Early Edition: November 17, 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 RELATIONS

President Trump last Thursday asked senior advisers what possibilities he had for an offensive strike on Iran’s primary nuclear site; fortunately, those advisers — said to include Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — were able to dissuade the president from such military strikes, four current and former U.S. officials told the New York Times. The request came a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had uranium stockpiled at 12 times the rate they are allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal that the United States left in 2018. “Mr. Trump might still be looking at ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, officials said.” Eric Schmitt, Maggie Haberman, David E. Sanger, Helene Cooper and Lara Jakes report for the New York Times.

The Trump administration intends to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebel group to its terrorist organization list, a move that has received opposition from the humanitarian community, and is the latest attempt by the outgoing administration to ramp up its efforts against Iran, leaving President-elect Joe Biden in a particularly precarious situation. Humanitarian groups have said the move will disrupt international aid efforts and negatively impact on the U.N.-brokered peace talks between the Shiite movement group and Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. The apparently imminent decision is part of the administration’s pressure campaign on Iran, with Pompeo set to this week visit Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Pompeo wants the move “fast-tracked”, one diplomatic source said. “In recent weeks, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has been pressing the United States to back down and appealing to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to intervene with Pompeo, according to diplomatic sources. Last month, Guterres urged Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., to reconsider plans to list the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Germany and Sweden have also pressed the United States to back down. But the effort has apparently foundered, and the U.N. has begun preparing the groundwork for a U.S. decision to list the Houthis,” write Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch for Foreign Policy.

The White House has instructed the Pentagon to begin planning to reduce US troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each by Jan. 15, days before Trump will leave the office, according to a defense official. The drawdown would reduce presence in Afghanistan from around 4,500-5,000 to 2,500 and in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500. The plan could easily change, with Trump reportedly expected to announce later this week his planned cuts to Afghanistan, according to some aides. Also, “reductions may not bring an end to America’s long-running wars, as militant groups continue to evolve and fracture. The proposed cuts also have an uncertain meaning less than 70 days before Biden takes office and launches a process to scrutinize his predecessor’s decisions.” Trump’s continued push to achieve his long-touted pledge to reduce numbers in Afghanistan, particularly, was further contradicted by recently ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper, after it was revealed he sent a classified memo to Trump days before his firing — on behalf of himself, U.S. Central Command leader Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie and commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan Gen. Austin Mill — which cautioned that conditions had not been met to start withdrawing troops, citing that peace talks could be undermined if action is taken now. Missy Ryan, Ellen Nakashima, Dan Lamothe, John Hudson and Karen DeYoung report Washington Post.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke with Miller Friday about the alliance’s commitment to remain in Afghanistan for as long as is necessary, Stoltenberg’s spokesperson, Oana Lungescu, said yesterday. “No NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. At the same time, we want to preserve the gains made with such sacrifice, and to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that can attack the United States or any other NATO ally,” Lungescu said. AP reporting.

Republicans have rebuked Trump’s plan to reduce US presence in Afghanistan  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) said the plan “would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm;” Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “it would turn into a Saigon-type of situation where it would fall very quickly and then our ability to conduct operations against terrorist elements in the region could be compromised;” and  Sen. Mike Rounds (SD) expressed that it was “a serious mistake to unilaterally walk away.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) said a 2,500-troop contingency “may be the residual force that protects us from a collapse.” Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign affairs minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has said that “it’s definitely an option” that the kingdom will arm itself with nuclear weapons if its rival Iran is left to continue in its efforts to produce nuclear weapons. Al Jazeera reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for Europe to work with the US in addressing Turkey’s recent action in the Middle East, particularly its support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “Europe and the U.S. must work together to convince [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan such actions are not in the interest of his people,” Pompeo said. Reuters reporting.

White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has said that the administration is working towards lifting the June 2017 Gulf blockade on Qatar — imposed by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain as well as non-GCC member Egypt — and hopes for progress “in the next 70 days”. Al Jazeera reporting.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION OF POWER

President-elect Joe Biden is making way in forming his incoming White House team and is expected to announce key members today. Among those tapped or expected to be are: Ron Klain, who was last week chosen as Biden’s chief of staff; Klain’s new deputy is likely to be campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon; Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) is expected to fill a senior adviser role focused on public engagement and outreach; and Steve Ricchetti, a longtime confidant, will serve as a counselor to the president, according to sources familiar the decision. Anne Moneymaker reports for the New York Times.

National security advisor Robert O’Brien indicated yesterday that Biden is the winner of the 2020 presidential election — and makes clear that a “professional” transfer of power will be ensured by the National Security Council (NSC). “If the Biden-Harris ticket is determined to be the winner — and obviously things look that way now — we’ll have a very professional transition from the NSC … “here’s no question about it,” O’Brien said in a virtual interview at the Global Security Forum. O’Brien further hinted at President Trump eventually leaving office when talking on the normalizing of ties Trump has facilitated between Israel and some Gulf Nations: “a great legacy for the president to have as he leaves office.” Ken Dilianian reports for CNN.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) yesterday joined a small group of Republicans — Sens. Mitt Romney (UT), Lisa Murkowski (AL), Susan Collins (ME) and Ben Sasse (NB) — that have acknowledged Biden as the new president-elect. Rubio’s acknowledgement was in response to a question by reporters at Capitol Hill about his thoughts on Sen. Angus King potentially being tapped as the next Director of National Intelligence (DNI), in which Rubio replied: “Well, that’ll be the President-elect’s decision obviously.” Claudia Grisales reports for NPR.

Biden, during a news conference yesterday in Wilmington, DE, berated Trump for refusing to concede, warning that “more people will die” if a smooth transition is thwarted, as coordination remains absent and Biden remains excluded from crucial information on the coronavirus pandemic. Matt Viser reports for the Washington Post.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION AND THE US ELECTION

A group of over 50 election security specialists have challenged President Trump’s claims of voter fraud and hacking as “unsubstantiated” and “technically incoherent,” a lettered contradiction that will be publicly available on numerous websites today. “Anyone asserting that a U.S. election was ‘rigged’ is making an extraordinary claim, one that must be supported by persuasive and verifiable evidence,” the top computers scientists and election security experts wrote, adding that without evidence, the claims are “simply speculation.” The letter further read: “To our collective knowledge, no credible evidence has been put forth that supports a conclusion that the 2020 election outcome in any state has been altered through technical compromise.” Nicole Perlroth reports for the New York Times.

Three lawyers representing the Trump campaign’s election lawsuit in Pennsylvania have pulled out, a court filing from yesterday has revealed. The lawyers — Linda Kerns, John Scott and Douglas Bryan Hughes — made the request to withdraw yesterday in court and added that the campaign had consented to their withdrawal. The court issued an order last night accepting Scott and Hughes’ application but rejected Kerns’. “Harrisburg-based lawyer Marc Scaringi has joined the case and will be Trump’s lead counsel. Scaringi and the three attorneys who sought to withdraw did not immediately respond to requests for comment.” Scaringi then asked the court for a continuance, but was swiftly denied by U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann. Jan Wolfe and David Thomas report for Reuters.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, said yesterday that he has come under significant pressure in recent days from Republicans over the current recount of ballots underway in his state — particular pressure has come from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (SC), who Raffensperger said had suggested he should think of a way to invalidate legal mail-in ballots. Graham allegedly questioned him about the state’s signature-matching law and suggested that political bias might have been present in counties where poll workers accepted higher numbers of mismatched signatures. According to Raffensperger, Graham then asked whether he had the authority to get rid of mail-in ballots in these counties. Raffensperger later added: “It was just an implication of, ‘Look hard and see how many ballots you could throw out.’” Caroline Kelly, Manu Raju, Amara Walker and Sarah Fortinsky report for CNN.

OTHER US DEVELOPMENTS

The Justice Department has expressed that the House Judiciary Committee’s attempts to obtain former White House Counsel Donald McGahn’s testimony is no longer valid as the current Congress is due to expire, with a new Congress, with many new lawmakers, set to take office Jan. 3. In May 2019, the House subpoenaed McGahn for his testimony on matters relating to President Trump’s impeachment proceedings, but he refused to appear; the House has since Aug. 2019 been in a contentious legal battle to expedite the process. Speaking on the impeachment issue, a 60-page brief filed by Courtney Dixon, an attorney in the department’s Civil Division, said: “There is no reasonable likelihood that this controversy will recur in the future, and it is purely speculative at this time whether a new Congress will renew the same dispute and call on the courts to resolve the same legal issue.” The brief added: “The Committee has consistently emphasized that it needed this subpoena ‘particularly’ because it “inform[s] impeachment … Those impeachment proceedings have been completed, and there is no prospect that there will be a renewed impeachment inquiry after January 3, 2021.” However, “congressional lawsuits have routinely spanned many years and multiple election cycles, with routine votes to renew pending litigation taken at the outset of the new Congress. For example, House Republicans litigated efforts to secure documents related to an Obama-era gun-running program, known as Fast and Furious, from 2012 to 2019,” writes Kyle Cheney for POLITICO.

“The US military is purchasing private information gathered from apps around the world, including several used by Muslims that have been downloaded nearly 100 million times,” an investigation by online magazine Motherboard published yesterday found, concluding that the U.S. Special Operations Command was procuring location data from several companies. Al Jazeera reporting.

Social media giant Twitter has named Peiter Zatko, a famous hacker, as its new head of security, who is expected to take over the position in 45 to 60 days, pending a security review. “Zatko is a high-profile hacker known as “Mudge” and was a member of L0pht, a hacking group that testified to Congress in 1998 about cyber vulnerabilities in government. He is also one of the leaders of the Cult of the Dead Cow, a hacking group that released tools to hack Windows in a bid to force Microsoft to step up security.” Zatko said that he will examine “information security, site integrity, physical security, platform integrity – which starts to touch on abuse and manipulation of the platform – and engineering.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 11.21 million and killed over 247,200 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have now been over 55.14 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.329 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

President-elect Joe Biden yesterday pushed for a new economic relief package to be passed by Congress after Democrats and Republicans have for months battled over its detail. “The delay in cooperation is setting back plans for a coordinated rollout of a coronavirus vaccine, Biden said. Most of that rollout would fall to the Biden administration next year, but the Trump White House is not sharing details of its distribution plan,” write Anne Gearan and Jeff Stein for the Washington Post.

US drugmaker Pfizer has launched a pilot delivery program for its experimental Covid-19 vaccine in four US states — Rhode Island, Texas, New Mexico and Tennessee — based on their difference in state size, population, diversity of the population, and immunization infrastructure. “The four states included in this pilot program will not receive vaccine doses earlier than other states by virtue of this pilot, nor will they receive any differential consideration,” Pfizer said in a statement. The Guardian reporting.

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.

RUSSIA RELATIONS

Following a Russia-brokered peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia has moved seven truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers into a land corridor it currently controls between Armenia and the enclave as its peacekeeping forces, 2,000 personnel-strong, secure new territory for the last week struck deal. Reuters reporting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday approved a new Russian naval facility in Sudan capable of anchoring nuclear-powered surface vessels, the first move by Moscow since the Soviet fall to make a substantial military foothold in Africa. Andrew Osborn reports for Reuters.

“Western security agencies believe the Kremlin intended to kill the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and only failed to achieve the deadly goal because of quick thinking by first responders when he suddenly fell ill in August,” reports Dan Sabbagh and Luke Harding 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)