Early Edition: October 13, 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 findings of US Attorney for Connecticut John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Russia investigations by the CIA and FBI will not be released before the Nov. 3 election, Attorney General William Barr has told senior Republicans, according to people familiar with the internal conversations. There has been much pressure by President Trump, Barr and other mainly GOP officials on Durham’s team to release even an interim report before the election, although many Democrats have said such a move would be politically motivated and unjustifiably interfere with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s chances of winning the election. Durham’s longtime associate, Nora Dennehy, reportedly left the Department of Justice (DOJ) because of: Barr’s management of the probe; recent decisions to declassify a string of documents; and big disagreements over how Durham’s findings would be presented in a report, people familiar with the matter have said. Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report for the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s new re-election campaign ad features senior military chiefs, violating the Pentagon’s long-standing policy that “military service members and federal employees acting in their official capacity may not engage in activities that associate the [Department of Defense] DOD with any partisan political campaign or elections, candidate, cause or issue,” according to a post on the department website from March 2019. The ad, which appeared yesterday, features of photo of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley alongside Trump and Vice President Pence, despite DOD policy prohibiting U.S. military members from participating or being involved in campaign activities, unless they are off duty. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Milley did not give his approval for the campaign to use his photo in its recent campaign ad, a defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity has stated. “This photo, like many others, was not used with [Milley’s] knowledge or consent,” the official said. The appearance of Milley on the campaign ad follows clear words by the military chief that the U.S. military has no role in domestic politics, speaking in an interview with NPR Sunday. Lara Seligman reports for POLITICO.

Trump yesterday returned to his campaign trail in Florida for the first time since testing positive for Covid-19 less than two weeks ago. Biden also campaigned in Ohio yesterday and accused Trump of “reckless behavior” since his diagnosis. BBC News reporting.

Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said yesterday that the president has tested negative for Covid-19 on consecutive days, a memo released yesterday by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has revealed. “I can share with you that he tested negative, on consecutive days, using the Abbot BinaxNOW antigen card,” the memo read, adding that a viral load data had also been considered when determining that Trump was no longer able to spread the virus. The memo was released hours before Trump’s first rally since testing positive was about to kick off. Catherine Kim reports for POLITICO.

Two ethics groups the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) are calling for House lawmakers to initiate impeachment proceedings against Barr for allegedly abusing his position by pushing forward political agendas in support of Trump. A 267-page research paper by the groups accuses Barr of having an “authoritarian worldview” that “makes him see himself as entitled to ignore laws, ethics, and historical practices.” The report cites Barr’s interference in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as Barr’s decision to tap Durham to conduct his own probe of Mueller’s investigation. Reuters reporting.

Secret Service agents accompanying Trump’s children to Trump properties has cost the government over £238,000 so far, according to Secret Service records obtains by The Washington Post. Although it is expected that agents will accompany the president’s children on their travels, records have revealed that whenever Eric, Ivanka, or Donald Jr., visited properties owned by the family, Trump’s company charged the Secret Service for rooms to accommodate its agents. Government ethics experts have pointed out that just by the president’s children travelling, they are able to draw on taxpayer money for the family’s business. David A. Fahrenthold, Joshua Partlow and Carol D. Leonnig report for the Washington Post.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled that federal agents cannot target journalists or legal observers at Portland, OR, protests over systemic racism and police brutality. The ruling temporarily reinstated a lower court’s injunction that barred federal agents from assaulting journalists or legal observers. The court will now consider the government’s appeal. Karine Brown reports for Courthouse News.

Five takeaways from yesterday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Barrett is provided by Jeremy Herb for CNN.

USAFGHANTALIBAN RELATIONS

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley avoided endorsing President Trump’s touted timeline for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, speaking in an interview with NPR Sunday which was released yesterday. Trump said last week that the United States “should” have withdrawn all troops from Afghanistan by Christmas; however, Milley’s comments didn’t seem to echo Trump’s plan. “We’re on a plan to do a responsible, deliberate drawdown to about 4,500 here very shortly … And then future drawdowns will be determined by the president. And I’m not going to disclose specific numbers and what those are. The whole agreement and all of the drawdown plans are conditions-based, and I expect that we’ll have further discussions on the conditions and ensure that they warrant,” Miley said. He added: “The key here is that we’re trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

US forces have conducted airstrikes against the Taliban in Helmand province in support of Afghan forces who came under attack by the Taliban over recent days. U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesperson Col. Sonny Leggett said the U.S. military has conducted “several targeted strikes” to defend Afghan forces “over the past two days.” “The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country,” Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement issued from Leggett’s Twitter page, adding: “It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Trump has long pledged to end the US’s “endless wars” throughout the Middle East and significantly reduce its military presence; however, in reality, he is far from achieving that goal. There is currently around a total of 10,000 ground troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined, which is only slightly less than how many Trump’s administration inherited from the administration of former President Barack Obama. Although thousands of troops have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, thousands still remain. In late 2017, the number of troops rose to 26,000, a Pentagon report details. Senior military leaders have also made clear that they have received no formal instruction to reduce troops in Afghanistan beyond 4,500 by the end of next month. Michael Crowley reports for the New York Times.

The Taliban have been able to expand its influence in one province in southeast Afghanistan following the US military’s withdrawal from a base in the area. The United States left Forward Operating Base Lightning in March, less than a month after a peace deal was signed between the United States and the Taliban for U.S. troops to start withdrawing from the country. Afghan officials and residents have reported that the March vacation has had a marked effect on stability in the area, with targeted killings rising, school attendance slowing down, and Taliban influence rapidly expanding. Susannah George and Aziz Tassal report for the Washington Post.

US ELECTIONS

Over 10 million US voters have already cast their vote for the Nov. 3 presidential election, according to data gathered by the U.S. Elections Project. Reuters reporting.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley this weekend stressed that the US military will have “no role … in determining the outcome of a US election,” speaking in an interview with NPR Sunday. “This isn’t the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election,” Milley said, adding, “And if there is, it’ll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the U.S. Congress. There’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero. There is no role there.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 7.8 million and has now killed over 215,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 37.85 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.08 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson announced yesterday that it has paused the advanced clinical trial of its coronavirus vaccine because of an “unexplained illness in a study participant.” The company’s independent monitoring board has said it is reviewing the incident. David Lim reports for POLITICO.

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 White House has sent lawmakers multiple arms sales to Taiwan to review, including the sale of a Lockheed Martin-made truck-mounted rocket launcher called a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, Boeing-made air-to-ground cruise missiles called Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response, and external sensor pods for F-16 fighter jets, multiple sources have confirmed. Chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees were notified that three of the planned arms sales had been approved by the State Department, sources confirmed. The arms sales would also need to be sent to the full Congress for review. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

A group of Iran-backed militia announced Sunday that it has agreed to a “conditional” cease-fire against US-linked diplomats and military groups in Iraq, but only if the Trump administration sets out a clear timetable for withdrawing its troops from the country. Mohammed Mohie, a spokesperson for the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group, said that “this truce is conditional, and the condition is that we will accept their retreat.” Louisa Loveluck reports for the Washington Post.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

India’s and China’s top military officials are holding fresh talks aimed at ending a standoff between the two countries along their disputed border in the Ladakh region. AP reporting.

North Korea this weekend paraded a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. Paul Sonne reports for the Washington Post.

A ceasefire agreed between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the weekend is on shaky ground after both sides today allege the other has violated the humanitarian truce that aimed to end a clash over Nagorno-Karabakh that has led to hundreds of civilians being killed. Reuters reporting.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey rise as Turkey yesterday dispatched a ship into the disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters to conduct new research. Al Jazeera 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)