Early Edition: August 17, 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

President Trump’s top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appointments were improper, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported. The government watchdog reported in a 12-page document that the appointments of acting secretary of homeland security, Chad Wolf, and acting deputy secretary of homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli, did not abide by processes set out in federal law. The issue has been referred to the department’s own inspector general for examination. Reuters reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed Saturday a defense pact with Poland that will see an increase in troops deployed to the area, an announcement that comes not long after troops begin to be pulled from Germany. The agreement will see an additional 1,000 troops in the area, totaling at least 5,500, although Polish defense minister Mariusz Blaszczak said the number could quickly rise to 20,000 if required. BBC reporting.

Trump will “take a very good look at” pardoning Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who was charged with espionage after releasing classified documents related to US surveillance programs, the president confirmed while speaking at a news conference Saturday.Snowden sought asylum in Russia in 2013 and has not returned to the United States since. Aishvarya Kavi reports for the New York Times.

Trump said Saturday that he “considers firing everybody” when asked if he was considering firing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, after rumours surfaced last week that Trump and Esper were at serious loggerheads on key issues. J. Edward Moreno reports for The Hill.

Trump is seeking to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the November election, those familiar with the situation have said. Administration officials are considering dates, times and locations, with the meeting expected to focus on extending the New START nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, which will expire next year. Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube report for NBC News.

US ELECTIONS AND US POSTAL SERVICE       

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) and House Democrats will reconvene the House this week to address President Trump’s attempts to undermine the US Postal Service (USPS) and change it operational practices, Pelosi announced last night. The House intends to vote this Saturday on the Delivering for America Act, brought forward by House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), which intends to block Trump’s plans on changes to USPS. “The president has explicitly stated his intention to manipulate the Postal Service to deny eligible voters access to the ballot in pursuit of his own re-election,” Democratic lawmakers said in a statement yesterday, adding that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is “an accomplice in the president’s campaign to cheat in the election.” John Bresnahan, Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle report for POLITICO.

USPS inspector general (IG) is investigating service disruptions and concerns raised by lawmakers, a spokesperson for Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) confirmed Friday, stating that the IG has already requested documents as part of its review. A spokesperson for USPS IG Tammy Whitcomb said the office is “in receipt of the congressional request and are conducting a body of work to address concerns raised,” but declined to provide further detail. Reuters reporting.

Attorneys general from at least 6 states are coming together to potentially take legal action against the Trump administration and its changes to USPS operational policies, those familiar with internal conversations have confirmed. The states include: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington and North Carolina. Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said: “This is not just terrible policy, but it may be illegal under federal law and other state laws as well,” adding that a lot is being done to try and figure out “what Trump and DeJoy are doing, whether they have already violated or are likely to violate any laws and how we can take swift action to try to stop this assault on our democracy.” Amy Gardner and Seung Min Kim report for the Washington Post.

USPS has warned there is a “significant risk” of late mail-in votes in some states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Missouri and Washington. Numerous states have received letters from the Postal Service in recent days that makes clear that the country will not be able to fulfil its hopes of mail-in voting in time. The letter, sent by USPS’s general counsel Thomas Marshall, said that states’ election “deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards. This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in times to be counted under your laws as we understand them.” Phil McCausland, Geoff Benner and Kevin Collier report for NBC News.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATIONS

Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee informed prosecutors last year that President Trump’s family and associate may have mislead congressional panel investigations into Russian interference, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr and White House adviser Jared Kusher, whose statements contradicted the testimony of former deputy campaign chair Rick Gates. The committee also accused Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, former campaign co-chair Sam Clovis and private security contractor Erik Prince of lying to Congress, which could result in felony charges. Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Nakashima and Matt Zapotosky report for the Washington Post.

Former FBI Lawyer Kevin Clinesmith will plead guilty to altering an email used as part of probe into Russian interference in 2016 election, Clinesmith’s lawyers confirmed. Clinesmith is excepted to admit to changing an email from the CIA that was used in a 2017 court application to wiretap Trump’s campaign adviser, Carter Page. BBC reporting.

Andrew Weismann, top prosecutor who served on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference, has criticized the Justice Department’s decision to start a criminal case against Clinesmith. Marty Johnson reports for The Hill.

IRAN ARMS EMBARGO

The UN Security Council rejected Friday President Trump’s plans to extend an arms embargo on Iran, a defeat that was excepted due to Russia and China’s vetoing power and opposition to the measure, although neither had to exercise its veto power. The Security Council said Friday that the proposal did not receive the requisite nine “yes” votes, with 11 abstentions, two voting yes and two voting no.  AP reporting.

Trump pledges “snapback” on UN sanctions against Iran, vowing to use a 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between Iran and world powers to unilaterally push through sanctions on Tehran, despite the United States withdrawing from the accord in 2018. The Guardian reporting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday called for an “urgent” summit with the US, Britain, France, China, Germany and Iran to avoid “confrontation and escalation” within the Security Council. Al Jazeera reporting.

The US cannot trigger a “snapback” to force through UN sanctions against Iran, the European Union’s foreign policy chief argued over the weekend. “Given that the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and has not participated in any JCPOA structures or activities subsequently, the U.S. cannot be considered as a JCPOA participant,” a spokesperson for the foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. Al Jazeera reporting.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Right-wing protesters clashed with racial justice protestors in several US states Saturday, including Georgia, Michigan and Oregon. In Portland, far-right groups gathered, waving American flags, which sparked violent clashes and a firm response from police officers. Katie Shepherd and Holly Bailey report for the Washington Post.

Violent protests erupt in Chicago this weekend, leaving 17 officers injured and over 20 arrested. “Multiple agitators hijacked this peaceful protest,” Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said late Saturday, adding: “This group deployed large black umbrellas, changed their appearance and began pushing and eventually assaulting officers.” Deanna Paul reports for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 5.4 million and killed over 170,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 21.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 776,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

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.

ISRAEL-UAE ACCORD

A direct telephone service between Israel and the UAE has been launched after the two countries reached a historic accord last week that will hopefully see a normalizing of relations. Both countries’ foreign ministers called each other over the weekend and “exchanged greetings following the historic peace accord,” an official statement said. BBC reporting.

Iranian Major General Mohammad Bagheri said yesterday that Iran’s approach to the UAE “will change” as a result of newly formed diplomatic relations, further adding that if Iran’s “national security is damaged, however small, we will hold the UAE responsible for that and we will not tolerate it.” Reuters reporting.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday that the UAE has made a “huge mistake” in its new peaceful relationship with Israel. Reuters reporting.

The UAE foreign ministry has rebuked Rouhani’s comments as “unacceptable and inflammatory” and would have “serious implications for security and stability in the Gulf region.” Al Jazeera reporting.

Bahrain and Oman could follow the UAE’s lead and formalize ties with Israel, Israel’s intelligence minister, Eli Cohen, told a state radio station. “In the wake of this agreement will come additional agreements, both with more Gulf countries and with Muslim countries in Africa,” Cohen said, adding that: “Bahrain and Oman are definitely on the agenda. In addition, in my assessment, there is a chance that already in the coming year there will be a peace deal with additional countries in Africa, chief among them, Sudan.” Reuters reporting.

BELARUS ELECTIONS AND PROTESTS

Around 200,000 protestors swarmed the streets of Belarus yesterday in the country’s largest demonstration in response to the widely-disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. Many protestors wore red and white, the colors of the opposition party, whilst marching through the country’s capital Minsk, chanting “step down.” Reuters reporting.

Russia will offer military help to Belarus to “ensure the security” of the country, Lukashenko revealed Saturday, just hours after he finished a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first direct conversation the two leaders have had since Lukashenko claimed a huge victory in the recent election. Lukashenko further added that Russia is ready to provide “full assistance” at “first request.” Isabelle Khurshudyan reports for the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump’s administration is planning new sanctions against Syria, a U.S. official confirmed, stating that the planned extension of measures will add financial-support networks to a U.S. blacklist for assisting in the war in Syria. Ian Talley and Benoit Faucon report for the Wall Street Journal.

US and South Kora are to begin scaled-back military drills amid Covid-19 spike, Seoul’s Joint chiefs of Staff confirmed yesterday. The drills are set to take place from tomorrow until Aug. 28, and will primarily involve computer simulation drills. Zack Budryk reports for The Hill. 

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)