russia. “Bad behavior in cyberspace should incur consequences. We applaud the EU’s first cyber sanctions designations,” Pompeo said in a Twitter post. “We will continue to work with the EU, its member states, and likeminded countries to promote a framework of responsible state behavior in cyberspace.” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

A recent Russian satellite weapons test has renewed international fears that space is becoming the new battle zone for strategic global supremacy. The July 15 incident also highlights the emerging threats to key satellite infrastructure that provides everything from GPS technology to the ability to launch nuclear weapons. Henry Foy and Katrina Manson report for the Financial Times.

Viable policy options the US can pursue, alone or in support of multilateral institutions, to work toward ending the human rights abuses against ethnic minority Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region are laid out by Connor O’Steen in a piece for Just Security. 

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).