The Early Edition: August 3, 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 ELECTIONS AND ELECTION SECURITY

The White House has no plans to try to postpone the Nov. 3 election, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said yesterday, even as he defended a Twitter post from President Trump that raised the prospect.We’re going to hold an election on November 3rd, and the president is going to win,” Meadows said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” Joseph Marks reports for the Washington Post.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats lambasted William Evanina, the country’s top counterintelligence official, during a classified election security briefing Friday, accusing him of keeping the public in the dark about the details of Russia’s continued meddling in the 2020 campaign. Pelosi hinted at the conflict upon emerging from the briefing Friday morning, saying she thought the administration was “withholding” evidence of outside influence in the elections. Natasha Bertrand and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has initiated an inquiry into reports that the US Ambassador to Brazil had told Brazilian officials that they could assist Trump in being re-elected by changing their trade policies. The committee’s chair, Eliot Engel (D-NY), sent a letter Friday demanding that the ambassador, Todd Chapman, must hand over “any and all documents referring or related to any discussions” he had with Brazilian officials about Brazil’s ethanol tariffs. Ernesto Londoño, Manuela Andreoni and Letícia Casado report for the New York Times.

The House approved as part of its 2021 fiscal year appropriations package $500 million in election security funding for US states. The 2021 appropriations package will devote half a billion dollars to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which must be used by states for replacing “direct-recording electronic” voting technology and equipment with a paper ballot system. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Violent protests in Portland, Oregon in response to police violence and systemic racism have reverted back to largely peaceful after federal agents significantly withdrew from the area; however, protesters remain skeptical of local police. The weekend saw a quietening down of violent protests and an aggressive enforcement response after the recent announcement that federal officers were being withdrawn and would no longer be present outside the federal courthouse that has been the scene of violent clashes. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who agreed with President Trump’s administration that federal officers would start to withdraw, said Friday on a post on Twitter: “Last night, the world was watching Portland … Here’s what they saw: Federal troops left downtown. Local officials protected free speech. And Oregonians spoke out for Black Lives Matter, racial justice, and police accountability through peaceful, non-violent protest.” Alicia Victoria Lozano reports for NBC News.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has reassigned Brian Murphy, the acting undersecretary for the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, after reports his office had collated intelligence information and reports on journalists, legal observers and protesters in Portland. Calls for Murphy to be removed were made Friday by acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf, following a story by The Washington Post that the DHS had compiled intelligence reports – Open Source Intelligence Reports – on the media and press. Wolf ordered that the intelligence collecting stop immediately and for an investigation into the practice to commence. Emma Bowman and Suzanne Nuyen report for NPR.

US DEVELOPMENTS       

The Navy were reluctant to reinstate former Navy SEAL and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in 2019, who resigned in 2018 over allegations of violent sexual misconduct, until Vice President Mike Pence intervened, according to newly released documents obtained by The Star show. Greitens was charged with a felony in 2018 in connection to the allegations but the charges were eventually dropped; however, documents indicate that the Navy was hesitant and apprehensive to allow his return, until Pence voiced his opinion on the matter. Tara Copp, Jason Hancock and Bryan Lowry report for The Kansas City Star.

Controversial President Trump nominee Anthony Tata has been appointed to deputy undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, according to an announcement by the Department of Defense (DOD) yesterday. Tata was initially nominated for the top position of undersecretary of defense for policy; however, the retired Army brigadier general withdrew from that nomination process, circumventing the scheduled and necessary confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a move that has been criticized by many. Aaron Mehta reports for Defense News.

Microsoft has confirmed that it will continue in its plans to buy popular short-video App TikTok off a Chinese firm, after TiKTok’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, and Trump spoke about the issue. “Microsoft will move quickly to pursue discussions with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, in a matter of weeks, and in any event completing these discussions no later than September 15, 2020,” the company said in a statement, adding: “Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.” Bobby Allyn reports for NPR.

Seven US Marines and a Navy sailor have been missing since Thursday and presumed dead after their amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) sank during a training exercise off the coast of California, according to military officials. After 40 hours of searching for the missing eight, the search and rescue mission was called off. Col. Christopher Bronzi, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) said in a statement: “It is with a heavy heart that I decided to conclude the search and rescue effort.” BBC News reporting.

An examination of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s team of “informal foreign-policy and national security advisors” is provided by Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer and Darcy Palder for Foreign Policy. The authors offer insight into some of the top foreign-policy experts and officials that could be tapped if Biden wins the 2020 presidential election.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in the House’s impeachment proceedings against Trump, charged an unapologetic rebuke at the president and his administration in a scathing op-ed for the Washington Post Saturday. “At no point in my career or life have I felt our nation’s values under greater threat and in more peril than at this moment,” Vindman wrote. “Our national government during the past few years has been more reminiscent of the authoritarian regime my family fled more than 40 years ago than the country I have devoted my life to serving.”

Under the presidency of Trump, the US’s foreign policy success has resulted in “total destruction,”writes Wendy R. Sherman for Foreign Policy, who details Trump’s relationship with and lack of response to pressing concerns and interference from Russia, China and the Middle East. “What remains after all these failures is a clear effort by Trump and his allies to obtain Russian and Chinese help for his reelection,” Sherman states.

The House approved Friday by 217-197 votes its $1.3 trillion package of spending bills for the 2021 fiscal year, with over half the funds dedicated to defense, including a 3 percent pay increase for troops, over $9 billion for 91 new F-35 fighter jets and $22 billion for nine new navy ships. $1 million has also been devoted to renaming all army bases and properties named after Confederate leaders. Niv Elis reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected 4.6 million and killed nearly 155,000 people in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 690,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The US reported more than 1.9 million new cases in July, nearly 42 percent of the more than 4.5 million new infections recorded nationwide since the outbreak began and more than double the number documented in any other month, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The earlier monthly record came in April, when over 880,000 fresh cases were documented. The New York Times reporting.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus coordinator, said yesterday that the United States is in a “new phase” of the coronavirus pandemic, and that the disease was “extraordinarily widespread” across the country. Appearing on the CNN program “State of the Union,” Birx said the virus was now affecting rural areas as well as big cities, and that it was a greater threat than when the outbreak first started in the spring. BBC News reporting.

Pharma giants GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur have announced they will supply 100 million doses of an experimental Covid-19 vaccine to the United States as governments purchase supplies in hopes of securing a candidate that works. The United States will pay up to $2.1 billion “for development including clinical tests, manufacturing, scale-up and delivery” of the vaccine, the two firms based in Europe said in a statement. Sanofi will get the majority of the funds. The U.S. government has a further option for the supply of an additional 500 million doses longer term as part of its Operation Warp Speed initiative. AP reporting.

Operation Warp Speed has moved along at a rapid pace — but some people involved in the program fear pressure to deliver an October knockout for President Trump. Under constant pressure from a White House anxious for progress and a public desperate for a vaccine to end the crisis, the government’s researchers are worried about political intervention in the coming months and are struggling to ensure that the government maintains the right balance between speed and proper regulation, according to interviews with administration officials, federal scientists and outside experts. Sharon LaFraniere, Katie Thomas, Noah Weiland, Peter Baker and Annie Karni report for the New York Times.

The Trump administration is exploring options for unilateral actions it can take to try to mitigate some of the economic fallout caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic if no relief deal is reached with Congress, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion. The deliberations are a reflection of officials’ increasingly pessimistic outlook for the negotiations on Capitol Hill. It is not clear what measures the administration could take without the help of Congress on matters such as lapsed enhanced unemployment benefits or the expired moratorium on evictions — the two issues Trump has recently identified as his main priorities in the ongoing talks. Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report for the Washington Post.

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.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli army said today that it had foiled an attempt by a militant cell in Syria to place explosive devices along its northern border with Syria. The incident took place around midnight yesterday in the Golan Heights, when Israeli troops spotted a squad planting explosives adjacent to the security fence. An Israeli military statement said that soldiers and aircraft fired on the cell simultaneously, “identifying a hit.” Israel reported no injuries on its side, but estimated that all four members of the squad were killed. Ruth Eglash and Sarah Dadouch report for the Washington Post.

The Israel army says it hit “subterranean Hamas terror facilities” in Gaza in retaliation for a rocket fired at Israel yesterday evening, with the Palestinian group calling it a “clear message of escalation.” The Israeli army said early today its fighter jets conducted the attack. “We hold Hamas responsible for all activity emanating from Gaza,” it said in a Twitter post. Al Jazeera reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Islamic State fighters have attacked a central prison in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad that holds scores of the group’s members as well as members of the Taliban, killing at least 21 people, including civilians, security forces and inmates. The assault began yesterday evening when car bombs were detonated at the prison’s entrance, allowing gunmen to break into the compound, just hours before a three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and Afghan government forces was due to expire. Afghan special forces were sent to the scene, where they continued to battle the IS militants through the night and into this morning. According to Nangahar government spokesperson Attaullah Khogyani, three gunmen had been killed but others were continuing to resist security forces from the top floor of a residential building. Susannah George and Sharif Hassan report for the Washington Post.

The Trump administration is attempting again to find a way to resolve the cases of two British Islamic State detainees who are famous for their roles in the torture and killing of Western hostages, and who have been held in indefinite wartime detention by the American military in Iraq since October, according to officials. One option under renewed consideration is for the Justice Department to scrap its insistence that prosecutors be free to bring capital charges against the men, half of a cell of Britons called the “Beatles” by their captives because of their accents. A key obstacle to bringing the men to trial has been a need for evidence held by the British government. Britain has abolished the death penalty and a British court has blocked it from assisting in capital charges. Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

Iran on Saturday said it detained a US-based leader of a pro-monarchist group for allegedly planning a 2008 bombing that killed 14 people and wounded 215, and that he is being held in Iran. An intelligence ministry statement cited by state television did not specify how, where or when the detention took place. Reutersreporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions on Friday against two Chinese officials and a government body over human rights abuses against Uighurs he called the “stain of the century.” The latest sanctions come amid fraught relations between the U.S. and China, with the Trump administration stepping up actions against Beijing on multiple fronts in an effort at changing the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. The sanctions target the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and two of its agents, Pompeo said in a statement. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

A US citizen is among six pro-democracy activists to have arrest warrants issued for them by Hong Kong police for alleged violations under a controversial new national security law, Chinese state media reported late Friday. Eric Baculinao and Adela Suliman report for NBC News.

Authorities have charged three men in a huge Twitter breach last month that hacked the accounts of well-known politicians, celebrities and technology moguls to scam people around the world out of more than $100,000 in bitcoin. The suspects include a 22-year-old man from Orlando, Florida, a teenager from Tampa, Florida, and a 19-year-old British man. The Guardian 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).