Early Edition: October 15, 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

President Trump is potentially planning a huge foreign policy speech before the Nov. 3 election and is expected to announce plans to further reduce US troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to two senior administration officials and a former official briefed on the plans. Trump and his administration have made clear that they intend to reduce troop presence to 4,500 by November, but officials have revealed that an internal decision to reduce numbers to 3,000 or less by early next year has already been reached. Trump is also expected to discuss the country’s China policy, his negotiations with Russia on a new nuclear arms pact, his intentions to assist normalizing relations between Israel and other Arab nations, and his general strategy for U.S. competition and power with other global powers, the officials said. The date, time, and whether the speech would be a campaign speech or an official White House announcement, have yet been decided. Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report for NBC News.

Neo-Nazi group The Base are recruiting large numbers of active-duty and former military members, secret recordings between the group’s leader and more than 100 prospective recruits have revealed. Audio recordings of a secret call using the encrypted app Wire have revealed that of the 100-plus potential recruits, 20 percent confirmed they were either current active-duty military staff or had formerly served for the military in some capacity. More than 80 hours of recordings were released by The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, who said the recordings’ authenticity had been confirmed by experts. Samantha Springer and Anna Schecter report for NBC News.

The US Postal Service (USPS) yesterday agreed to reverse a host of highly criticized operational changes that saw the service dramatically slow nationwide, following a lawsuit filed against the Service Sept. 9 by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D). USPS has agreed to reverse all the changes, including reduced retail hours, the removal of collection boxes and mail sorting machines, and restricting overtime. The Service signed a settlement agreement a day before the lawsuit was to reach court; the agreement applies to all states, and vows to prioritize election mail. AP reporting.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, is currently writing his second book which will focus on the politicization of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and his time working for Trump. The new book follows his New York Times best seller, “Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump,” which was published last month. Daniel Lippman reports for POLITICO.

US-Mexico border encounters have slowed to expected levels following a surge last year, a new report released yesterday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has said. The report states that in the 2019 fiscal year there were 977,509 encounters with people attempting to illegally cross the Southwest border, whereas in the 2020 fiscal year there has been just over 458,000, a 53 percent fall. Kaelan Deese reports for The Hill.

Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager accused of fatally shooting two demonstrators and injuring a third in Wisconsin in August will not be charged with any firearm charges in his home state, Illinois, but will face homicide charges in Wisconsin, the Lake County State’s Attorney’’s Office said in a statement Tuesday, confirming that an investigation by the Antioch Police Department in Illinois “revealed the gun used in the Kenosha shooting was purchased, stored and used in Wisconsin.” Brakkton Booker reports for NPR.

A former Navy SEAL who was involved in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden has condemned Trump for his touting of the conspiracy theory that it was a body double that the US actually killed. “Very brave men said goodby [sic] to their kids to go kill Osama bin Laden. We were given the order by President Obama. It was not a body double,” Robert O’Neill wrote on a post on Twitter Tuesday. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

THE BIDENS: NEW YORK POST STORY

President Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani and his former top adviser Stephen Bannon were behind a New York Post story yesterday that revealed emails and documents claimed, although much-disputed, to belong to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and which embroil both Bidens into an alleged long history with a Ukrainian energy company. The authenticity of the emails and documents have meet been with much skepticism, as have previous claims that Joe Biden engaged in any wrongdoing related to Ukraine. The Post story claimed Bannon had told its reporters about the existence of a hard drive that contained damning evidence of Hunter and his father’s alleged links to Ukraine, and said that Giuliani had handed a copy of the data to the Post Sunday. Matt Viser, Paul Sonne and Annie Linskey report for the Washington Post.

Social Media giants Facebook and Twitter cast doubt over the credibility of the Post’s story, taking steps to limit its dissemination by its users. Twitter has prohibited any user from sharing links to the story, and Facebook has reduced how frequently the story appears on users’ news feed and on the general platform. Reuters reporting.

AMY BARRETT: SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARINGS

President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Barrett is expected to sail to the Supreme Court following the final day of her testimony yesterday, with over 50 GOP senators signaling their support the nomination. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from opponents and supporters of Barrett. “The question is, after this is over, do you have any doubt that she’s competent, that she’s originalist, and she’s independent? I think a reasonable person would say that there’s not much doubt there,” committee chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said. Andrew Desiderio and Marianne Levine report for POLITICO.

Four takeaways from yesterday’s final day of questioning by senators of Barrett are provided by Amber Phillips for the Washington Post.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 7.92 million and has now killed nearly 217,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 38.56 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.09 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin yesterday said that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) were “far apart” on reaching an agreement on a new economic coronavirus relief package, meaning a deal being stuck before Nov. 3 is unlikely. He did say conversations will, however, continue. Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report for the Washington Post.

President Trump’s son, Barron, tested positive for Covid-19, first lady Melania Trump said yesterday, although he displayed no symptoms. “To our great relief he tested negative, but again, as so many parents have thought over the past several months, I couldn’t help but think ‘what about tomorrow or the next day?’” she wrote on the White House website. “My fear came true when he was tested again and it came up positive.” Caitlin Oprysko 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

Two US nationals and the remains of a third held by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen were yesterday released as part of an exchange agreement which saw over 200 of the group’s loyalists returned to Yemen from Oman, it has been reported by U.S., Omani and Saudi officials. A Royal Oman Air Force plane flew the three Americans out of Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital of Sana’a yesterday, with a plane carrying the militants stuck in Oman following shortly after and making its way for Yemen. “The United States welcomes the release today of U.S. citizens Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada from Houthi custody in Yemen,” national security advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement, adding: “We send our condolences to the family of Bilal Fateen, whose remains will be repatriated as well.” O’Brien did not, however, mention the exchange of close to 250 Houthi supporters. AP reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday expressed that he was pleased that the Iraqi government is taking more active steps to protect the US embassy in Baghdad from Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias but didn’t confirm if the US still intends to close its embassy. Reuters reporting.

Pompeo yesterday urged Saudi Arabia to consider normalizing relations with Israel, and confirmed that the US is committed to a “robust program of arms sales to” the Kingdom in its effort to counter Iranian threats, speaking with Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, in Washington yesterday morning. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose a serious global threat, following an unveiling this week by the country of a never before seen or known intercontinental ballistic missile at a predawn military parade. Reuters reporting.

US—CHINA—TAIWAN RELATIONS

China today accused the US of undermining peace and instability in the Taiwan Strait following a US Navy destroyer which sailed through the waters yesterday on what the Navy has said was a “routine transit,” escalating tensions between Beijing and Taipei. Al Jazeera reporting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has told his troops to “put all [their] minds and energy on preparing for war,” speaking Tuesday during a visit to a Guandong military base. Jinping’s comments, which include him warning troops that they must “maintain a state of high alert” and remain “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable,” follow confirmation by the United States that it will sell a number of arms to Taiwan, a move China strongly opposes. Ben Westcott reports for CNN.

The State Department yesterday warned international banks doing business with individuals linked to China’s highly criticized measures against Hong Kong’s autonomy that they could soon face serious sanctions, a report sent to Congress has revealed. Reuters reporting.

The US has appointed Robert Destro, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, as the country’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, a position that has been vacant since 2017, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday. Al Jazeera reporting.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday discussed the worrying conflict, with Erdogan making clear that Ankara wanted a resolution to the matter, a statement from the Turkish president’s office said. Reuters reporting.

Turkish military exports to its ally Azerbaijan dramatically increased in the lead up to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with drones and other military equipment sales surging to $77 million last month alone, according to exports data. Reuters reporting.

The military death toll in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has reached 555, with 23 casualties recorded yesterday, the defense ministry for the region said yesterday. Reuters reporting.

The conflict could become “Tehran’s worst nightmare,” Alex Vatanka writes for Foreign Policy, stating that if the conflict spills over to Iran’s Azeri minority, a battle may ensue that the Iranian government could not contain.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Airstrikes by Russian and Syria against a rebel bastion in Idlib, northwest Syria, in April 2019 and March 2020, may amount to crimes against humanity, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released today. 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)