Early Edition: October 1, 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.

JOHN RATCLIFFE: RUSSIAN INTEL ASSESSMENT

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe gave lawmakers just 39 minutes’ notice before holding a briefing with Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on a Russian intel assessment that many have argued is disinformation, intensifying criticism that Ratcliffe’s actions are becoming increasingly politicized, with lawmakers holding that little notice was given in order to limit those that could attend. According to emails obtained by POLITICO, an aide of Ratcliffe’s contacted lawmakers from the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as the House and Senate Intelligence committees, at 6:36 p.m. Tuesday, four hours before Graham released the assessment, inviting them to the briefing at 7:15 p.m., less than 40 minutes later. Ratcliffe noted that the IC “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication,” prompting Democrats, and some Republicans, to further question why the intelligence was released in the first place. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.

Officials at the CIA, National Security Agency (NSA) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) all urged Ratcliffe not to release the unverified assessment where Russia alleged Hilary Clinton, President Trump’s 2016 presidential election opponent, authorized “a campaign plan to stir up a scandal” against Trump by linking him to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian hacking of Democrats’ emails, stressing that its disclosure would give credibility to Kremlin-backed disinformation efforts. Reports indicate Ratcliffe nonetheless released the intel to Graham, who in turn jumped on releasing it, those familiar with the matter have said. Dustin Volz and Warren P. Strobel report for the Wall Street Journal.

US DEVELOPMENTS

FBI Director James Comey yesterday defended his bureau’s 2016 “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation into the Trump campaign and its alleged links with Russia, testifying before Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee which is looking into the origins of the FBI’s investigation. Comey defended his investigation as legitimate and appropriate, but did accept that he would not have approved the secret warrant to conduct surveillance on former President Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had he had information he is now privy to, namely that the applications contained serious errors and omissions, and that the Steele Dossier’s content was influenced by a suspected Russian spy. “In the main, it was done by the book, it was appropriate, and it was essential that it be done,” Comey said. “Overall, I am proud of the work, but there are parts of it we will talk about that are concerning.” Pete Williams reports for NBC News.

The House Intelligence Committee yesterday warned that the US intelligence community (IC) is not currently capable of handling the increasingly evolving technological and geopolitical threats posed by China. In an unclassified summary of a report, the committee said the IC “has not sufficiently adapted to a changing geopolitical and technological environment increasingly shaped by a rising China and the growing importance of interlocking non-military transnational threats, such as global health, economic security, and climate change.” The report went on to stress that unless there is a considerable “realignment of resources,” the country would fail in competing with China “on the global stage.” The report recommended that: the White House must conduct a review of the IC’s budget; the IC should prioritize training its staff on China-focused issues; and a “bipartisan, bicameral congressional study group” be formed to evaluate if changes need to be made. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

A bipartisan pair of senators, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Chris Murphy (D-CO), have expressed extreme “concern” over the Trump administration’s threats to close the US Embassy in Baghdad if Iraq does not take appropriate action against attacks by Shiite militia groups on personnel linked to American troops. In a statement released yesterday, Romney and Murphy, respectively the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, said that they “are extremely concerned that the implications of fully withdrawing our already limited diplomatic teams from the Baghdad Embassy could serve to undermine U.S.-Iraqi relations to the benefit of malign Iranian influence, cause our allies to also withdraw their diplomats from Baghdad, and undercut missions to train Iraqi security forces.” They urged the administration to promptly brief the Senate on the nature of the threats to U.S. personnel, the steps the State Department is taking to address those threats, and the expected consequences if a full withdrawal does take place. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Department of Defense (DOD) officials were fiercely questioned yesterday by lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee over the Trump administration’s plan to reduce US troop numbers in Germany by close to 12,000, and were criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for failing to adequately explain the rationale behind the decision-making process and for having few details on the costs involved and officials’ consultations with allies. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit yesterday upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction against the Census Bureau’s decision to end the decennial census count early. The judges ruled, 2-1, that blocking U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh’s Sept. 24 ruling would “upend the status quo, not preserve it.” The appeals court said yesterday that “the evidence in the administrative record uniformly showed that no matter when field operations end — whether September 30 under the Replan or October 31 under the COVID-19 Plan — the Bureau will be unable to deliver an accurate census by December 31, 2020. The President, senior Bureau officials, senior Department of Commerce officials, the Office of Inspector General, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Government Accountability Office have all stated that delivering a census by December 31 without compromising accuracy is practically impossible, and has been for some time.” The judges also noted that the announcement Monday of end date on Oct. 5 “contradicts the government’s argument that the September 30 date is vitally important to the Bureau’s ability to meet its statutory reporting deadline.” Tara Bahrampour reports for the Washington Post.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced yesterday that it is considering changing the format of the remaining presidential debates following the clash Tuesday between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the CPD said in a statement. One new measure could be to cut the candidates’ microphones if they break any of the rules, confirmed a source familiar with the internal matter. Lauren Egan reports for NBC News.

Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager and digital strategist, has stepped away from his role in the president’s re-election campaign to focus on getting “help dealing with … overwhelming stress” following his recent detainment by police officers due to concerns over his mental health. Jeremy Diamond and Paul LeBlanc report for CNN.

The Senate yesterday passed a stopgap funding bill just hours before the deadline, averting a government shutdown. The bill was passed by 84-10 votes and has now been signed by Trump, extending around $1.4 trillion in government funding until Dec. 11. Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 7.23 million and has now killed close to 207,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 34.01 million confirmed coronavirus cases and now over 1.01 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

A study by Cornell University has found that the “single largest driver” of coronavirus misinformation is President Trump. Researchers analyzed over 38 million English-language articles about the pandemic from across global media, and concluded that Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall “misinformation conversation,” and was therefore the biggest driver of “infodemic.” The study is expected to be released today. Sheryl Gay Solberg and Noah Weiland 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.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Pope Francis yesterday declined to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, citing it would be inappropriate before the upcoming election, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-ranking official. The announcement follows growing criticism by Pompeo against the Vatican for its plan to renew a two-year bilateral agreement with Beijing on Church operations in China, which Pompeo has said would endanger the Vatican’s moral authority. Jason Horowitz and Lara Jakes report for the New York Times.

Although relations between President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un blossomed from the end of 2018, Jong-un continued to rapidly increase his country’s nuclear capabilities, intelligence officials have said. U.S. officials have said that although North Korea had refrained from publicly conducting contentious tests of its advances weapon systems, it continued to developed them, and exploited improving relations with the US by carrying out a concerted effort to conceal his best weapons and protect them from potential attacks. Joby Warrick and Simon Denyer report for the Washington Post.

The Trump administration yesterday sanctioned multiple top Syrian officials and alleged financiers, including the country’s central-bank governor and an intelligence chief, describing them as “key enablers” of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government. Reuters reporting.

The EU has started legal action against the UK over its Brexit plan that would breach the withdrawal agreement and international law, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission confirmed, following the U.K.’s refusal to respond to E.U. officials’ calls for the U.K. to drop its internal market bill. Daniel Boffey reports for The Guardian. 

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)