Early Edition: August 18, 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

Former CIA officer, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, has been charged with sharing classified information with the Chinese government, the Department of Justice confirmed yesterday, the latest intelligence official to be accused of spying for Beijing. Ma, aged 67, worked for the CIA from 1982-1989 and has been accused of violating espionage laws when he met Chinese intelligence officials from Hong Kong 12 years after retiring from his position. He is expected to appear in court today and faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if found guilty. Matt Zapatosky reports for the Washington Post.

Roger Stone, whose three-year prison sentence was last month commuted by longtime friend and confidant President Trump, yesterday dropped his appeal against his seven federal felony convictions for lying to Congress and witness tampering. Stone’s lawyers submitted the notice before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last night, just an hour before a deadline ended for the lawyers to challenge Stone’s convictions and seek a new trial. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

Trump announced yesterday that he will pardon a “very important” person today, but made clear they were neither the president’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, or Snowden. Trump offered no more details except to confirmed it was neither Flynn or Snowden. Reuters reporting.

Top Democrat and Republican of the House Armed Services Committee have warned against Trump pardoning Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who was charged with espionage after releasing classified documents related to US surveillance programs, arguing that he “did enormous harm” to U.S. national security. Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith(D-WA) and ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) argued in a joint letter that: “To pardon Snowden now would completely undermine this Administration’s position and mock our national security workforce who take immense caution in their work to keep us safe.” Ellen Mithcell reports for The Hill.

The Pentagon’s proposal to cut military healthcare by $2.2 billion during the Covid-19 pandemic has been rejected by Trump yesterday, after the president said in a post on Twitter that he “firmly and totally rejected” the plans. Two officials said the cuts would affect 9.5 million active-duty personnel, military retirees and their families. Dan Diamon and Lara Seligman report for POLITICO.

Carter Page, Trump’s former campaign adviser, has had his lawsuit, which was filed against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for its dossier accusing Page and Trump of colluding with Russia during the 2016 election, thrown out of court yesterday. U.S. District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber’s judgement yesterday was centered on the court’s lack of jurisdiction over the DNC and others in the case. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

US Air Force and the Pentagon are investigating reports that a small drone flew close to Trump’s airplane, Air Force One, as it approached for landing near Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Gordon Lubold reports for the Wall Street Journal.

US ELECTIONS AND US POSTAL SERVICE       

The US Postal Service (USPS)’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy yesterday agreed to testify before Congress next week over operational changes and cuts to the service. DeJoy, an ally of President Trump, became postmaster in June and has been the target of much criticism. Robert Duncan, USPS’s chair to the board of governors and former chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), will also testify alongside DeJoy, the Postal Service confirmed. Al Jazeera reporting.

House Democrats will vote this Saturday on a bill intended to prohibit operational changes to the USPS until after the election and provide $25 billion in additional funding. The proposed bill is unlikely to be accepted by the Senate, which is currently in recess until next month and intends to advance its own funding for the USPS. Alexa Corse and Natalie Andrews report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Postal Service’s former vice chair of the board of govenors, David Williams, is expected to give a private briefing to the House Progressive Caucus on Thursday, people familiar with the situation confirmed. Heidi Przybyla and Leigh Ann Caldwell report for NBC News.

Four voters from different states have filed a lawsuit against Trump, DeJoy and the USPS, claiming there is an intentional attempt to undermine the upcoming presidential election. The lawsuit was filed before a federal court in D.C. and is the latest legal action taken against the proposed changes to USPS’s operational policies. Matthew Choi and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO.

Alternatives to the mail-in ballots are being franticly sought by state officials amid huge postal concerns, which could include ballot drop boxes and drive-through drop-offs. Nick Corasaniti, Michael D. Shear and Trip Gabriel report for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 5.44 million and killed close to 171,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 21.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 774,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

New coronavirus cases reported Monday were at their lowest since June 24 – 35,112, according to data by Johns Hopkins University. Sunday counted 42,048 news cases, which was the lowest recorded since June 29. Adam Martin reports for the Wall Street Journal.

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.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government said yesterday that it would not release the final 320 Taliban prisoners until the Taliban releases captured Afghan soldiers, an announcement that goes against a number of agreements pushing for the release to go ahead. Talks between the two sides and the United Sates were expected to start this Thursday but have been postponed. AP reporting.

The US has paid $2 million in “ex gratia payments” to civilian casualties and their families in Afghanistan over the past five years, recently revealed data from the Pentagon shows. The data, which has never been made publicly available, shows a fluctuation in the number of payments made, peaking in 2016 with close to 300 payments made that totalled $1.4 million. Missy Ryan reports for the Washington Post.

ISRAELI RELATIONS

Israeli fighter jets landed in Germany yesterday for the first joint military exercises between the two nations. The exercise has benefits for both sides – the German military get an opportunity to learn from Israel’s highly-trained fighter jet pilots, and Israel gets the opportunity to learn about NATO techniques and train in a new air space. Melissa Eddy and Christopher F. Schuetze report for the New York Times.

The US will not approve Israel’s annexation of the West Bank for “some time,” senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said yesterday, indicating that focus must now be on the newly formed relationship between Israel and the UAE. Al Jazeera reporting.

Israeli warplanes bombed Gaza for the seventh night in a row and targeted an observation post in Hamas, an attack that Israeli officials have said was in retaliation to a Palestinian fire balloon attack across the border. Al Jazeera reporting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes clear that his country’s new accord with the UAE does not support any US arms sales to the UAE, after a report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said the United States is planning a “giant” sale of advanced F-35 jets to United Arab Emirates. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS       

Iran’s government allegedly offered bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops and its coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to two official’s interpretations of a recent Pentagon briefing document. The document said that a “foreign government” paid the Haqqani network, led by a top Taliban leader, to attack Bagram Air Base last December, with officials confirming that the government in question was Iran, according to reports by CNN. Julian Borger reports for The Guardian.

The US has finalized with Taiwan the sale of 66 new American-made F-16 fighter jets, according to an announcement on the Department of Defense’s website. It will be biggest arms sale to the island in many years, and a move likely to intensify tensions with China. Brad Lendon reports for CNN.

China has unveiled a new weapons system, the “Sky Thunder,” which boasts a 500kg precision-guided munitions dispenser and air-to-surface missile. The system can carry six different types of submunitions and can attack different targets at the same time, senior engineers have reported. The announcement follows growing tension between China, Taiwan and the United States. 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)