Early Edition: November 19, 2020

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

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

US RELATIONS

The Treasury and State Departments yesterday imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran over alleged human rights violations, blacklisting a foundation controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and taking aim at the country’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi. Shortly after, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement, “The Importance of Sanctions on Iran,” arguing that the Trump administration’s action against Iran made the world safer and should not be unwound as this would be “a dangerous choice.” Speaking on the foundation, Mostazafan Foundation, the Treasury Department said: “While (it) is ostensibly a charitable organization charged with providing benefits to the poor and oppressed, its holdings are expropriated from the Iranian people and are used by the Khamenei to enrich his office, reward his political allies, and persecute the regime’s enemies.” The department added that Alavi had “played a central role in the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses against Iranian citizens.” AP reporting.

A bipartisan trio of Senators — Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Rand Paul (R-KY); and Chris Murphy (D-CT) — are pushing to stop the Trump administration’s $23 billion arms sale to the UAE. The senators yesterday introduced four separate resolutions aimed at thwarting plans to sell to the UAE F-35 fighter jets, armed drones, missiles and bombs. “As I tried to warn the Trump administration, circumventing deliberative processes for considering a massive infusion of weapons to a country in a volatile region with multiple ongoing conflicts is downright irresponsible,” Menendez said in a statement. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

Somalia expresses worry after President Trump suggests he will be reducing US troop levels in the African country. “The United States troops and the Danab unit they have trained are the ones who have taken a critical lead in disrupting terrorism activities,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, chair of the Hiraal Institute research group and a former national security advisor to the Somali president. “If the mentor leaves, the unit might just literally collapse,” he further warned. Abdi Latif Dahir and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Palestine’s prominent movement — “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS),” which takes aim at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and calls for a boycott — describing the group as anti-Semitic and referring to them as “a cancer.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the move “wonderful.” BDS dismissed the allegation, stating that it was opposed to “all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism.” BBC News reporting.

The US has appointed its first Venezuela ambassador in over a decade amid an ongoing breakdown in relations between the two countries. Diplomat James Story has been chosen as the new ambassador. Al Jazeera reporting.

US ELECTION RESULT

As the Trump campaign’s election lawsuit challenges continue to face defeat, the president and his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, who is now leading the campaign’s legal team, switch strategy and now aim to delay the final count for as long as possible to disrupt the vote certification and cast doubt on President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. “Giuliani has also told [President] Trump and associates that his ambition is to pressure GOP lawmakers and officials across the political map to stall the vote certification in an effort to have Republican lawmakers pick electors and disrupt the electoral college when it convenes next month — and Trump is encouraging of that plan, according to two senior Republicans who have conferred with Giuliani and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.” However, even if that is the new plan, it seems destined to also fail — “It is against the law in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin law gives no role to the legislature in choosing presidential electors, and there is little public will in other states to pursue such a path.” Amy Gardner, Robert Costa, Rosalind S. Helderman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee report for the Washington Post.

Two Republican election official appointees on a key board in Michigan’s most populous county, Wayne County, on Tuesday backpaddled on their resolution not to certify the vote, eventually joining their Democratic counterparts in a compromise that saw a unanimous certification of the tally — however, yesterday they both expressed wanting to take back their votes. “In affidavits signed Wednesday evening, the two GOP members of the four-member Wayne County Board of Canvassers allege that they were improperly pressured into certifying the election and accused Democrats of reneging on a promise to audit votes in Detroit.” Their last-minute reversal is reportedly too late, according to Democrat Jonathan Kinloch, the board’s vice chair, who said the certified results had been sent to the secretary of state in accordance with state rules and law. Tom Hamburger, Kayla Ruble and Tim Elfrink report for the Washington Post.

The Trump campaign yesterday filed a petition for a partial recount in Wisconsin — namely, Milwaukee and Dane counties — where Trump trails Biden by 20,000 votes. The campaign wired $3 million to the Wisconsin Election Commission, shortly followed by the actual petition, and then later released a statement that it was calling for recounts in mostly Democratic areas where Biden defeated Trump by large margins; in Dane, Biden won more than 75 percent of the votes and in Milwaukee he captured 69 percent. Zach Montellaro reports for POLITICO.

The campaign has once again revised its Pennsylvania lawsuit challenging the results. This time Trump is stating that he should officially be named as the winner of the election or that the state legislature should be given the authority to assign the state’s 20 electoral votes. Also, the campaign is bringing back its claim that the campaign’s constitutional rights were violated as observers were not able to properly watch the processing of mail-in ballots — a claim that the campaign recently dropped. Giuliani explained that there was actually never an intention to drop that strand of their challenge, and said that the confusion was due to miscommunications prompted by campaign lawyers being harassed and threatened. The revised complaint contends that 1.5 million mail-in or absentee votes in seven counties “should not have been counted” and that these votes resulted “in returns indicating Biden won Pennsylvania.” Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION OF POWER

Several current and former Trump administration officials have privately reached out to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, despite President Trump’s continuing refusal to concede, according to a number of sources familiar with the matter. Two officials on Biden’s transition team said that only a few officials had reached out so it was “not a big deal,” nor was it at all an adequate substitute for receiving official nation security, intelligence and Covid-19 briefings. A current administration official told CNN that there had been an informal outreach, but that it was “Nothing that would get us in trouble … just an offer to be of help. They know what we mean, and what we can-and-can’t do or say.” Evan Perez, Jeff Zeleny and Vivian Salama report for CNN.

The transition team is planning a “lobbying blitz to get Trump’s allies to crack.” The team have gathered Republican and Democrat diplomats from past administrations as well as a breadth of business and interest group leaders to intervene on Biden’s behalf, who are currently in talks with top Republican leaders and officeholders in an effort to end the transition impasse, stressing the real risks to national security and public health if Biden is not given access to crucial government resources and information. Natasha Korecki and Christopher Cadelago report for POLITICO.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will not work with Biden’s transition team until the General Services Administration (GSA) completes the ascertainment process — the official process for affirming Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ victory — HHS Secretary Alex Azar said yesterday. “We’ve made it very clear that when GSA makes a determination, we will ensure complete, cooperative professional transitions and planning,” Azar said at a briefing, adding, “We follow the guidance. We’re about getting vaccines and therapeutics invented and get the clinical trial data and saving lives here. That’s where our focus is as we go forward with our efforts.” Kristen Holmes and Devan Cole report for CNN.

US TROOP REDUCTION IN AFGHANISTAN

Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, speaking on the US’s recent decision to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500, said the withdrawals are “fraught with risk,” and made clear that the US military would not think twice to strike back if militant groups try to disrupt and undermine the transition to fewer US troops in the countries. AP reporting.

The likelihood of troops being taken out of Afghanistan has caused concern for both Afghan allies and adversaries. “One of the most critical roles of the U.S. in Afghanistan … is to keep their own Afghan allies from fighting among themselves and bringing down the state,” said Anatol Lieven, a New America Foundation Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus, stressing that, “It seems unlikely, however, that the U.S. will be willing or able to do this indefinitely.” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, made clear that, “While the idea of the Taliban making peace with the Afghan government and then working together to target ISIS sounds great in theory, it’s a very tall order, and especially anytime soon.” He also said that: “The numbers (of troops being pulled out) may seem small, and they are, but the impacts of even small numbers of troops are considerable, adding, “U.S. air power has helped Afghan ground forces repel Taliban offensives. U.S. troops help strengthen much-needed capacity within Afghan security forces.” AP reporting.

The UK will likely follow suit with the US and reduce troop levels in Afghanistan, although it will continue to work with the Afghan government and the US to protect the country’s security, Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said today. “I expect if they [(the U.S.)] are reducing at some stage, we will come down.” Al Jazeera reporting.

CISA DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER KREBS FIRING

President Trump’s recent firing of Christopher Krebs, the director of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — which was prompted after Krebs publicly contradicted Trump’s voter fraud conspiracy theories — has caused outrage from Democrats and some Republicans who have said the decision has left a significant hole in senior leadership, could threaten US national security, and was completely without justification. “The President’s decision to fire Krebs makes America less safe,” House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS.) and cybersecurity subcommittee Chair Lauren Underwood (D-IL) said in a joint statement Tuesday. Republicans have also voiced concern: Rep. Denver Riggleman (VA), a former intelligence official, said the firing was “ludicrous;” and Sen. John Cornyn (TX) said the departure of Kreb “adds to the confusion and chaos.” Maggie Miller and Olivia Beavers report for The Hill.

“What the fired director of federal cybersecurity actually said about the election,” is explained by Philip Bump for the Washington Post.

OTHER US DEVELOPMENTS

The House is set to formally enter into negotiations with the Senate on the new $740 billion defense spending bill — however, the bill would require Confederate names to be stripped from military bases and other Pentagon property, which President Trump has threatened to veto. Both the House and Senate have previously passed their own version of the bill, which both contained provisions to rename buildings, but with Trump’s threats to veto the move, Republicans on the armed services committees have said a compromise must be made. “There are 10 Army posts — located in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas — that carry the names of Confederate leaders. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a defense bill that ordered the names to be changed within three years, while the House passed a bill ordering the changes within one … Leading Republicans have since proposed an alternative that would replace the name-change mandate with an instruction to the Pentagon to study the issue and come up with suggestions on a deadline. Democrats have not only rejected that suggestion, they deny that there has been any “softening” from their side, as [Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-OK)] suggested.” Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post.

Former Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, whose drug trafficking and money laundering case was this week dropped by the Justice Department, arrived back in Mexico yesterday. The decision by Attorney General William Barr has been the target of much criticism by lawmakers; apparently, the decision to drop the charges “came after Mexico threatened to cut off cooperation with U.S. authorities unless the general were returned home, top Mexican officials said … One U.S. official also said Mexico threatened to expel U.S. drug enforcement agents from the country, but it wasn’t known whether that alone drove the decision.” Sadie Gurman and José de Córdoba report for the Washington Post.

Former Green Beret captain Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins has pleaded guilty to charges of espionage after he was accused of conspiring for over 14 years to provide US defense secrets to Russian spies, U.S. prosecutors said yesterday. “Debbins today acknowledged that he violated this country’s highest trust by passing sensitive national security information to the Russians,” said John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, adding, “Debbins betrayed his oath, his country, and his Special Forces team members with the intent to harm the United States and help Russia.” Sentencing was set for Feb. 26, according to the court docket. Dustin Jones reports for NPR.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 11.53 million and killed over 250,500 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have now been over 56.35 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.35 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

“More than 3 million people in the United States have active coronavirus infections and are potentially contagious, according to a new estimate from infectious-disease experts tracking the pandemic,” reports Joel Achenbach for the Washington Post.

Over 1,300 new coronavirus cases were confirmed in the US military on Tuesday, a new record for the military over a 24-hour period. “There are currently about 25,000 active Covid-19 cases in the ranks, and another 44,390 service members have recovered from the virus, according to the Pentagon. The number of military cases has grown over the last few weeks as case counts have increased in the general population.” Barbara Starr reports for CNN.

The US borders with Mexico and Canada will remain closed until mid-December, officials said yesterday. John Bowden reports for The Hill.

All public schools in New York City will close today, as cases spike in the area with a three percent tests positivity rate. Eliza Shapiro reports for the New York Times.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced yesterday that all in-person teaching in elementary, middle and high schools will be suspended from next week as well as a ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants and new limits on indoor gatherings. Lucy Tompkins and Will Wright 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.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Australian troops, mainly from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) regiment, executed 39 prisoners, farmers and other civilians during the Afghan war, the chief of the Australian defense forces, Australian Defence Force (ADF) Chief Gen. Angus Campbell confirmed today. Maj. Gen. Justice Paul Brereton has led an investigation into allegations for over four years, with Brereton describing the special forces’ actions as “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the Australian Defence Force. The report found: “Special forces were responsible for dozens of unlawful killings, the vast majority of which involved prisoners, and were deliberately covered up; 39 Afghans were unlawfully killed in 23 incidents, either by special forces or at the instruction of special forces; none of the killings took place in the heat of battle, and they all occurred in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder; all the victims were either non-combatants or were no longer combatants; and a total of 25 perpetrators have been identified either as principals or accessories. Some are still serving in the ADF,” reports Christopher Knaus for The Guardian

The UK has revealed its greatest military spending boost since the Cold War, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiling a $21.8 billion investment. Ryan Browne and Zamira Rahim report for CNN. 

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)