The Early Edition: August 5, 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                    

The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday “voted to adopt the classified version of the final volume of the Committee’s bipartisan Russia investigation,” the committee’s chair Marco Rubio (R-FL) and vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a joint statement. The report, which focuses on the counterintelligence findings of their investigations into Russia interference in the 2016 election, will now be reviewed by the committee and the Intelligence Community to “formalize a properly redacted, declassified, publicly releasable version,” Rubio and Warner said. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to Germany, Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, has a track record of making xenophobic and racist comments, particularly about immigrants and refugees in Germany and the US. Macgregor’s offensive claims include: alleging that Muslims are coming to Europe “with the goal of eventually turning Europe into an Islamic state”; and criticizing Germany for giving “millions of unwanted Muslim invaders” welfare benefits. His comments have also pointed at Mexico, alleging that Mexican cartels were “driving millions of Mexicans with no education, no skills and the wrong culture into the United States, placing them essentially as wards of the American people.” He has also repeatedly called for martial law at the U.S.-Mexico border, condoning shooting people if necessary. Em Steck and Andrew Kaczynski report for CNN.

Eric Herschmann, one of the lawyers who defended Trump during his Senate impeachment trial, is starting a new position as senior adviser to the president, Herschmann revealed in an unrelated court filing Monday. The White House has not yet responded to confirm the news. Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO.

The White House has expressed doubt over President Trump’s claim that the US Treasury will get a portion of the proceeds from the sale of popular short-video App TikTok. The White House’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, when questioned over Trump’s comments, said: “There’s no specific blueprint here … It may be that the president was thinking, because the Treasury has had to do so much work on this, there are a lot of options here. I’m not sure it’s a specific concept that will be followed through … Regarding fees or anything like that, all that remains to be seen.” Reuters reporting.

The National Security Agency (NSA) released guidance yesterday that warned that mobile location data could pose a serious security threat for users if it were infiltrated by cyber hackers. The guidance was released specifically for Department of Defense (DOD) staff and others who have access to federal systems, but the NSA noted that it could be “useful to a wide range of users.” The agency made clear that location data can be tracked even when GPS and cellular data is turned off. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

The Marine Corps has found the amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) that went missing off the Coast of California last week, and humans remains have been reported as on board, according to a post on Twitter by I Marine Expeditionary Force. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor, returned to the White House yesterday following a mild case of Covid-19. O’Brien has resumed his in-person duties after a week of being asymptomatic and two virus tests reading negative. Daniel Lippman reports for POLITICO.

US ELECTIONS

The Census Bureau is stopping its essential counting of the US population on Sept. 30, four weeks earlier than planned, Steven Dillingham, the agency’s director announced in a statement Monday. With more than 60 million households still not counted, the announcement has received great backlash; four former directors of the bureau wrote in a joint statement that bringing the date forward would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country.” They also insisted that the original date be restored and for Congress to establish a body of experts to developed a nationwide standard for assessing the bureau’s population counting. Michael Wines and Richard Fausset report for the New York Times.

A major threat to the 2020 elections is disinformation and misinformation that alleges threats from mail-in voting, election security experts warned yesterday. The warning comes after President Trump has persisted in criticizing the mail-in voting system and warning of the potential dangers of election fraud. Experts have said that the spreading of misinformation and/or disinformation could lead to many U.S. citizens dismissing November’s results as invalid or rigged, which poses a greater threat to the election than any cyber threat. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Trump yesterday back-pedaled on his warnings against mail-in voting, encouraging its use in Florida.“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter, adding: “Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA.” Caitlin Oprysko reports for POLITICO.

Democrats must “have a vote-by-mail strategy for November” and focus on outreach projects that will increase voter turnout, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Cheri Bustos insisted when briefing Democrats. The importance of outreach was stressed by Bustos, who based her advice on voter-engagement tests trialed during a California special election in May. Sarah Ferris and Ally Mutnick report for POLITICO.

the United States has two weeks to get its mail-in voting system in order to avoid chaos on election day, warned Nate Persily, election law expert and professor at Stanford Law School. Persily noted the undesirable situation in New York’s Democratic primary, stating that what is happening in New York is “a cautionary tale of how states and localities really need to get prepared and work with the postal service to make sure that mail balloting works.” Cynthia McFadden and Kevin Monahan report for NBC News.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM 

The remaining federal agents in Portland, Oregon will stop wearing their camouflage military-style uniforms whilst policing protests in response to police brutality and systemic racism, Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli announced in prepared statement to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee yesterday. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have been wearing camouflage uniforms during protests in Portland; however, Cuccinelli said that rapid action is taking place to replace these uniforms [and] “procure for them what you think of as the solid green CBP uniform.” Genevca Sands and Priscilla Alvarez report for CNN.

US prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence linking anti-racism protestors to the anti-fascist group Antifa, which President Trump has long said is fuelling violent protests. “We have not alleged defendant affiliation with any specific groups or ideologies in our cases stemming from recent Portland protests,” said Kevin Sonoff, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland. “Our cases focus purely on the criminal conduct alleged.” Reuters reporting.

LEBANON

A huge explosion at Beirut’s city port yesterday has claimed the lives of over 100 people and left thousands more injured, with over 2,7000 tons of ammonium nitrate identified as the likely cause. The highly-explosive materials have reportedly been stored at the port for over 6 years. The blast was heard in Cyprus, over 100 miles away. Chloe Cornish reports for the Financial Times.

Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun is calling for a two-week state of emergency in response to the devastating explosion, condemning the storing of ammonium nitrate as “unacceptable” and vowing to punish those reponsible. Reuters reporting.

US defense officials have contradicted President Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that the explosion was in fact an “attack.” After Trump took to Twitter to send his “deepest sympathies to the people of Lebanon” over what he claimed was a “terrible attack,” officials have come forward anonymously to make clear that they don’t know where the president was getting his information from. Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne and Nikki Carvajal report for CNN.

Latest updates on the explosion at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN      

President Trump has said less than 5,000 US troops will be in Afghanistan by November, despite U.S. diplomats stressing the importance of a concrete peace agreement between the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban prior to any troop reduction. Trump announced the plan during an interview with Axios filmed July 28 but released Monday. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports for the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has discussed the Afghan peace deal with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Baradar Akhund, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen confirmed. “Both sides talked about the inception of intra-Afghan negotiations” and emphasized that “release of the remaining prisoners are essential for commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Shaheen said in a post on Twitter. Rebecca Klar reports for The Hill.

LIBYA

US national security advisor Robert O’Brien yesterday condemned all foreign military involvement in Libya, including mercenaries and private military groups. Reuters reporting.

Germany has deployed 250 soldiers aboard a Navy ship to carry out a five-month mission as part of a European Union effort to enforce a United Nations embargo preventing the flow of weapons into Libya. Al Jazeera reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 4.77 million and killed close to 157,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 18.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 701,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

President Trump maintained that the novel coronavirus is under control in the US, while speaking to Axios reporters Monday, despite significant rising death tolls, “They are dying, that’s true,” he said. “It is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague.” Reuters reporting.

The fourth US service member has died from Covid-19, according to recently released data from the Department of Defense (DOD). The service member was in the Army and is the first such death since May. The DOD and Army are yet to provide any further details. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

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. 

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)