Early Edition: October 8, 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

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance can enforce subpoenas to obtain President Trump’s tax returns, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan unanimously ruled yesterday, rejecting Trump’s argument that the subpoenas were too broad and rooted in political motives. “The President has a ‘difficult’ burden and an ‘unenviable’ task: to make plausible allegations that could persuade the court that the subpoena that has been served on him could not possibly serve any investigative purpose that the grand jury could legitimately be pursuing,” the ruling read, adding, “His complaint fails to do so.” Trump’s legal team has sought a stay from the Supreme Court, and so Vance’s office has agreed to not immediately enforce the subpoenas. The office’s investigation into Trump started over two years ago and is looking into alleged hush-money payments he made in 2016 to two women who claimed they had had an affair with the president, and also a “variety of business transactions,” Carey Dunne, the office’s general counsel has previously said. Shayna Jacobs reports for the Washington Post.

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe has approved the release of almost 1,000 additional pages of material to the DOJ and John Durham, US Attorney for Connecticut, to assist with their investigation into the origins of the Russia investigations by the CIA and FBI. The release of these documents, which an official has confirmed have not yet been declassified, follows a spate of documents revealed by Ratcliffe over the past two weeks. Shane Harris reports for the Washington Post.

The Justice Department yesterday accepted it had unintentionally added dates on copies of notes from Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and former FBI agent Peter Strzok that were filed to the court as part of the ongoing case between the department and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor. Strzok and McCabe both wrote to the court, separately, stating that notes filed before the court by Flynn’s lawyers had included dates that they themselves had not written, including a White House meeting that had happened later than the note suggested, and also a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Russia investigation on May 10, 2017, which McCabe made clear did not take place. The department told the presiding judge that it had intended to remove the dates from the documents before they were scanned over by the FBI, although Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s lawyer, casted doubt on the department’s claim that it was unintentionally done. Spencer S. Hsu and Matt Zapotosky report for the Washington Post.

Kremlin-backed news outlet “RT.com” has been able to circumvent US “high-tech blockade” measures and reach large American audiences by imbedding itself into a traffic stopping network, RealClearPolitics, which is dominated by many conservative websites. It is reported that readers were not initially aware they were clicking on headlines from what American intelligence officials have said is the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet,” RT.com, but did make clear that U.S. news outlets on the network unintentionally helped draw in American readers to the Russian outlet. Keach Hagey, Emily Glazer and Rob Barry report for the Wall Street Journal.

Two accused British ISIS militants, dubbed the “Beatles,” were yesterday indicted as they arrived in the US for trial over claims they partook in beheadings of US hostages in Syria, Justice Department officials have said. Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were captured by Kurdish-linked militia in 2018 and were eventually taken into custody by the United Stated where they remain detained in a military base in Iraq; they stand accused, among other things, of assisting in the kidnapping of U.S. aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig and U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The two men were scheduled to appear via video conference before a Virginia federal court yesterday. Pete Williams and Anna Schecter report for NBC News.

Trump last year demanded all staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) before they could be involved in any treatment for him, according to four people familiar with the internal matter. The center’s physicians and nonmedical staff are mainly active-duty military personnel, and it was reported that at least two doctors refused to sign the NDAs and were therefore prohibited from being involved in any of Trump’s care, two people have said. Carroll E. Lee and Courtney Kube report for NBC News.

Bert Mizusaw, a retired major general who served as campaign adviser for Trump during the 2016 election, was earlier this year assigned by the White House to serve as the CIA’s senior adviser for national security technology and business integration, a move that has been described as highly unusual, according two of the agency’s former officials that are familiar with the matter. Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO.

A detailed report by the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is set to be released next week and takes direct aim at Attorney General William Barr a main focus for the report is Barr’s support for investigations looking into the origins of the Obama-administration’s probe into Russian interference in the election, particularly Durham’s investigation, which was prompted at the request of Barr. The authors argue that Barr “appears to be determined to use the Durham investigation as a publicity tool in order to justify President Trump’s conduct in the 2016 campaign and to discredit the investigation of Robert Mueller,” adding, “All signs point toward a politically orchestrated ‘October surprise.’” The report goes on to insist that “The use of a criminal investigation is ill-suited to examining the process of foreign intelligence analysis, poses unnecessary risks to intelligence sources and methods, intimidates and alienates foreign intelligence analysts, and chills the analytic process in a way likely to undermine the candor essential to producing the best intelligence information for national policymakers. The cumulative effects are likely to increase the attrition of talented intelligence personnel and neutralize the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’ that is essential to the effective use of intelligence in national policy decisions. All of this weakens prospective U.S. intelligence capabilities to the advantage of Russia and other adversaries in competition with the interests and goals of the United States.” James Hohmann reports for the Washington Post.

National Guard units have been put on standby in Alabama and Arizona to respond to any potential civil unrest or violent protests, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday. With over 600 troops across the two units, a National Guard Bureau spokesperson said the units “will be ready to deploy within 24 hours if requested by a governor in another state.” Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

The Trump administration is planning to appeal to the Supreme Court over a decision yesterday that ruled that the census count should continue to the end of October, rejecting Trump’s calls that counting should have already ended.  The ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel in San Francisco upheld an earlier preliminary injunction by District Judge Lucy Koh that halted a Sept. 30 deadline for finishing the Census count and a Dec. 31 deadline for submitting the data used to apportion the congressional seats each state gets. AP reporting.

US TROOP WITHDRAWALS

President Trump yesterday pledged that US will have completed its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan’s “endless wars” by Christmas, an announcement that echoes similar plans touted recently by Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to significantly cut troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq by late October. “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter. The post, however, follows earlier contradictory comments by White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien who said that troop levels will be cut to 2,500 by early next year. Missy Ryan Karen DeYoung report for the Washington Post.

Just Security yesterday sued the Trump administration over its refusal to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed April for data on troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, following the administration’s decision to halt all data release in December 2017. The lawsuit demands the administration to release data on troop levels and planned withdrawals and information about why public data was stopped in 2017. “This data served as a critical source of specific and consistent official information about the U.S. military presence in key combat zones,” the lawsuit states, adding, “Transparency on troop levels has been essential for public oversight and accountability concerning the progress of military operations in the Middle East and South Asia.” Just Security’s Co-Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Goodman, and Editorial Director, Kate Brennan, noted in an op-ed yesterday for the Washington Post that the drawdowns require scrutiny from the media and the American public to “understand whether Trump is actually delivering, and whether these troop movements are responsive to what’s happening on the ground or are politically motivated to help Trump secure a second term.” They also stressed that the data is necessary to understanding whether private military contractors are to replace US military troops.

US ELECTIONS

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has introduced new election fraud guidance that will allow federal prosecutors to publicly investigate election-related criminal offenses, and take action where necessary, in the run up to Election Day – even if those actions could impact the election itself – departing with a long-established rule that generally prohibits federal investigations, arrests and searches from taking place prior to an election if they could cause public reaction that may interfere with an election. The directive was sent via email to DOJ staffers and set out an “exception to the general non-interference with elections policy,” stating that “the integrity of any component of the federal government is implicated by election offenses within the scope of the policy including but not limited to misconduct by federal officials or employees administering an aspect of the voting process through the United States Postal Service, the Department of Defense or any other federal department or agency.” Matt Zapotosky reports for the Washington Post.

Social media giant Facebook has introduced a new policy that will ban all posts that use “militarized” language to call on people to participate in poll watching, an announcement that follows recent criticism that the social media company has previously been too lenient on posts, particularly by Trump, that contain military-style language. Facebook will “remove calls for people to engage in poll watching when those calls use militarized language or suggest that the goal is to intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, said in a blog post. It was also confirmed that Facebook will stop running political ads in the United States when the polls close Nov. 3. David Ingram reports for NBC News.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 7.55 million and has now killed close to 212,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 36.21 million confirmed coronavirus cases and now over 1.05 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

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 RELATIONS

The Trump administration has imposed new sanctions on Iran’s finance industry, targeting the country’s last remaining banks that are not currently subject to sanctions, a move that European allies have argued will lead to a humanitarian crisis in the country. The amdinistartion’s intentions are expected to be announced today. John Hudson reports for the Washington Post.

Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) yesterday urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, following a report that Turkey may be planning a comprehensive test of the system. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill. 

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)