Early Edition: September 14, 2020

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

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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 DEVELOPMENTS

The Department of Justice (DOJ) yielded to pressure by President Trump when it chose to drop the criminal investigation into Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn, retired New York federal judge John Gleeson said in a 30-page court filing Friday. Gleeson, who was selected by District Judge Emmet Sullivan to argue against the DOJ’s decision to drop the case, described Attorney General William Barr’s request to have the case stopped as a “corrupt and politically motivated favor unworthy of our justice system.” “In the United States, Presidents do not orchestrate pressure campaigns to get the Justice Department to drop charges against defendants who have pleaded guilty — twice, before two different judges — and whose guilt is obvious,” said Gleeson. The next scheduled court hearing is set for Sept. 29. Spencer S. Hsu reports for the Washington Post.

Trump’s lawyers Friday called for a federal appeals court to block Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s efforts to get access to the president’s tax returns, describing his investigations as a “bad faith effort” to enforce a “dragnet” subpoena. Trump argued that a lower court had made a mistake Aug. 20 when it gave Vance the go-ahead to obtain eight years of Trump’s tax returns from his accounting firm, Mazars USA. A court hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 25. Al Jazeera reporting.

Chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has asked the DOJ to look into new documents that suggest members of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team deleted some records from their official phones, a letter sent from Johnson to the DOJ inspector general (IG) Michael Horowitz has revealed. The letter follows documents released by the DOJ last week that said information was wiped off at least 15 phones, although the official reasons given was forgotten passwords, physical damage and hardware issues. Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rejected Friday Democrats’ request for acting Secretary Chad Wolf to appear before the Homeland Security Committee this Thursday, arguing that it is unprecedented for a nominee to testify during the confirmation process on unrelated matters. Following a subpoena issued by the House panel Friday, Assistant DHS Secretary Beth Spivey sent a letter to Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chair of the committee, arguing that it was not necessary for Wolf to appear before the panel’s hearing, entitled “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland,” stressing that senior official Ken Cuccinelli was available to testify before the committee. Juliegrace Brufke reports for The Hill.

Vice President Mike Pence will no longer attend a fundraiser hosted by QAnon supporters, Trump’s election campaign said Saturday, although it gave no specific explanation for the change in Pence’s schedule. APreporting.

A prosecutor on Trump’s law enforcement commission resigned last week alleging the intention of the commission was not to address the gap between communities of color and law enforcement.Ramsey County, Minnesota, District Attorney John Choi submitted his resignation letter to Barr Sept. 3 after concerns he raised in May about the work of the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice had still not be addressed. The letter stated: “it is now patently obvious … that this process had no intention of engaging in a thoughtful and open analysis, but was intent on providing cover for a predetermined agenda that ignores the lessons of the past, furthering failed tough-on-crime policies that led to our current mass incarceration crisis and fueling divisions between our communities and our police officers.” Christina Carrega reports for CNN.

A US court ruled Thursday that over 20 Saudi officials must testify in a lawsuit concerning the involvement of the Saudi Arabian government in the 9/11 attacks, lawyers for victims said Friday. Although Saudi Arabia has remained firm that it was not involved in the attacks, Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn ruled that the Saudi government must produce 24 current and former officials, including a former ambassador to the United States, to testify before U.S. courts. Netburn stated that although Saudi lawyers had put forward “persuasive” arguments in support of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the material provided by the plaintiff’s indicated the prince “likely had first-hand knowledge” of the role one official “was assigned by the Kingdom and the diplomatic cover provided to the propagators” working in the United States. Al Jazeera reporting.

The US’s arm-sales to Saudi Arabia could result in war crime charges against American officials over Saudi strikes in Yemen, a New York Times examination has found. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been the focus of criticism by many, with House lawmakers set to question State Department officials over their role in keeping a flow of arms moving into the war-torn area. Michael LaForgia and Edward Wong report for the New York Times.

ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of video sharing app TikTok, has chosen software giant Oracle as its US “technology partner,” rejecting Microsoft’s recent bid, it emerged last night. Miles Kruppa, James Fontanella-Khan and Ryan McMorrow report for the Financial Times.

THE POMPEOS

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to resume “Madison Dinners” today, which many have criticized as an unjustified use of taxpayers’ money and unrelated to diplomatic matters. Two State Department officials told POLITICO that as well as a dinner taking place tonight, there are another three scheduled for September and October. The dinners are set to be held at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse near to the White House, although the names of attendees are currently unknown. The department refused to answer any specific questions on the matter but did say the dinners were “foreign policy-focused social gatherings” that reflect “the finest tradition of diplomatic and American hospitality and grace.” Nahal Toosi reports for POLITICO.

A photo of a June 2019 Madison Dinner shows attendees to include: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito; Atlanta Falcons CEO Steve Cannon; and Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo. Josh Lederman reports for NBC News.

Emails reveal that Pompeo and his wife, Susan, made requests of State Department officials that were personal tasks, including completing personal Christmas cards that Susan had said required a carefully chosen group due to the privacy of the assignment. In an email sent via a personal account by Susan to Toni Porter, a senior adviser to Pompeo, she said “I see that you are out of the office all next week … Do you know, is Joe also out? I’m wondering if we are sending the last of our personal cards out, who will be there to help me. Mike will not want to go outside you and Joe for this assistance,” adding, “I’d worry about asking others for personal things.” Michael Wilner and Bryan Lowry report for The Kansas City Star.

BRIAN MURPHY: WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT

House Intelligence Committee Democrats are broadening their investigation into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s intelligence activities, chair of the committee Adam Schiff (D-CA) said Friday when he notified Joseph Mahar, DHS deputy general counsel and top official currently responsible for carrying out the duties of DHS’s undersecretary for intelligence and analysis (I&A). The notification follows a recent whistleblower complaint made by Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, which states that the department’s intelligence activities are highly politicized, citing instances in which senior leaders sought to censure or block reports on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 election and downplay the threat from violent white supremacy. Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also initiated an investigation into allegations raised by Murphy’s complaint, with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA), the acting chair and vice chair of the panel, writing to Maher Thursday to ask for documents relating to Murphy’s complaint. “These allegations, if true, raise serious concerns about a potential disregard for the objectivity and impartiality of intelligence analysis and the role of the I&A in the Department,” the senators wrote to Maher, adding: “we respectfully request that you provide the Committee with all intelligence assessments produced by I&A related to Mr. Murphy’s complaint including but not limited to products related to migration and asylum, foreign interference in U.S. elections, and domestic threats related to white supremacism, antifa and ‘anarchist groups.’” Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 6.52 million and killed over 194,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 29 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 924,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The World Health Organization yesterday reported a record one-day increase in the number of global coronavirus cases, rising by over 307,000 in 24 hours, with the biggest spikes in India, the United States and Brazil. Reuters reporting.

President Trump appointees interfered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly scientific reports on Covid-19, with a number of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s communication officials demanding and receiving the right to review the CDC’s reports on the progress of the coronavirus pandemic. Some emails sent from HHS communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield reveal direct complaints made that the agency’s reports would contradict the president’s more optimistic rhetoric about the pandemic. CDC officials have, in some cases, allowed HHS aide reviews to influence the wording in reports, three people familiar with the conversations have said. Dan Diamond reports for POLITICO.

UK drugmaker AstraZeneca will resume its coronavirus vaccine trial in the UK, although not the US,the company said Saturday, after it paused its trials last week when a participant developed a neurological illness. Adela Suliman reports for NBC News.

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.

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT-TALIBAN PEACE TALKS

The Taliban and the Afghan government began historic peace talks in Doha, Qatar on Saturday, with senior negotiating officials from both factions meeting to discuss their future relationship and peace deal. APreporting.

A helpful explainer of what can be expected from the peace talks is provided by Susannah George for the Washington Post.

What top diplomats from other countries said during the opening ceremony of the peace talks is provided by Al Jazeera.
OTHER DEVELOPMENTS       

Iranian officials are considering a plan to assassinate the US ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, in retaliation for the US killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January, U.S. intelligence reports suggests, according to government officials who have seen the intelligence or are familiar with the matter. Reports say that the Iranian embassy in Pretoria is also involved in the plan. There is currently no clear reason why Marks would be the target of an attempted assassination by Iran as there is no known link between Marks and the country. Nahal Toosi and Natasha Bertrand report for POLITICO.

US troops continue to be targeted by militia groups in Iraq, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of the U.S. Central Command indicated, stating that U.S. bases in the area had been the subject of more indirect fire in “the first half of this year than we did the first half of last year.” Although none of the attacks have been lethal, McKenzie warned that “they are continuing.” Kaelamn Deese reports for The Hill.

Bahrain has joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel, President Trump announced Friday. “This is a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East. Opening direct dialogue and ties between these two dynamic societies and advanced economies will continue the positive transformation of the Middle East and increase stability, security and prosperity in the region,” Trump said in a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hamad bin Isa Salman al-Khalifa of Bahrain. Al Jazeera reporting.

More than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk, Belarus yesterday in an effort to pressure Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to resign and to prompt a new election in the country;protests took place a day before Lukashenko’s scheduled meeting today with Russian President Vladimir Putin where they are expected to discuss the growing unrest in the country. Samantha Raphelson reports for NPR. 

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)