Early Edition: August 24, 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

Former CIA Director John Brennan was interviewed Friday by the team of John Durham, US Attorney for Connecticut, as part of his probe into the origins of the Russia investigations by the CIA and FBI. Durham, who was chosen by Attorney General William Barr to lead the review, told Brennan that he was neither a subject nor a target of his probe and was there to plainly give evidence on any events he witnessed that were currently under review. “Brennan provided details on the efforts made by the Intelligence Community to understand and disrupt the actions taken by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” said Brennan’s former adviser, Nick Shapiro, adding that Brennan “expressed appreciation for the professional manner in which Mr. Durham and his team conducted the interview.” He was also questioned about the CIA’s involvement in the report released by the Obama administration in January 2017 that pointed to Russian interference. Julian E. Barnes reports for the New York Times.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said yesterday that he does not have the authority to send law enforcement to polling stations during this year’s presidential election, although President Trump recently suggested that he planned to deploy federal officers to protect against election fraud. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Wolf said in response to questions about whether he would send officers to polling stations: “That’s not what we do at the Department of Homeland Security … We have express authorities authorized by Congress and this is not one of them.” Reuters reporting.

A former Army Green Beret captain was arrested Friday over allegations that he conspired with Russia intelligence operatives from as early as 1996, providing them with national defense information. The accused, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, is said to have been working with Russia from 1996 to 2011, according to a statement by the Justice Department, and to have provided Russian operatives with information on other service members to assist Russia in trying to recruit them. Kaelan Deese reports for The Hill.

US POSTAL SERVICE

The House this weekend passed its much-anticipated $25 billion bill to prevent the US Postal Service (USPS) from implementing operational changes until 2021 that have been denounced for certainly slowing down the service during the months leading up to the country’s presidential election. The legislation was passed by a vote of 257-150, with more than two-dozen Republicans supporting the bill, and seeks to prevent the Postal Service from making changes such as removing mail-sorting machines, limiting overtime pay, or allowing election mail to be handled as second-class delivery priority. The bill is unlikely to be successful during its next stage in the GOP-led Senate. Cristina Marcos and Mike Lillis report for The Hill.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows described the bill passed Saturday as “a largely messaging bill, because it’s going absolutely nowhere,” speaking on Fox News Sunday, further highlighting the impasse between Democrats and the White House. Meadows made clear that he had attempted to come to a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) but that she had refused to do anything “piecemeal.” Nolan D. McCaskill reports for POLITICO.           

USPS have said that the Democrats’ bill would negatively impact on the Postal Service’s ability to “improve service to the American people.” The Postal Service said in a statement: “We are concerned that some of the requirements of the Bill, while well meaning, will constrain the ability of the Postal Service to make operational changes that will improve efficiency, reduce costs, and ultimately improve service to the American people.” Reuters reporting.

House Democrats on the Oversight and Reform Committee revealed documents Saturday that they argue prove the Postal Service’s delays are “far worse” than acknowledged, pointing to an 8 percent decline its processing times since July, the same time changes to the service were underway. J. Edward Moreno reports for The Hill.

USPS’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified before the Senate Friday and assured lawmakers that election ballots would be handled “securely and on time,” but did indicate that the highly-criticized operational changes he touted and has since suspended will go ahead after elections. DeJoy also said that mail-sorting machines, which he recently halted, will not be brought back as they were not needed, and made clear that he had never spoken with President Trump about the service. “We will deploy processes and procedures that advances any election mail, in some cases ahead of first-class mail,” DeJoy further added. Phil McCausland reports for NBC News.

DeJoy is set to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee today, chaired by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), where he is expected to face a much more skeptical, and even critical, panel compared to the Senate. DeJoy is expected to be grilled by the panel over recent changes he made to the service that have caused severe delays and risk impacting the Postal Service’s ability to handle mail-in ballots in this year’s presidential election. Jeremy Herb reports for CNN.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced yesterday that a three-member subcommittee of the Postal Service’s Board of Governors has been formed to investigate the service’s policy changes. The subcommittee is excepted to release a report in two weeks that will set out how the Postal Service plans to ensure a stable service, particularly in relation to election mail. Schumer said the short deadline for the report was to “give us enough time to put the correct actions in place so that the elections will be held fairly.” Evan Simko-Bednarski reports for CNN.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 5.7 million and killed close to 177,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 23.44 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 809,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

President Trump announced yesterday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the emergency use of convalescent plasma to treat Covid-19 patients, stating that the FDA had found plasma to be “safe and very effective,” although those comments have been said to overstate FDA assessments, with the head of its drugs division, Janet Woodcock, who is working on Operation Warp Speed, making clear that the plasma is not “proven as an effective treatment.” Over 70,000 Americans have already received plasma treatment; however, as the large majority of these were not received via controlled clinical trials, its effectiveness remain uncertain. Zacahry Brennan and Sarah Owermohle report for POLITICO.

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.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM 

The use of National Guard surveillance planes to monitor protests in four US cities did not violate rules against the military collecting intelligence on US citizens, a Pentagon report has concluded. The Air Force inspector general found that the planes were only used to gather information on crowd sizes, crowd flows and fires, but made clear they did not monitor specific individuals. AP reporting.

Portland’s new district attorney Mike Schmidt has refused to prosecute hundreds of low-level offenses committed during recent protest and demonstrations in response to systemic racism and police brutality against black people in the US. Within the first ten days of Schmidt taking office, he dismissed the charges of at least 300 people arrested in the city since late May, which has been met with resistance from Portland police officers and the Multnomah County sheriff. Richard A. Oppel Jr. reports for the New York Times.

IRAN

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s atomic watchdog, will meet with senior Iranian officials in Tehran today to discuss Iran’s nuclear activities, although Iran has made clear that the meeting has nothing to do with the U.S.’s recent move to pressure the U.N. Security Council to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Grossi said: “My objective is that my meetings in Tehran will lead to concrete progress in addressing the outstanding questions that the agency has related to safeguards in Iran and, in particular, to resolve the issue of access.” Al Jazeera reporting.

The US has imposed visa restrictions on 13 Iranian officials it accuses of being involved in “gross violations of human rights” in relation to a 1990 assassination of an Iranian opposition figure in Switzerland. Reuters reporting.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization has said “sabotage” caused an explosion last month at the country’s Natanz nuclear facility. “Security investigations confirm this was sabotage and what is certain is that an explosion took place in Natanz … But how this explosion took place and with what materials … will be announced by security officials in due course,” a spokesperson for the organization said yesterday. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

US-led coalition forces withdrew from Iraq’s Taji base yesterday, handing it over to Iraqi security forces, the latest move aimed at handing control of the region over to Iraq’s government. Reuters reporting.

The Taliban has finalized it negotiating team to lead talks with Afghan government, a top Taliban negotiator told The Associated Press. The Taliban’s chief, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, has handpicked a 20-member team to be responsible for discussing peace talks with the Afghan Government. AP reporting.

Khalifa Haftar, the renegade military commander of the Libyan National Army, yesterday dismissed a ceasefire announced by Libya’s internationally recognized government as “deception” and a “marketing” stunt. Haftar’s comments came after a ceasefire was announced by the Libyan government Friday. “The initiative that [Libya’s prime minister] al-Sarraj signed is for media marketing … There is a military build-up and the transfer of equipment to target our forces in Sirte,” Ahmed Mismari, a spokesperson for Haftar, said, adding: “If al-Sarraj wanted a ceasefire, he would have drawn his forces back, not advanced towards our units in Sirte.” Al Jazeera reporting.

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun is set to visit Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine on Aug. 24-27 to meet with senior government officials to discuss many regional issues, the State Department confirmed in a statement yesterday. Reuters 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)