Early Edition: November 18, 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 DEVELOPMENTS

The US will reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by Jan.15, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller confirmed yesterday, five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office and President Trump leaves office. Although Miller gave no specific details of the plans, he did say that the move was “the next phase of our campaign to defeat terrorists who perpetrated attacks on our homeland” and “to prevent future acts of terrorism against our nation.”  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. White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien also announced the plan not long after the Pentagon did, adding: “By May it is Trump’s hope that they’ll all come home safely and in their entirety.” AP reporting.

Trump yesterday fired Christopher Krebs, the director of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), after the government’s top cybersecurity official has for weeks contradicted election-related conspiracy theories touted by Trump and his allies — prompting CISA Deputy Director Matt Travis, the second most senior cybersecurity official, to resign shortly after, although a source told CNN his resignation was due to the White House making clear he would not fill Krebs’ position. CISA’s chief of staff Emily Early said to her staff, in a letter seen by CNN, that Trump had designated Executive Director Brandon Wales as acting director. The dismissal was announced on Twitter, with Trump posting: “The recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud,” and “Therefore, effective immediately, Chris Krebs has been terminated as Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.” Krebs apparently found out about his dismissal through Trump’s posts, and publicly responded by Twitter: “Honored to serve. We did it right. Defend Today, Secure Tomrorow. #Protect2020.” Kaitlin Collins and Paul LeBlanc report for CNN.

Disappointment has been expressed by Democratic lawmakers, election officials and cybersecurity professionals — with Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse joining the dismay — over Kreb’s ousting, who all commend his service. “Trump is retaliating against Director Krebs and other officials who did their duty … It’s pathetic, but sadly predictable that upholding and protecting our democratic processes would be cause for firing,” said House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA). Sasse is one of the few Republican lawmakers to so far comment on the ousting, stating: “Chris Krebs did a really good job — as state election officials all across the nation will tell you — and he obviously should not be fired.” Krebs’ firing is “a gut punch to our democracy,” contended Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who worked with Krebs as the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, which oversees federal elections. Eric Geller reports for POLITICO.

A detailed look at Krebs’ career is provided by POLITICO.

House Democrats yesterday asked the Supreme Court to postpone the case relating to whether Congress should get access to secret grand jury testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with Biden reportedly telling advisers that he doesn’t want his presidency to be overshadowed by Trump investigations, according to five people familiar with the private discussions. The new House Judiciary Committee will take office in January and “will have to determine whether it wishes to continue pursuing the application for the grand-jury materials that gave rise to this case,” Douglas Letter, the top attorney for the House, said in a written filing yesterday, noting that if Trump formally fails in his relection bid then the committee may change its decision on how to proceed. “Democrats initially sought the Mueller probe materials in the summer of 2019 as part of the committee’s investigation of possible misconduct by Trump, including whether he obstructed Mueller’s investigation. Mueller’s 448-page report, issued in April 2019, “stopped short” of reaching conclusions about Trump’s conduct to avoid stepping on the House’s impeachment power, the federal appeals court in Washington said in March when it ruled that the materials should be turned over. By the time of the appellate ruling, Trump had been impeached by the House for his efforts to get Ukraine to announce an investigation of Democrat Joe Biden, and acquitted by the Senate. The Supreme Court effectively kept the grand jury documents secret through the election in a series of orders in the spring and early summer,” the AP reports.

Attorney General William Barr announced yesterday that the Justice Department is dropping its drug trafficking and money laundering case against former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, adding that the case had been dropped so Cienfuegos “may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.” Prosecutors wrote in their application to the court seeking for charges to be dismissed: “The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant, under the totality of the circumstances, and therefore require dismissal of the case.” Michael S. Schmidt and Natalie Kitroeff report for the New York Times.

US Navy personnel and staff aboard the USS John Finn “intercepted and destroyed a threat-representative Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) target,” using the warship’s Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor “during a flight test demonstration in the broad ocean area northeast of Hawaii,” the Missile Defense Agency have said in a statement. Ryan Browne reports for CNN.

US ELECTION

The US Intelligence Community (IC) has begun to conduct a comprehensive audit of foreign interference and influence efforts attempted during this year’s presidential election — a report on their findings is expected next year, with a potential public release by January — and will serve to answer whether claims that “[t]he November 3rd election was the most secure in American history” are true, also helping the Biden administration and Congress in the future with how to protect US elections. The production of such a report was initially called for in a 2018 executive order and was last year passed into legislation by Congress — “The examination requires the director of national intelligence (DNI), in consultation with individual intelligence agencies, to analyze possible foreign interference and submit a classified assessment within 45 days following a U.S. election. The report must include the nature of the meddling, methods and persons involved, as well as responsible foreign entities. An unclassified version is supposed to be available within 60 days after the election.” An Office of the DNI spokesperson said that the “work is underway,” but wouldn’t provide details on which agencies were involved and who would lead the coordination of the final report. Martin Matishak reports for POLITICO.

A number of senior lawmakers and officials responded to the expected IC report — “Before we reach [a] conclusion, let’s wait for the after-action report, so we can really get an analysis of what did happen and what didn’t happen,” said Sen. Mark Warner (VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. President-elect Joe Biden’s likely DNI, Sen. Angus King (I-ME), said: “Something very sizable happened in 2016 … The real question is, why didn’t it [this time]? Why was it less in ’18 and less this year? … I’m very interested in knowing what worked and what didn’t so that if we had some successes we can repeat them.” Acting Senate Intelligence Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL) expressed doubt that the report would reveal anything sinister from this year’s election, as we would have heard about it, but did say it would probably reveal “details about whatever attack there might have been, what were the most effective steps taken to prevent it.” POLITICO further reports.

Two Republican election official appointees on a key board in Michigan’s most populous county, Wayne County, yesterday backpaddled on their initial refusal to certify the vote tallies in the Detroit area, joining their Democratic counterparts in a compromise that saw a unanimous certification of the tally.
 The Republicans on the four-member Wayne County board of canvassers — tasked with validating the vote count — initially rejected certification and expressed concern about mismatches between the totals submitted by local precincts and the final canvass; but shortly after they reversed course, and called for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to audit the mismatched precincts. Kyle Cheney and Zach Montellaro report for POLITICO.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday rejected arguments by the Trump campaign that observers’ rights to watch ballot counting had been infringed after they were forced to station at least 15 feet from workers counting ballots. In a 5-2 ruling, the court held that the social distancing measures did not violate state law, vacating a lower court order that agreed with the campaign’s argument. “We conclude the Board did not act contrary to law in fashioning its regulations governing the positioning of candidate representatives during the precanvassing and canvassing process, as the Election Code does not specify minimum distance parameters for the location of such representatives … Critically, we find the Board’s regulations as applied herein were reasonable in that they allowed candidate representatives to observe the Board conducting its activities as prescribed under the Election Code,” the court’s majority order read. The ruling is expected to disrupt the campaign’s federal court challenge against the result in Pennsylvania, which is now being led by Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer. Pete Williams reports for NBC News.

Georgia is expected to finish its election result audit by today and certify its results by Friday — with the majority of counties reporting that results are “spot dead on” the initial tallies, with only a few minor discrepancies found — Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting systems implementation manager confirmed yesterday. Amara Walker, Wesley Bruer, Jason Morris and Marshall Cohen report for CNN.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION OF POWER

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were yesterday briefed by national security experts on “the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence challenges the administration will inherit on day one, focusing on both the strategic landscape as well as the readiness of our foreign policy and national security departments and agencies,” although with the General Services Administration (GSA) continuing to refuse to formally acknowledge Biden’s victory, the president-elect’s access to classified material and ability to speak with administration officials remains thwarted. Among those who briefed Biden and Harris were — “retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin; former Deputy Secretary of State and Biden ally Tony Blinken; former career diplomat Nicholas Burns; former Army General Stanley McChrystal, who oversaw forces in Afghanistan; former four-star Navy Admiral William McRaven; and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power.” Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) yesterday pledged that the presidential transition would be orderly, despite concerns that the GSA is delaying the process. Responding to questions as to why the GSA had not yet initiated the formal ascertainment process, McConnell said that election result legal disputes would first have to be settled, but stressed that “all of this will happen right on time and we’ll swear in the next administration on Jan. 20,” adding “We’re going to have an orderly transfer from this administration to the next one … What we all say about it is, frankly, irrelevant.” Catherine Kim reports for POLITICO.

Pentagon officials confirmed yesterday that they hadn’t formally begun the transition process, but did say that they have started providing unclassified briefing material, which is permitted. “Some officials at the Pentagon said they would be willing to meet off site with members of the Biden team should the standoff extend into December. The officials said that waiting past mid-December and into the holiday season wouldn’t give the incoming team enough time to learn about jobs that could affect the safety of deployed U.S. service members.” Although some may be meeting with Biden’s team off site, they would still be prohibited from sharing classified information. Sabrina Siddiqui and Eliza Collins report for the Wall Street Journal.

Biden yesterday spoke with leaders from Israel and India, and other countries, strengthening his relationship with world allies. Biden had a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, in which he restated ““steadfast” support for Israel’s security, its future as a Jewish and democratic state and pledged to work closely on many challenges confronting the two countries, according to a readout of the call released by his transition team” — Netanyahu reported on Twitter that he had a “warm conversation” with Biden and plans to meet soon to discuss “many issues” as part of the countries’ “steadfast alliance.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also commented on his talk with Biden: “We reiterated our firm commitment to the Indo-US strategic partnership and discussed our shared priorities and concerns – Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region.” Biden also spoke with the leaders of Chile and South Africa. Laura Kelly and Morgan Chalfant report for The Hill.

Recent key picks and top contenders for prominent positions in Biden’s administration are provided by Reuters.

US-IRAN RELATIONS 

Iran Foreign Minister Zarif has said that the country will fully implement the historic 2015 accord if President-elect Joe Biden lifts US-sanctions on Iran and rejoins the deal — Zarif said such can be achieved through “three executive orders.” Al Jazeera reporting.

“On 14 November 2020, the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] verified that Iran began feeding UF6 into the recently installed cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) in Natanz,” a report by the IAEA dated yesterday has said. Reuters reporting.

Biden “has promised to move quickly to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran so long as Iran also comes back into compliance. But that vow is easier said than done,” writes Steven Erlanger for the New York Times, noting that Biden’s chances of retuning to how things were before President Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 are slim, particularly with the Trump administration’s litany of sanctions targeted at Iran, and the recent news that Trump had asked his top advisers about the possibilities of launching a military strike against Iran.

“Three rockets, apparently fired by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, landed in the US Embassy complex within Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone” later yesterday, Karen DeYoung, Louisa Loveluck and Ellen Nakashima write for the Washington Post, stating that “A U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of a formal statement, said initial reports indicated there had been no injuries to U.S. personnel or damage to American facilities.”

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 11.36 million and killed over 248,700 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have now been over 55.73 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.34 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday authorized the first rapid coronavirus test that can be done at home  the test was developed by California-based company Lucira Health, and requires a prescription from a health care provider. Katherine J. Wu 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.

ISRAEL RELATIONS

Palestinian leaders have agreed to resume cooperation with Israel on security, financial and logistical issues after the government received “oral and written commitments” from Israel that allowed the two countries to restore their relationship from six months ago before ties were broken off by Palestine in protest of Israel’s plan to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Palestinian Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheik. Steve Hendrix reports for the Washington Post.

Israel launched air raids against what it said were a wide range of Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria yesterday, “reportedly killing three military personnel in what Israel said was retaliation for explosive devices planted along the contested border between the two countries.” The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that Israeli “jets struck military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds force and the Syrian Armed Forces,” adding, “During the strike, storage facilities, headquarters and military compounds were struck. In addition, Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries were struck.” Steve Hendrix reports for the Washington Post.

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s expected tour of a winery in the occupied West Bank this week marks the first time a top American diplomat has visited an illegal Israeli settlement,” Al Jazeera reports. 

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)