Early Edition: September 25, 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 DEVELOPMENTS

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been accused of attempting to “prevent the deposition” of Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, before the House Intelligence Committee, the committee’s chair, Adam Schiff (D-CA) has said, with two scheduled dates now postponed. Murphy was scheduled to testify before the House over a whistleblower complaint he submitted recently which stated 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. However, Schiff has said that the DHS is attempting to thwart that process by denying Murphy access to “relevant classified documents” before his testimony and refusing to authorize his lawyers’ security clearances. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

The main sub-source used by former British spy Christopher Steele to compile his Steele Dossier against the then presidential candidate Donald Trump was previously the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation from 2009 to 2011, according to a letter sent by Attorney general William Barr to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Barr was authorized to release the information by John Durham, U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, who is currently investigating the origins of the Russia investigations by the CIA and FBI. Durham’s decision to release the findings, which were initially set out in a redacted footnote in the Justice Department’s 2019 inspector general report on four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court warrant applications, indicates that it is unlikely that he intends to issue criminal indictments related to this part of his probe. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.

US District Court Judge Randy Moss yesterday rejected the Justice Department’s attempt to dismiss former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe’s lawsuit that claims he was ousted by former Attorney General Jess Sessions in 2018 on the order of President Trump, allowing McCabe to test before the court whether Session’s decision was politicized and a result of Trump’s disdain for McCabe. Moss’ 45-page ruling means that internal documents and conversations from within the administration may be made public, with key officials involved in the firing called to testify. Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.

A federal court yesterday ordered a preliminary injunction against the Census Bureau’s decision to end the decennial census count early, ruling the deadline for counting should be extended by one month, until Oct. 31. The Justice Department is expected to appeal the decision. Hansi Lo Wang reports for NPR.    

There is currently no evidence that Mexican women held at the Irwin County Detention Center were subject to forced hysterectomies, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said yesterday. The announcement follows a whistleblower complaint filed Sept. 14 by multiple legal advocacy groups on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a nurse who works at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, which alleged the center subjected immigrants to unthinkable conditions and treatment, including “jarring medical neglect” and high rates of hysterectomies. Ebrard said that 20 of 24 Mexican women held at ICE centers had been interviewed and had all confirmed they were not subjected to sterilization procedures. Reuters reporting.

Mary Trump, the president’s niece, yesterday sued the president and other family members after accusing them of “rampant fraud and misconduct” by denying her tens of millions of dollars in inheritance. Reuters reporting.

US ELECTIONS: INTERFERENCE AND MAIL-IN VOTES

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said they have “not identified any incidents, to date, capable of preventing Americans from voting or changing vote tallies for the 2020 Elections,” according to a joint public statement released yesterday. The announcement made clear that both agencies have seen “no reporting to suggest” cyberhackers had been successful in interfering with any ballot vote cast  or “affected the accuracy of voter registration information”. The statement reassures voters that “election officials have multiple safeguards and plans in place—such as provisional ballots to ensure registered voters can cast ballots, paper backups, and backup pollbooks—to limit the impact and recover from a cyber incident with minimal disruption to voting.” Christopher Bing reports for Reuters.

Social media giant Facebook yesterday announced that it had removed three networks linked to Russian interference efforts to target the US election, with one network including over 200 Facebook accounts, 35 pages, 18 groups and 34 Instagram accounts. Facebook said the networks, originating in Russia, posed as journalists and authentic news sources in order to spread disinformation, mainly targeting Syria and Ukraine, and also the United States. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Security Policy at Facebook, wrote in a blog post yesterday that the networks were linked to Russian hackers involved in the 2016 election scandal. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

A decision by the Justice Department to investigate nine “discarded” military mail-in ballots in a northeastern Pennsylvania county, Luzerne County, has perplexed election experts. The announcement by the department has been described as unusual and “illegitimate” due to the manner in which it came about and because it confirmed that seven of the nine ballots were cast for Trump. Zach Montellaro reports for POLITICO.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY AND KEN CUCCINELLI TESTIMONY

FBI Director Christopher Wray and acting deputy secretary of homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli, yesterday warned during a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing about the violent threat posed by domestic extremism from across the ideological spectrum, although Cuccinelli particularly noted the high “lethality” of white supremacists; “When white supremacists act as terrorists, more people per incident are killed,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) senior official said. Cuccinelli’s comments follow similar warnings by Wray and DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, and are of particular interest because Brian Murphy, a senior DHS official, recently lodged a whistleblower complaint alleging that Cuccinelli had instructed him to soften the language used when referring to white extremism in intelligence assessments. Wray noted that his agency is currently investigating militia-style groups that have recently been involved in violence. Rachael Levy and Warren P. Strobel report for the Wall Street Journal.

Wray cast doubt on concerns about serious mail-in voter fraud, stating it would be a “major challenge” for a foreign country to achieve. “We have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” the top FBI chief said, adding, “We have seen voter fraud at the local level from time to time, so my comments should in no way be construed as minimizing how seriously we take our responsibility to investigate such incidents.” Wray made clear that the issues of voter fraud “is on our radar, certainly to change a federal election outcome by mounting that fraud at scale would be a major challenge for an adversary, but people should make no mistake, we are vigilant as to the threat and watching it carefully because we are in uncharted new territory.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Wray said China poses the “greatest counterintelligence threat” to the US, describing “very aggressive activity” by Chinese hackers to interfere with US-led Covid-19 research. “We are seeing very aggressive activity by the Chinese, and in some cases by others, to target our Covid-related research, whether it’s vaccines, treatments, testing technology, etc.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

JOHN BOLTON-TRUMP LAWSUIT

The attorneys for John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security advisor, argued before a federal court yesterday that they should be able to question White House officials over a recent allegation that accused them of improperly attempting to block the publishing of Bolton’s tell-all book. Michael Kirk, one of Bolton’s lawyers, said interviewing the White House aides in question was essential to establish if they had acted in “bad faith” when they involved themselves in the official prepublication review on Bolton’s book by former National Security Council (NSC) career official Ellen Knight, which came to light in 18-page letter by Knight’s lawyer, Kenneth L. Wainstein. AP reporting.

Judge Royce Lamberth, the judge handling the contentious lawsuit between Bolton and the Justice Department, yesterday seemed unimpressed by new arguments put forward by Bolton’s lawyers that Wainstein’s letter further supports their case. Lamberth accused Bolton’s lawyers of engaging in a “political diatribe” by trying to rely on the recently released letter. “Isn’t the question whether the information is classified or not?,” Lamberth asked Bolton’s defense, adding, “You’ve engaged in that whole political diatribe, but it really has no place in what we’re arguing today.” Spencer S. Hsu reports for the Washington Post.

TRUMP: PEACEFUL TRANSITION OF POWER

Republicans stand firm in their assertion that if President Trump loses the election there will be a peaceful transition, following recent comments made by Trump to the contrary. Although Republicans have made clear that they are committed to a peaceful transition of power, little detail has been provided as to how lawmakers will respond if Trump refuses to leave office. Marianne Levine, Andrew Desiderio and Burgess Everett report for POLITICO.

The Senate yesterday unanimously passed a non-binding resolution that reaffirms “its commitment to the orderly and peaceful transfer of power cord for in the Constitution of the United States.” Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 6.98 million and has now killed close to 203,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is over 32.26 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 983,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

A group of 48 organizations have called for a congressional investigation into reports that the Pentagon redirected the majority of its $1 billion in coronavirus-related funding it received from Congress, in which most of the money was instead funnelled to defense contractors and used to fund the making of new jet engine parts, body armor and dress uniforms. The group, organized by progressive group Win Without War, the right-leaning National Taxpayers Union and the Project on Government Oversight, urged in a letter to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that lawmakers should pass legislation to suspend the Department of Defense’s right to use the funding. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

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                   

The US yesterday imposed sanctions on a number of Iranian officials, including two judges, over alleged gross violations of human rights, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement yesterday. Those sanctioned include: Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons. Reuters reporting.

The US has extended a sanctions waiver on Iraq that enables it to import gas into Iran — this time, however, the waiver’s length is for 60 days instead of 120 days, Iraqi officials and the US State Department confirmed yesterday. The announcement indicates going frustrations between the two countries. AP reporting.

The US, UK, and Canada intend to impose sanctions on Belarusian individuals today, a number of officials familiar with the matter have confirmed. Reuters reporting.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un yesterday apologized in a letter to South Korea over the brutal killing of a South Korean official by the North Korean military. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers has arrested its first suspect – Salih Mustafa, the former commander of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Mustafa has been charged with murder, torture, arbitrary detention and cruel treatment, prosecutors confirmed. Al Jazeera reporting.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has had his bank accounts frozen and his flat seized as part of a lawsuit that predates his recent poisoning, his spokesperson said 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)