The Early Edition: August 4, 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 DEVELOPMENTS

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s investigation into President Trump’s finances is significantly broader than first expected and will cover allegations of bank and insurance fraud, according to a court filing yesterday. Vance filed a submission to U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero yesterday, rebutting filings by Trump’s lawyers that the grand jury subpoena issued by Vance’s office was too broad and sweeping. “Plaintiff’s argument that the Mazars Subpoena is overbroad fails for the additional reason that it rests on the false premise that the grand jury’s investigation is limited to so-called ‘hush-money’ payments made by Michael Cohen on behalf of Plaintiff in 2016,” Vance said, adding: “This Court is already aware that this assertion is fatally undermined by undisputed information in the public record.” Vance also said that Marrero had noted that any information retrieved via subpoenas could be used in examining allegations of “alleged insurance and bank fraud by the Trump Organization and its officers.” Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

The House Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s intelligence office and its involvement in policing protests against police brutality and systemic racism in Portland, Oregon and nationwide, according to a letter sent by committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to DHS officials. Schiff took issue in his letter with the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and its gathering and dissemination of information on protesters and journalists, stating that their actions had gone “well beyond the Department’s traditional missions” and that their “potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling.” Schiff demanded that the department hand over all relevant information on its intelligence activities during protests, stressing that “the revelations thus far require a full accounting, and, if substantiated, must never be allowed to occur again.” Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

Trump has told Microsoft’s executive director, Satya Nadella, that the US must receive “a lot of money” if the president approves the company’s purchase of short-video App TikTok off a Chinese firm, although many have questioned the government’s legal powers to demand this. The president, whilst speaking at the White House, made clear that he still wants TikTok to be closed by Sept, 15 if it has not been purchased by Microsoft or another U.S. company. Trump went on to say that a “very substantial portion” of the sale price would have to go to the U.S. treasury, as “without the United States they don’t have anything.” “It’s a little bit like the landlord-tenant. Without a lease, the tenant has nothing. So they pay what’s called key money or they pay something,” Trump added. Jeff Stein, Rachel Lerman, Jay Greene and Jeanne Whalen report for the Washington Post.

House democrats yesterday subpoenaed four top aides of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an indication that progress is sought in their joint investigations into the firing of former State Department Inspector General (IG) Steve Linick. The subpoenas, issued yesterday by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-NY), were sent to: Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary of State for management and a close ally of Pompeo; Toni Porter, a senior adviser to Pompeo; acting State Department legal adviser Marik String; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mike Miller. In a joint statement, Engel, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (NY) and top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), said: “The Administration continues to cover up the real reasons for Mr. Linick’s firing by stonewalling the Committees’ investigation and refusing to engage in good faith.” The three lawmakers added: “That stonewalling has made today’s subpoenas necessary, and the Committees will continue to pursue this investigation to uncover the truth that the American people deserve.” Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

A review by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI into their Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court applications, which were investigated and reported on by IG Michael Horowitz’s office last year, has found that the majority of the 203 false statements and omissions found in Horowitz’s report were minor, with only two being regarded as “material,” a court filing released yesterday has revealed. Horowitz launched an investigation in December into both the Justice Department and Bureau’s practices for applying for approval of intelligence-linked surveillance, however his findings have been played down by the law enforcement agencies. Melissa MacTough, the deputy assistant attorney general for national security, has said no cases have been found to be so serious that they “invalidated” the issuing of the surveillance warrants applied for. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

House Democrats responsible for oversight of the DHS intend to introduce legislation today to strengthen the DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), after top Homeland Security official, Ken Cuccinelli, limited the CRCL from regularly reviewing I&A intelligence products. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Max Rose (D-NY), chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, are leading the introduction of the new legislation, which will mandate reviews of the I&A by CRCL, and require I&A officials to receive training by CRCL on civil rights and civil liberties. Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO.

US ELECTIONS AND ELECTION SECURITY

A group of House Republicans yesterday brought in legislation that would allocate $400 million to states to address election challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Emergency Assistance for Safe Elections (EASE) Act would administer $200 million to help with sanitizing in-person polling stations and purchasing personal protective equipment, while a further $100 million would go towards recruiting and training new poll workers, following a nationwide shortage of personnel due to the pandemic. The final $100 million would be designated for states to preserve the accuracy of their voter registration lists. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

President Trump plans to sue to prevent Nevada from issuing mailed ballots to all active voters, he announced at a White House briefing yesterday. Trump had already threatened legal action earlier in the day, remarking mailed ballots would make a Republican victory there impossible in the November general election. Nevada state lawmakers passed legislation on Sunday to automatically send mail-in ballots to voters and Gov. Stephen Sisolak of Nevada (D) is expected to sign the bill into law. Trump said he intended to have the suit filed today. Quint Forgey and Matthew Choi report for POLITICO.

The Census Bureau said late yesterday that it would finish gathering data for the decennial count next month and work to present population tallies to Trump that meet his constitutionally questionable order to exclude undocumented immigrants for the purpose of congressional apportionment. The agency, which is part of the Commerce Department, had said this spring that it would need more time to finalize its data collection because of the coronavirus pandemic. But amid a renewed push by Trump to remove those in the country without documentation from the count, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham now says the data will be delivered to the president by the end of the year — and not next spring, when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden could be in the Oval Office. Steven Shepard reports for POLITICO.

Trump’s baseless attacks on mail balloting are putting off his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, triggering growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November. Several public surveys show a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans about the security of voting by mail, with Republicans saying they are far less likely to trust it in November. In addition, party leaders in multiple states said they are experiencing resistance among GOP voters who are being encouraged to vote absentee while also seeing the president describe mail voting as “rigged” and “fraudulent.” Amy Gardner and Josh Dawsey report for the Washington Post.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected 4.7 million and killed 155,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 700,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The new coronavirus is soaring in several Midwestern US states that had not previously seen high infection rates while average daily deaths remained high yesterday in Southern and Western states hit with a resurgence of the disease after easing some restrictions earlier this summer. Missouri, Montana and Oklahoma are among those seeing the largest percentage rise of infections over the past week, while, adjusted for population, the number of new cases in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama still outpaced all other states, according to a Washington Post analysis of health data. Experts also see worrying patterns emerging in major East Coast and Midwest cities, and they predict huge outbreaks in college towns as classes resume in August. Anne Gearan, John Wagner and Jacqueline Dupree report for the Washington Post.

The United States will need to get coronavirus cases to a low baseline of 10,000 by September to gain some level of control over the pandemic before fall, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said yesterday. The country continues to record 50,000 to 60,000 fresh cases a day, suggesting it is “right in the middle of the first wave,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a livestream with the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Howard Bauchner. If we don’t get them down, then we’re going to have a really bad situation in the fall,” Fauci said. Erika Edwards reports for NBC News.

Earlier yesterday, President Trump criticized White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx in a Twitter post after she warned Covid-19 is “extraordinarily widespread” in the US. The New York Times reporting.

More than 100 current and former top executives at major US companies are urging Congress to pass long-term relief to guarantee that small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter to top congressional leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate that was made public yesterday, the CEOs and other executives warn of serious consequences to the economy if Congress does not immediately act to rescue small business. “By Labor Day, we foresee a wave of permanent closures if the right steps are not taken soon,” they wrote. “Allowing small businesses to fail will turn temporary job losses into permanent ones. By year end, the domino effect of lost jobs — as well as the lost services and lost products that small businesses provide — could be catastrophic.” Stephanie Ruhle and Rebecca Shabad report for NBC News.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned today that the world faces a “generational catastrophe” due to school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic and said that returning students safely to the classroom must be “a top priority.” Guterres said that as of mid-July schools were shut in roughly 160 countries, affecting more than 1 billion students, while at least 40 million children have missed out on pre-school. 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.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli aircraft attacked military targets in Syria last night, the Israeli army said in a rare statement, describing the strikes as retaliation for an attempt by a militant cell to plant explosive devices in the Golan Heights along the border with Syria. BBC News reporting.

For over 20 years, a little known US law concealed satellite imagery of Israel’s activities in the occupied territories — because of a sudden reversal, satellite technology can now be used to defend Palestinians’ human rights, Zena Agha argues for Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Afghan security forces have reclaimed a prison in eastern Afghanistan after an hours-long gun fight with the ISIL members who targeted the facility in an attack that killed 29 people, officials said. At least 10 ISIL fighters involved in the assault were also killed while trying to release their comrades from the prison in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, said Ajmal Omar, a provincial council member. Al Jazeera reporting.

North Korea is advancing with its nuclear weapons program, and several countries believe it has “probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles,” according to a confidential U.N. report. The report by an independent panel of experts monitoring U.N. sanctions said the countries, which it did not identify, believed North Korea’s last six nuclear exercises had likely helped it develop miniaturized nuclear devices. Al Jazeera reporting.

Twitter has disclosed that it is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for improperly using its users’ phone numbers and email addresses to boost ad targeting, saying that it could have to pay a fine of as much as $250 million. The social media giant said in a regulatory filing yesterday that it had received a draft complaint from the agency alleging it breached a promise not to mislead consumers about the security of their data. The cost of resolving the issue would likely be between $150 million and $250 million, the filing said. Hannah Murphy reports for the Financial Times. 

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).