Early Edition: October 22, 2020

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours.

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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 ELECTIONS AND ELECTION INTERFERENCE

Iran was behind recent emails that targeted Democratic voters with fake and intimidating emails, and both Iran and Russia have obtained voter data on some Americans, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe warned yesterday. Ratcliffe said Iran was responsible for sending emails that aimed to “intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump,” after the emails purported to come from far-right extremist group the Proud Boys and threatened those who did not vote for Trump; the Proud Boys have denied any involvement. Democrats have also expressed skepticism over whether the emails were an attempt to discredit Trump as Ratcliffe claimed. In the same conference, FBI Director Christopher Wray said even if voter data had been obtained, much of which is publicly accessible, there was still no way for Iran or Russia to change election votes. However, a source told CNN that government believes some of the data obtained may have come from vendor and state system. Kevin Collier reports for NBC News.

The Supreme Court yesterday blocked a lower court order which allowed Alabama voters to cast their ballots curbside at polling stations that provide the option, reinstating a state-order ban and putting a halt to measures that were intended to speed up voting and make it easier and safer during the Covid-19 pandemic. The justices’ divided 5-3 ruling removes a coronavirus accommodation that the lower court had ordered; no rationale was given for the decision, although Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting comments argue that allowing curbside voting was a “modest” accommodation to those most at risk from the virus.  “If those vulnerable voters wish to vote in person, they must wait inside, for as long as it takes, in a crowd of fellow voters whom Alabama does not require to wear face coverings,” Sotomayo’s dissent read, which was adopted by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. “The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election.” Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien confirmed yesterday that Trump will accept the presidential election result he if loses, speaking to POLITICO. “If he loses the election, I’m certain the president will transfer power over, but we’ve got to make sure there’s no fraud in the election and we need to make sure it’s a free and fair election, just like we demand of other countries overseas, we need to make the demand of ourselves,” O’Brien said. Daniel Lippman reports for POLITICO.

Democratic House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (WA) said yesterday that he trusts that Pentagon leaders will follow the law and respect the Constitution regarding military involvement in any election-related disputes. “I trust the Pentagon to follow the law and to not basically follow unlawful orders, and to respect the Constitution,” Smith told reporters, adding, he believes both Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will stay loyal to the law and to the Constitution, not to one person. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Trump has signed legislation, the Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act, which makes attempts to hack voting systems a federal crime, after the bill received unanimous approval by the House last month. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

US DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump and his senior aides continue to discuss firing FBI Director Christopher Wray after Election Day, as the president’s frustration grows over a lack of action by Wray and by Attorney General William Barr to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, according to people familiar with the matter. Apparently, Trump had hoped for federal action, similar to what happened before the 2016 Election Day where former FBI Director James Comey announced that he had reopened an investigation into then-Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton’s private emails. Trump’s call for Barr to take-action has intensified over recent days, particularly since a series of New York Post stories revealed emails and documents alleged to be from Hunter’s laptop and which embroil both Bidens into an alleged long history with a Ukrainian energy company. Devlin Barrett and Josh Dawsey report for the Washington Post.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee plan to boycott Thursday’s committee vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) announced yesterday, stating, “We will not grant this process any further legitimacy by participating in a committee markup of this nomination just 12 days before the culmination of an election that is already underway.” The move won’t block Barrett’s nomination as Republican committee members have made clear Barrett will receive the vote regardless, and are able to make procedural changes if Democrats refused to provide a quorum. Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has criticized the boycott: “That is a choice they are making … I believe it does a disservice to Judge Barrett who deserves a vote, up or down.” Marianne Levine reports for POLITICO.

The Pentagon’s classified military intelligence program (MIP) received over $23 billion in the last fiscal year, the department said yesterday, although details of how it was spent have not been revealed. “The department has determined that releasing this top line figure does not jeopardize any classified activities within the MIP,” yesterday’s statement said. “No other MIP budget figures or program details will be released, as they remain classified for national security reasons.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The Justice Department lawyer who was set to argue before a court that Trump should not himself be the subject of a defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll was refused entrance to the court due to Covid-19 restrictions, with the department opting to allow the court to makes its decision without arguments being put forward by its laywer. Carroll accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s, and the present case is currently focused on whether Trump had been acting within the scope of his office as President when he denied during interviews last year that he had raped Carroll in a New York Department store, thus can be defended by government lawyers and therefore funded by taxpayer money. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.33 million and now killed over 223,00 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 41.29 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.13 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday issued new guidance on what is to be regarded as “close contact” with a Covid-19 infected person, guidance which is likely have its greatest impact on schools, workplaces and other group settings. The new guidance states that close contact occurs when someone comes within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of at least 15 minutes in a day, meaning multiple, yet brief, encounters will be totaled. However, previously, close contact was based on 15 consecutive minutes of exposure to someone with the virus. Gina Kolata reports 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.

US RELATIONS

The US has approved a $1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan, including weapons systems such as air-to-ground missiles, sensors, rocket launchers and artillery, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday, a move that is expected to escalate tensions between the self-ruled island and China. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

NATO chief made clear that it will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan following growing violence that some fear could derail Afghan peace talks, although President Trump has consistently said he will remove US troops by Christmas. “We will make a decision together, coordinate our efforts based on the principle ‘in together, adjust together, and when the time is right, when the conditions are met, then we will leave together,’ but not before,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. AP reporting.

The US has warned UN member countries against working to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons, which is nearing the required 50 ratifications needed for it to enter into force. A letter by the United States to the treaty’s signatories argued that the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. “Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession,” the letter added. AP reporting.

The US and India are close to agreeing a pact which would allow India access to satellite data used for better missile and drone accuracy, government and industry officials have confirmed. Reuters reporting.

US—CHINA RELATIONS

The US has designated six more Chinese media companies, operating in the US, as foreign missions, a move Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday was aimed at pushing back against communist propaganda. Pompeo said the six companies were “substantially or effectively controlled by a foreign government,” but made clear that the outlets were not being refused the right to publish in the United States, but that the government want to “ensure that American people, consumers of information, can differentiate between news written by a free press and propaganda distributed by the Chinese Communist Party itself. They’re not the same thing.” Ben Westcott and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien yesterday chastised China for being the global threat of the 21st Century, accusing the nation of attempting to steal Covid-19 research from the West. Reuters reporting.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said he sees no realistic possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the growing conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region between his country and Azerbaijan. Reuters reporting.

Turkey is willing to send its military troops to support Azerbaijan if the country’s leader requests the help, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said yesterday. Reuters reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

An Israeli delegation yesterday visited Sudan to discuss normalizing ties, an extremely rare visit that ministers have said signifies a diplomatic breakthrough for the two countries. Reuters reporting.

Turkey has said it is extending a gas exploration mission in the disputed Eastern Mediterranean Sea until Oct. 27, a move likely to intensify tensions in the region, disregarding warnings from Greece and the European Union. 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)