Early Edition: September 10, 2020

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

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.   

US ELECTIONS: ELECTION SECURITY AND FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

Senior leaders at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sought to censure or block reports on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 election and downplay the threat from violent white supremacy, Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, said in a whistleblower complaint released yesterday by the House Intelligence Committee. The complaint alleges that acting Secretary Chad Wolf, his predecessor Kirstjen Nielsen, and other top DHS officials engaged from March 2018 until last month in a “repeated pattern of abuse of authority, attempted censorship of intelligence analysis and improper administration of an intelligence program related to Russian efforts to influence and undermine United States interests.” Murphy’s accusations also include: senior officials instructing him to halt his intel assessments because they were making President Trump “look bad”; and Wolf telling him to completely stop reporting on Russia and to focus on “interference activities by China and Iran.” Kyle Cheney, Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO.

Former DHS chiefs have called for the Trump administration to step up its efforts to combat election security threats following a number of reports that warn of foreign interference. Speaking at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council yesterday, Michael Chertoff, who served under former President George W. Bush, and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, who both served during the Obama administration, warned of threats posed by various countries, referencing an assessment released last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which pointed to evidence of election interference by Russia, China and Iran. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Kremlin-backed hackers are targeting Biden’s main election campaign adviser firms, according to three people familiar with the matter. Hackers have attempted to target employees of Washington-based campaign strategy and communications firm SKDKnickerbocker over the past two months, although they’ve failed to breach the firm’s networks. Reuters reporting.

Former Trump administration Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats yesterday warned that the Trump administration’s decision to stop all in-person election security briefings to Congress undermines the intelligence communities’ efforts to safeguard against threats to the election. “It’s imperative that the intelligence community keep Congress fully informed about the threats to our elections and share as much information as possible while protecting sources and methods,” Coats said in an interview. Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post.

Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis yesterday set out “serious” concerns around the ability of Texas, Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin to hold safe and secure elections during coronavirus pandemic, citing in a recently published report that there is particular concern with: the lack of expansion of mail-in voting; poll worker shortages; and the safety of polling places. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) will hold a vote next week on authorizing additional subpoenas for his investigations into the Obama administration and the Bidens, which will include subpoenaing former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Department of Justice (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr as part of his wide-spanning probe into the transition period between the Obama and Trump administrations, “unmasking” and the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Next week’s vote would also allow Johnson to issue subpoenas “for the attendance and testimony at a deposition with regard to Burisma Holdings and actual or apparent conflicts of interest with U.S.-Ukraine policy,” the gas company that has become embroiled in Johnson’s investigation into the Obama-era State Department and Hunter Biden, the son of 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

Trump tried to fire Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence David Gawe for talking about Russian interference in US elections, write Miles Taylor in an op-ed for CNN, arguing that “Trump poses a greater risk to the integrity of the US election than America’s foreign rivals do.”

US DEVELOPMENTS

Attorney General William Barr yesterday defended the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s decision to intervene in the defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll who claims she was raped by President Trump in a New York department store in the 1990s. Barr said the move: was a “normal application” of the Westfall Act; was in-line with “crystal clear” legal precedence, referring to a 2006 ruling by the D.C. Court of Appeals; and had been used by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report for the Washington Post.

Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump campaign officials are expected to attend a Montana fundraiser next week hosted by a couple, Caryn and Michael Borland, who have expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to an event invitation obtained by The Associated Press and a review of social media postings. In addition to Pence’s slated attendance are Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top Trump fundraising official who is dating Donald Trump Jr., GOP chair Ronna McDaniel, Republican National Committee (RNC) finance chair Todd Ricketts and RNC co-chair Tommy Hicks Jr. AP reporting.

Trump’s recent attack on military leaders gave US adversaries “an opening,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the top official on the House Armed Services Committee. Referring to comments by Trump that certain Pentagon leaders had sought to wage in order to boost profits of defense firms, Thornberry said “to have a commander in chief question the motivations of military leaders and basically say they’re in it for themselves is wrong.” Ryan Browne reports for CNN.

Trump yesterday added 20 names to his existing list of potential Supreme Court nominees he would pick if any vacancies were to arise during his remaining time in office, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (TX), Tom Cotton (AR) and Josh Hawley (MO). Cruz and Cotton both thanked Trump for naming them, although Hawley declined the offer and has done multiple times. Caitlin Oprysko and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acting Secretary Chad Wolf yesterday defended in a “State of the Homeland” address the use of federal law enforcement agents to police protests and unrest in Portland. Wolf warned against falling “victim to the delusion of a fringe minority of Americans” who “oppose” the use of federal agencies, and also criticized experts who had denounced federal troop presence in areas that had seen growing unrest in response to systemic racial injustice and police brutality. “It’s been disappointing to see so-called experts criticize our response in Portland without understanding the facts on the ground … It’s unsettling that the self-appointed experts rush to criticize the uniform men and women of DHS, working to save lives and defend federal property, even before they condemn the violent behavior of a rioting mob,” the DHS chief added. Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

5 key takeaways from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, “Rage,” which focuses on the presidency of Trump are provided by Aishvarya Kavi for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 6.36 million and killed close to 191,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 27.88 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 904,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

President Trump yesterday acknowledged that he had intentionally played down the seriousness of the rapidly growing coronavirus in an effort to avoid a “frenzy,” following the release of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, “Rage”, which reveals an interview with Trump on Feb. 7 where the president accepted coronavirus is “deadly stuff.” Josh Dawsey, Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane report for the Washington Post.

A Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official has been trying to stifle Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and key member of the White House coronavirus task force, from speaking openly about the risks the coronavirus pandemic poses, particularly to children, emails obtained by POLITICO have revealed. Emails indicate that Paul Alexander, a senior adviser to Michael Caputo, HHS’s assistant secretary for public affairs, instructed press officers at the National Institutes of Health to what Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, should say during media interviews. Sarah Owermohle reports for POLITICO.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that New York City restaurants can resume indoor service on Sept. 30 at 25 percent capacity and with other safety measures in place. Speaking at a press briefing, Cuomo thanked New Yorkers for their compliance with Covid-19 measures and said the next steps can now be taken. Safety measures will include: the temperature of customers being taken at the door; mandatory mask wearing, except when seated; one member of each group providing details for potential contact tracing purposes; amnd restaurants closing by midnight and not being able to offer a bar service. Jesse McKinley, Sharon Otterman and Joseph Goldstein report for the New York Times.

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 POSTAL SERVICE

US Postal Service (USPS) Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said that he will ask Republican lobbyist Peter Pastre to act as an official liaison between the service and Congress, particularly Democrat lawmakers, after DeJoy and other USPS officials have been denounced for their politicized decisions in an attempt to secure President Trump’s reelection this November. Kenneth P. Vogel, Hailey Fuchs and Luke Broadwater report for the New York Times.

USPS’s Board of Governors yesterday expressed full support of DeJoy. William Zollars, a Republican governor of the board, said in a phone interview with The Post that DeJoy has “100 percent board support,” adding: “From a logistics and operations standpoint, Louis DeJoy is as good as it gets. He has support on both sides of the aisle.” Republican board member John Barger said yesterday in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that DeJoy “is doing a tremendous job.” However, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), chair of the House subcommittee responsible for postal oversight, said: “When given the opportunity to restore confidence in the USPS, the board of governors today chose instead to continue their dereliction of duty.” Jacob Bogage and Lisa Rein report for the Washington Post.

USPS has removed 711 mail-sorting machines in this year alone, according to testimony given to a federal court in New York by Jason DeChambeau, the service’s director of processing operations, which is the highest number of machines removed in one year since 2016. DeChambeau’s testimony makes clear that the order to remove the machines predates DeJoy’s June appointment. Kristen Holmes and Paul P. Murphy report for CNN.
OTHER DEVELOPMENTS          

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday there was a “substantial chance” senior Kremlin officials ordered the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “We’ll make sure we do our part to do whatever we can to reduce the risk that things like this happen again,” Pompeo added. Zack Budryk reports for The Hill.

The US has revoked visas for more than 1,000 Chinese nationals under a May 29 presidential proclamation to suspend entry from China of students and researchers thought to be security risks, according to the State Department. The department said “high-risk graduate students and research scholars” had been expelled, after they “were found to be subject to Presidential Proclamation 10043 and therefore ineligible for a visa.” Jennifer Hansler and James Griffiths report for CNN.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) yesterday warned the UK that any potential trade deal between the UK and the US would not get through Congress if the Good Friday Agreement is breached during the UK’s exit from the EU. Reuters reporting.

The Myanmar military has received billions in funding from businesses, which may have contributed to human rights violations, Amnesty International revealed today. Amnesty’s investigations reveal that the military received over $18 billion in dividends from Yangon-based company Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), whose board consists of senior military officials. “The perpetrators of some of the worst human rights violations in Myanmar’s recent history are among those who benefit from MEHL’s business activities,” said Mark Dummett, Amnesty’s Head of Business, Security and Human Rights, adding: “These documents provide new evidence of how the Myanmar military benefits from MEHL’s vast business empire and make clear that the military and MEHL are inextricably linked.” Al Jazeera 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)