Early Edition: October 26, 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 weekend. Here’s today’s news.

US DEVELOPMENTS                 

President Trump plans to fire a number of intelligence officials if he wins the Nov. 3 election, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray, two people familiar with the matter told Axios yesterday. “We have no personnel announcements at this time nor would it be appropriate to speculate about changes after the election or in a 2nd term,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said on the matter. One source said that Haspel actually intends to resign herself, telling Axios, “Since the beginning of DNI’s push to declassify documents, and how strongly she feels about protecting sources connected to those materials, there have been rumblings around the agency that the director plans to depart the CIA regardless of who wins the election.” Jonathan Swan and Alayna Treene report for Axios.

White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien stated yesterday that hackers can do nothing to change election votes or stop voters from voting, after federal officials reported Thursday that Russian hackers were behind a string of attacks on “dozens” of state and local governments. Responding to a question on whether he believed hackers could change votes or make it more difficult to vote, O’Brien said: “No, they can’t do either of those things. And we got ahold of them early on because we’ve got great cyber folks, and we put a stop to it, but there’s nothing they can do to change your vote or to stop you from voting.” He also stressed the distinction between election interference on Election Day and attempting to influence people’s vote in the run-up to the election, citing Iran’s recent threatening emails sent to American voters which warned them to vote for Trump. “Your vote is secret. Every American should understand that their vote is secret. And that was an Iranian effort to hurt the president,” O’Brien said. Kelly Hooper reports for POLITICO.

Social media giant Facebook has been preparing measures to respond to potential unrest following the upcoming presidential election result – including slowing the spread and sharing of certain posts, altering users’ news feeds, and tightening restrictions on inflammatory posts – tools designed initially for “at-risk” countries and used previously in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, people familiar with the matter have said. Facebook executives have said the measures would only be deployed in extreme circumstances, such as election-related violence, but that the company is preparing for all possibilities, those people familiar with the plans said. Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman report for the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and special adviser, Jared Kushner, threatened Friday to sue the Lincoln Project over billboards it put up in Time Squares criticizing the married couple over the White House’s coronavirus response – however, the anti-Trump group seemed unfazed by threats,with its lawyer writing in a response: “sue if you must,” the Lincoln Project “will not be intimidated by empty bluster.” Trump and Kushner’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, warned that if the “false, malicious and defamatory” ad stays up, they would sue “for what will doubtless be enormous compensatory and punitive damages.” Martin Pengelly reports for The Guardian.

The Senate is set to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett tonight, following a key vote by Senators yesterday, 51-48 votes, surpassing another key procedural hurdle and advancing Barrett’s nomination to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Marianne Levine and Andrew Desiderio report for POLITICO.

Atlas Aegis, the private security firm that attempted to recruit ex-US military Special Operations personnel to guard polling stations in Minnesota on Election Day, has agreed to cancel its plans after Attorney General Keith Ellison made clear that state and federal law forbid intimidating or interfering with voters. Ellison announced the agreement, in which the firm agreed not to provide security services in the state until January 2022. Derek Hawkins reports for the Washington Post.

Former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was pardoned by Trump after being convicted of war crimes in Afghanistan under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for instructing his platoon to open fire on three unarmed Afghans, has announced his intention to become a lawyer and push for reform to the Code, speaking in an interview with Military.com. Lorance has long maintained the Code needs reforming, after serving 6 years of a 19-year sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is currently studying at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, although the chances of him overcoming numerous legal and ethical challenges to him being admitted to the bar are slim. Richard Sisk reports for Military.com.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.63 million and now killed over 225,00 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 43.12 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.15 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN  

The US reported a new single-day record for Covid-19 cases on Friday – 83,010 new cases, according to data by the Covid Tracking Project. BBC News reporting.

Five officials close to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for Covid-19, including his chief of staff Marc Short and longtime political adviser Marty Obst, according to reports by Pence’s office Saturday. Pence and his wife were tested Saturday and the results were negative. Monica Alba, Amanda Golden and Kelly O’Donnell report for NBC News.

The White House signals that it has accepted defeat in the coronavirus pandemic, with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows stating the administration had effectively given up trying to slow the spread of the virus: “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations.” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said in response to Meadow’s admission: “This wasn’t a slip by Meadows; it was a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away … It hasn’t, and it won’t.” Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Amy B Wang report for the Washington Post.

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

China plans to impose sanctions on US firms, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing Defense, and Raytheon, over their alleged involvement in the administration’s $1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said today, although no details of the sanctions were confirmed. Reuters reporting.

The US and India are expected to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement this week during a visit to the country by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a move that will strengthen cooperation in the Pacific and Indian oceans to counter China’s growing power, Indian officials said. A top U.S. defense official didn’t confirm the announced signing, but did cite significant progress, stating the pact would “allow for expanded geospatial-information sharing between our armed forces.” Rajesh Roy and William Mauldin report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions Friday on a Russian government research institution, the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics, for allegedly targeting critical US infrastructure facilities in the US and the Middle East with a dangerous malware virus. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

AFGHAN GOVERNMENTTALIBANUS RELATIONS

Afghanistan said yesterday that it has killed a senior al-Qaeda leader who has been on the FBI’s most-wanted list in a raid last week. Abu Muhsin al-Masri, who goes by the name Husam Adb-al-Ra’uf, a top al-Qaeda propagandist, is reported to have been killed in an operation in Ghazni province, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security stated on Twitter. Al-Masri was charged in the United States with supporting a foreign terrorist organization and being party to a conspiracy to kill Americans; the FBI issued an arrest warrant in Dec. 18 and put him on the bureau’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list. AP reporting.  

A US airstrike in support of Afghan security forces killed five Taliban fighters in central Afghanistan Sunday, Col. Sonny Leggett, the U.S. military spokesperson in Kabul, said, making clear that the action was in-line with the terms the U.S.–Taliban withdrawal agreement signed February. Reuters reporting.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of violating a recent US-brokered ceasefire between the two countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh region conflict. A truce was announced Sunday in a joint statement by the State Department and the two countries’ governments and was set to take effect at 8 a.m. (04:00 GMT) today; however, just hours after the agreement came into force, each countries’ defense ministry accused the other of launching missile attacks. AP reporting.

“Whatever your sanctions are, don’t be late,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday in response to recent US warnings of sanctions on Turkey if it involves itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. AP reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Fifty countries have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), an international treaty banning nuclear weapons, the United Nations announced Saturday, with the text expected to come into force in 90 days. The move has been opposed by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, and so will not be binding on either nation. Rick Gladstone reports for the New York Times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet yesterday approved Israel’s normalization accord with Bahrain and will now be considered by the country’s parliament, a cabinet statement said. Reuters reporting.

Turkey has said it is extending a gas exploration mission in the disputed Eastern Mediterranean Sea until Nov. 4, a move labelled “illegal” by Greece and expected to intensify tensions in the region. Al Jazeera reporting.

Chileans have voted in favor of abandoning the Pinochet-era constitution and replacing it with a charter drafted by citizens. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera acknowledged the overwhelming vote in favor of a new charter but made clear it was the first step in a long process. Charis McGowan 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)