Early Edition: August 31, 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 ELECTION SECURITY AND INTERFERENCE

The Department of Justice in 2017 secretly attempted to curtail special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and any links tied to President Trump’s campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, preventing investigators from fully examining the president’s long history and ties with Russia. Although former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had asked Mueller to examine “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government” and Trump’s campaign, officials have revealed that Rosenstein had told Mueller to limit his investigations to criminal conduct, which many have said was the wrong approach to the overall investigation. Michael S. Schmidt reports for the New York Times.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will scale back its election security briefings to Congress, no longer providing in-person updates instead, lawmakers will be informed of threats in writing — according to sources familiar with the change and a letter sent to Congress, Aug. 28, by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe suggested that leaks from Congress prompted the move; however, Democrats have denounced the change, with House speaker Nancy Pelosi (NY) and House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (CA) stating in a joint statement that the news was a “shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility” and “a betrayal of the public’s right to known how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy.” Republicans have also echoed Democrats’ concerns: Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) said that congressional oversight is facing a “historic crisis” after Ratcliffe’s notification. Betsy Woodruff Swan, Andrew Desiderio, Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO.

Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that the military will play no role in the presidential election, stressing that he believes “deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military.” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee that U.S. armed forces would not get involved in the election process or resolving any disputes over votes: “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S armed forces in this process,” he said. AP reporting.

Top state election officials said Friday that an increase in mail-in voting would not lead to an increase in voter fraud, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee Friday. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said: “We actually have now conducted three elections this year alone with a full right to vote-by-mail with more citizens voting by mail than ever before and with zero reports or evidence of fraud.” Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) said that although in his state there had been “isolate incidents” of voter fraud, the state had implemented a host of best practices aimed at ensuring officials were “vigilant” of fraud. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

US DEVELOPMENTS

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) announced Friday contempt proceedings against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, alleging Pompeo had continued to ignore the House panel’s subpoenas for documents related to its investigation into Pompeo’s “transparently political misuse” of the State Department’s resources. Engel also cited Pompeo’s recorded speech in Jerusalem for last week’s Republican National Convention (RNC), in which Engel said Pompeo had “demonstrated alarming disregard for the laws and rules governing his own conduct and for the tools the Constitution provides to prevent government corruption.” Engel added: “The Secretary’s ongoing defiance of two duly authorized subpoenas on matters directly linked to American foreign policy toward Ukraine has left the Committee no further option but to begin drafting a resolution finding Secretary Pompeo in contempt of Congress.” Laura Kelly and Olivia Beavers report for The Hill.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acting Secretary Chad Wolf said yesterday that he was not aware that a naturalization ceremony he participated in last week with President Trump would be broadcast during the RNC, stating that his department does “hundreds, if not, thousands” of such ceremonies each year. Wolf’s comments follow a litany of criticism aimed at him that argued he may have breached the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from participating in political activities in their official capacity and federal employees from using their position and authority to influence presidential elections. It also comes after an email was sent to all DHS employees reminding them not to participate in any “partisan political activity.” Allie Bice reports for POLITICO.

Former White House Counsel Don McGahn sent memos to the then chief of staff John Kelly which argued that Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner’s security clearance needed to be downgraded, the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt reports in his much-anticipated book, “Donald Trump v. The United States.” Schmidt reports that Kelly had reservations about granting Kusher’s top-security clearance following briefings both he and McGahn had received about the FBI’s routine investigations into Kushner. “The information you were briefed on one week ago and subsequently relayed to me, raises serious additional concerns about whether this individual ought to retain a top security clearance until such issues can be investigated and resolved,” McGahn’s memo to Kelly read, although the details that sparked concerns have not been revealed. In the end, Trump intervened to push through Kusher’s security clearance. Jonathan Swan reports for Axios.

Following Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump offered Kelly, then the DHS Secretary, Comey’s role if he pledged his loyalty to the president, Schmidt reports in his new book. Trump made clear to Kelly that if he became the bureau’s new boss he “needed to be loyal to him, and only him,” the book says. Kelly, however, “said that he would be loyal to the Constitution and the rule of law,” refusing to pledge loyalty to the president, Schmidt writes. Jonathan Swan reports for Axios.

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay are not protected by the Constitution’s due process clause, with Judge Neomi Rao stating that “the Due Process Clause may not be invoked by aliens without property or presence in the sovereign territory of the United States.” The appeal was brought by the lawyers of Yemeni citizen Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman al Hela who has been detained in Cuba since 2004; his lawyers have said they are considering their next steps after receiving the court’s blow to their client’s argued habeas corpus rights. Harper Neidig reports for The Hill.

New Chinese government restrictions could complicate the sale of video sharing app TikTok to a US company, after the government introduced restrictions on tech exports Friday, requiring businesses to first get government approval, which could take up to a month. The move is thought to be a concerted effort by China to disrupt the sale of TikTok to a U.S. company by Beijing-based owner ByteDance. Paul Mozur, Raymond Zhong and David McCabe report for the New York Times.

A man was shot and killed during protests in Portland, OR, Saturday after clashes ensued between Trump supporters and anti- racial injustice and police brutality protestors. The man killed is thought to have been linked to a right-ring group and was partaking in the pro-Trump caravan that made its way through the city. The city’s mayor urged all those involved to refrain from violence. Rachel Treisman reports for NPR.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 6 million and killed over 183,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 25.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 846,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The White House may sign a $1.3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows suggested Friday; however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) has said the figure falls shorts of what Americans needed during the pandemic. Pelosi made clear that she would not support any package offering less than $2.2 trillion, although the likelihood of that is slim, as the new proposed figure is close to $300 billion higher than the White House’s initial offer. Juliegrace Brufke reports for The Hill.

At least 33 states have rejected new guidance by the Trump administration that suggested that those who have are exposed to Covid-19 but show no symptoms are not required to be tested. The states, which include Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, have made clear that they still recommend testing any person who has been exposed to the virus but have no symptoms, disagreeing with guidance published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said testing was unnecessary. Reuters reporting.

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.

US-RUSSIA RELATIONS

US fighter jets intercepted six Russia military jets off the coast of Alaska Thursday night, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) reported Friday. U.S. F-22 jets intercepted three groups of two Russia TU-142 patrol jets that had entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone, although NORAD did say the jets remained in international airspace. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Two Russian aircrafts came within 100 feet of a US bomber over international water Friday, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces said. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, said the Russian planes’ conduct was “unsafe” and “unnecessary, and inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules.” Zack Budryk report for The Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has appointed a 46-member council for national reconciliation, the High Council for National Reconciliation, which will have the final decision on whether the country’s government signs a peace deal with the Taliban. AP reporting.

Among the 300 Taliban prisoners set to be released by the Afghan government as part of ongoing peace talks are three Afghans who stand accused of being involved in the death of US troops. Although U.S. officials have not rejected their release, they have suggested options such as temporary home arrest, two officials said. Susannah George reports for the Washington Post.

Rockets launched at US military bases in Afghanistan in late July and last week were allegedly fired by the Taliban, according to three U.S. military officials. A Taliban official has denied the group’s involvement. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports for the New York Times.

UAE-ISRAEL RELATIONS

The UAE has formally ended its economic boycott of Israel, the country’s state news agency reported Saturday, the latest move towards normalizing ties between the nations. UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued a decree as part of “efforts to expand diplomatic and commercial cooperation,” allowing trade and financial agreements between the two countries, the WAM news agency said. AP reporting.

The first-ever flight from Israel to the UAE took place today, flying US and Israeli officials to the country to discuss the “normalization” agreement. Aboard the flight were Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and national security advisor Robert O’Brien. Reuters reporting

MEDITERRANEAN SEA TENSIONS

The EU is preparing to sanction Turkey over its growing dispute with Greece about contested waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The European Union’s measures are aimed at limiting Turkey’s ability to explore natural gas in the contested region but will only focus on activities considered illegal, Josep Borrell, the union’s foreign policy chief said. “We are clear and determined in defending European Union’s interests and solidarity with Greece and Cyprus … Turkey has to refrain from unilateral actions. … For this reason, we must walk a fine line between preserving a true space for dialogue and, at the same time, showing collective strength in the defence of our common interests,” Borell said. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

Turkey announced Friday that it would conduct a military exercise close to northwest Cyprus for the next fortnight, a Navtex notice issued by Turkey Friday indicated, stating that a “gunnery exercise” would take place from Saturday until Sept. 11. 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)