Early Edition: August 13, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chair Ron Johnson said yesterday that Republicans on his committee were blocking his attempts to subpoena former FBI director James Comey and former CIA director John Brennan. Johnson told radio host Hugh Hewitt that “we had a number of my committee members that were highly concerned about how this looks politically,” stressing that he would need unanimous support from all Republican committee members to ensure there is not a deadlock with Democrats. The chair also refused to name any specific Republicans that were not supportive. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday defended his and his department’s decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia after the department’s inspector general found the government had not adequately assessed civilian casualty risks. “We did everything by the book,” Pompeo told reporters during a news conference with the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, adding: “I am proud of the work that my team did. We got a really good outcome. We prevented the loss of lives.” Reuters reporting.

Trump has reportedly discussed replacing Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the November election, following a number of disagreements between the pair on key issues. An anonymous source said the president and Esper were “not in a good place.” Reuters reporting.

The State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has found that U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson has made a series of insensitive and inappropriate comments about race, religion and sex during his tenure, according to a report published yesterday, which further recommended that the department’s Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, working with the department’s Office of Civil Rights, should assess Johnson’s compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity laws and take appropriate action based on that review. However, the department seems to have rejected a further probe into his remarks, stating in a written response: “We stand by Ambassador Johnson and look forward to him continuing to ensure our special relationship with the UK is strong.” AP reporting.

An Air Force helicopter was shot at from the ground in Virginia Monday, forcing it to make an emergency landing and leaving one of its crew members injured, Pentagon officials confirmed. The UH-1N Huey helicopter was on a routine training flight before it made its emergency landing at Manassas Regional Airport in northern Virginia. “The incident is currently under investigation with local and federal authorities,” the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Joint Base Andrews confirmed. Neil Vigdor reports for the New York Times.

US ELECTIONS AND ELECTION INTERFERENCE 

President Trump has accepted the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is in dire need of funding for mail-in voting; however, the president made clear he had no intention of releasing funds he recently blocked from USPS, stating that the Postal Service and its limited funds will perpetuate “one of the greatest frauds in history.” Speaking yesterday at his daily coronavirus news briefing, the president made clear he would not approve $25 billion in emergency funding for USPS, or $3.5 billion for funding for election resources. Jacob Bogage reports for the Washington Post.

House Democrats have warned USPS’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that operational changes he implemented would “disenfranchise voters” in November’s election. 174 Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), signed a letter yesterday which stated: “The House is seriously concerned that you are implementing policies that accelerate the crisis at the Postal Service, including directing Post Offices to no longer treat all election mail as First Class. If implemented now, as the election approaches, this policy will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions.” Dartunorro Clark, Caroline Vakil and Geoff Bennett report for NBC News.

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have ramped up their fight against misinformation and disinformation on the U.S. election, with Facebook setting up a specialized hub, a “Voting Information Center,” to help users with poll and election related resources and Twitter introducing new policies against spreading inaccurate information on mail-in ballots and early voting. Reuters reporting.

Major tech groups met with government officials yesterday to discuss efforts to secure the November election from interference that tarnished the 2016 election. The group of tech leaders has grown in size, with recent new participants including Wikimedia Foundation, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, and Verizon Media. The group met with officials from the FBI, the Office of the director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss disinformation campaigns and identify any newly emerging threats. Mike Isaac and Kate Conger report for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 5.2 million and killed over 166,000 people in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 20.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 750,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The United States saw more than 1,470 coronavirus-related deaths yesterday, the highest death toll in August and the third highest since late May. Sun Belt states saw the most dramatic cases, including Texas, Florida, Arizona and California. The New York Times reporting.

The number of U.S. resident deaths since March is more than 200,000 higher than it would normally be for the country, which suggests that official data on coronavirus deaths may be significantly underestimated. Denise Lu reports for the New York Times.

The Trump administration’s new COVID-19 database is placing a significant burden on hospitals and will have “serious consequences on data integrity,” current and former members of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee said in a unpublished letter obtained by the New York Times. The Covid Tracking Project have pointed to “major problems” with the new Department of Health and Human Services system, stating this week that “the federal data continue to be unreliable.” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the United States is available at the New York Times.

United States 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.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Two Indianapolis police officers have been charged with assaulting protestors, after videos surfaced showing the officers repeatedly hitting a woman with batons and then firing pepper balls at her, authorities confirmed yesterday. The officers, Jonathan Horlock and Nathaniel Schauwecker, have been charged with offences including battery, battery resulting in bodily injury, perjury, obstruction of justice and official misconduct. Michael Levenson reports for the New York Times.

59 Confederate symbols have been removed since the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, reports Camila Domonoske for NPR.

IRAN

Iranian forces boarded a Liberian-flagged oil vessel yesterday, the U.S. Central Command confirmed in a post on Twitter. “Today in international waters, Iranian forces, including two ships and an Iranian ‘Sea King’ helicopter, overtook and boarded a ship called the ‘Wila’,” the post read. The incident reportedly took place near the Strait of Hormuz and the ship was finally released. The U.S.’s involvement remained entirely monitory. Reuters reporting.

A clear explainer of the United National Security Council’s impending vote on a U.S. proposal to extend the arms embargo on Iran is provided by Reuters.

President Trump “misses being part of the Iran deal,” Ariane Tabatabai and Or Rabinowiytz argue for Foreign Policy, adding: “His administration wants to trigger the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s] JCPOA’s snapback mechanism, but he probably can’t do that from the outside.”

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

A nuclear facility in North Korea has likely been damaged by recent flooding in the area, U.S. think thank 38 North said in a report, stating that satellite imagery from August 6–11 showed that the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center’s nuclear reactor cooling system is vulnerable to extreme weather. “Damage to the pumps and piping within the pump houses presents the biggest vulnerability to the reactors,” the report said, adding: “If the reactors were operating, for instance, the inability to cool them would require them to be shut down.” Al Jazeera reporting.

A North Korea-affiliated hacking group attempted to hack Israel’s defense industry, the country’s defense ministry confirmed, although it made clear that the attack was thwarted and caused no “harm or disruption” to computer defense systems. However, ClearSky, the international cybersecurity firm that initially exposed the attack, disagreed and said hackers had infiltrated the computer systems and likely stolen huge amounts of classified data. Ronen Bergman and Nicole Periroth report for the New York Times.

Israel yesterday successfully tested its Arrow-2 ballistic missile interceptor, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) confirmed. “MDA remains committed to assisting the government of Israel as it upgrades its national missile defense capability against current and emerging threats,” said Vice Admiral Jon Hill, the agency’s director. Reuters reporting.

Over 6,000 people have been arrested and at least one killed in the violent protests in Belarus in response to growing discontent about the recent disputed presidential election. Fred Pleitgen and Mary Ilyushina report for CNN. 

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)