Early Edition: September 15, 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.

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)’s Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into Attorney General William Barr’s decision to intervene in the criminal sentencing of President Trump’s longtime confidant, Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to the House Intelligence Committee during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a DOJ spokesperson confirmed, after earlier this year Barr sought a lighter sentence for Stone than the recommended seven to nine years given by prosecutors. “We welcome the review,” a department spokesperson, Kerri Kupec, said yesterday evening. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

A federal judge in Maryland last week ruled that the appointment of Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Acting Secretary Chad Wolf in November 2019 was likely unlawful and “invalid under the agencies applicable order of succession,” following a report released earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that said Wolf’s appointment was invalid. Judge Paula Xinis said in his 69-page ruling: “In sum, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs are likely to demonstrate [former acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin] McAleenan’s appointment was invalid under the agency’s applicable order of succession, and so he lacked the authority to amend the order of succession to ensure Wolf’s installation as Acting Secretary.” Geneva Sands, Priscilla Alvarez and Betsy Klein report for CNN.

A US citizen, Matthew John Heath, has been detained in Venezuela accused of terrorism charges as part of a wider plot to blow up power plants and oil facilities in the country, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab said yesterday on state TV. Saab said Heath was one of eight plotters arrested, found with guns, explosives, surveillance footage and cash, and had previously worked “as a mercenary” for U.S. intelligence in Iraq. “We have managed to neutralize an operation that could have been one of the worst in recent times,” Saab said, adding: “A U.S. citizen and presumed military soldier was found to be carrying out espionage activities to destabilize Venezuelan territory. He had the help of Venezuelan citizens, both military and civilian.” Ana Vanessa Herrero, Anthony Faiola and Shane Harris report for the Washington Post.

Beth Spivey, the assistant secretary for the DHS’s Office of Legislative Affairs, yesterday urged House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) to reconsider his panel’s recent announcement that it was expanding its investigations into the agency following the whistleblower complaint submitted by Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division. Spivey’s letter to Schiff said: the investigation was too broad and “unreasonable under the timeframe and circumstances set forth;” Schiff’s panel may not have jurisdiction over all of the witness interview requests; and that the DHS’s internal watchdog was already looking into the matter. Spivey also made clear that the department would not at this time be accommodating the panel’s requests. Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command, said yesterday that he has not seen evidence to corroborate intel assessments that recently claimed Russia had paid bounties to Taliban-linked groups to kill US troops in Afghanistan. “It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me,” McKenzie said, adding, “We continue to look for that evidence. I just haven’t seen it yet. But … it’s not a closed issue.” Courtney Kube and Ken Dilanian report for NBC News.

Trump warns Iran of a severe military response if the country assassinates US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks, after POLITICO reported yesterday that Iran was considering the assassination in retaliation for the US killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January. In a post on Twitter, Trump said: “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” Demetri Sevastopulo reports for the Financial Times.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, whose team is overseeing the coronavirus response, accused government scientists of “sedition” and plotting against president and warned Trump supporters that left-wing groups were preparing for armed insurrection after the November presidential election, speaking in a Facebook Live video Sunday. Caputo accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of harboring a “resistance unit” tasked with contradicting Trump, and urged those that support the administration to “carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.” Sharon LaFraniere reports for the New York Times.

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad is expected to step down from his diplomatic position to work on Trump’s re-election campaign, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said yesterday, although the U.S. Embassy did not confirm in its statement the reason for his departure. AP reporting.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, will testify before the House Oversight and Reform National Security Subcommittee on National Security, the panel confirmed yesterday, where Khalilzad is expected to give evidence on the United States’ negotiations with the Afghan government and the Taliban. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The mayor of Rochester, NY, yesterday fired the city’s police chief, La’Ron Singletary, ahead of the chief’s retirement this month, citing a preliminary review is taking place into the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died in police custody while suffering a mental health crisis after police placed a mesh hood over his head as he knelt naked and restrained on the street. Michael Wilson and Edgar Sandoval report for the New York Times.

IMMIGRATION

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that the Trump administration can phase out humanitarian protections for over 300,000 immigrants living in the US, many of whom have lived in the country for decades and have American-born children. The 9th Circuit Appeals Court’s decision to lift a temporary injunction granted in 2018 that had blocked the termination of Temporary Protected Status, a humanitarian protection that provides a work permit and stay of deportation for immigrants living in the United States whose homeland is facing a natural disaster, armed conflict or other “extraordinary and temporary conditions” that make it unsafe for them to return, and which is administered by the DHS, affects citizens from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia is subjecting immigrants to unthinkable conditions and treatment, including “jarring medical neglect” and high rates of hysterectomies, according to a whistleblower complaint filed Sept. 14 by multiple legal advocacy groups on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a nurse who works at the Irwin County Detention Center. The complaint alleges that the ICE center knowingly put detainees at risk of catching Covid-19 due to a lack of health and safety measures – and when detainees spoke up about the mistreatment and unsanitary condition, they were sent to solitary confinement; Wooten was herself demoted and disciplined when she tried to challenge practices, according an interview with the Intercept. Kari Paul reports for The Guardian.

CYBERSECURITY

The personal information of close to 46,000 veterans was accessed in a recent data breach, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced yesterday, after hackers used social engineering tactics and exploited authentication protocols to access accounts. The breached system has been disabled while the department’s Office of Information Technology conducts a review. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

The House yesterday unanimously passed the Internet of Things (IoT) Cybersecurity Improvement Act, set to improve the security of federal internet-connected devices by requiring all such devices purchased by federal government agencies to comply with minimum security standards provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The bill now awaits a vote in the Senate, which was approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 6.55 million and killed close to 195,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 29.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 928,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

UK drugmaker AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine trials will remain on hold in the US until a full investigation is conducted, although the UK has resumed its trials following a temporary pause when a participant developed a neurological illness. 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.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

US Customs and Border Protection yesterday issued five orders blocking the importation of products the government has said were produced by forced labor in China, including products from suspected mass prison camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, representing the United States’ latest effort to address China’s mistreatment of the Uighur Muslim minority group. Julia Ainsley and Anna Schecter report for NBC News.

The first direct session of peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban will take place today in Doha, Qatar.“The contact group from both sides’ delegations continued the discussion on rules and procedures and prepared to present it to the general meeting between the two negotiating teams (taking place on Tuesday),” senior Afghan government negotiator Nader Nadery said yesterday. Reuters reporting

US government lawyers yesterday asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to dismiss the case brought by Iran that seeks to lift United Nations sanctions placed on the country. This week’s hearings will deal with only preliminary matters, including jurisdictional issues. A decision is expected for the end of 2020. 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)