Early Edition: November 25, 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

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION OF POWER

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is quickly moving to make progress after Biden’s victory received formal acknowledgement Monday by Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA). The White House yesterday granted Biden access to the President’s Daily Brief, the government’s most sensitive intelligence information, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) confirmed, although the timing of Biden’s first briefing was still being discussed. An official has confirmed that Biden transition officials held at least 20 meetings with President Trump officials and were actively engaging with every federal agency, as well as with the White House. “The Biden team got new email addresses in the hours after the transition became official, along with a new website domain affiliated with the federal government. They prepared to go over voluminous briefing books that provide updates on budgets, upcoming projects and nascent regulations, and the FBI can now begin conducting background checks on Biden’s nominees,” Matt Viser reports for the Washington Post.

Kash Patel, the Trump loyalist and former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) — who has since recently been serving as the Pentagon’s chief of staff following a series of firings and resignations — will act as the “touchpoint” for acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller during the transition to the Biden Administration and will ensure that he “has insight into what’s going on and to make sure that the transition is successful,” Defense spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman told reporters. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday indicated that the State Department has begun the formal transition process: “Today we began the process to see what the GSA’s decision was, and will do everything that’s required by law. We’ll make this work,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News. Reuters reporting.

The official appointment of Biden’s recently announced top cabinet picks will likely face pubic opposition from some Republicans — “Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) called Biden’s early nominees “polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” while Sen. Josh Hawley (MO) referred to them as “a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts — and #BigTech sellouts” and Sen. Tom Cotton (AR) dismissed them as “panda huggers who will only reinforce his instincts to go soft on China,”” reports Mike DeBonis for the Washington Post.

Biden’s new pick for the next US attorney general will be tasked with restoring the Justice Department’s independence and addressing issues of civil rights. Department officials have indicated that a top pick could be Sally Q. Yates, the former deputy attorney general who held the position from 2015 until the early days of Trump’s administration. Other potential picks include: “Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and former White House adviser Lisa Monaco,” reports Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky the Washington Post.

Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) of the Senate Intelligence Committee has warned Biden against nominating a top contender for the role of CIA director, Mike Morell, because his track-record as a “torture apologist” makes confirmation a “nonstarter.” Zachary Cohen reports for CNN.

Biden, speaking at a conference yesterday where he officially revealed his national security team, pledged a shift from Trump’s “America First” policy, stating his team “reflects that America is back. Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” further adding, “They embody my core beliefs that America is strongest when it works with its allies. Collectively, this team has secured some of the most defining national security and diplomatic achievements in recent memory — made possible through decades of experience working with our partners.” Laura Kelly and Julia Manchester report for The Hill.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday reiterated his hope that Biden would return America’s Iran policy to “the situation on Jan 20, 2017,” President Trump’s inauguration day, stating “it could be a huge solution for many issues and problems,” state TV reported. AP reporting.

TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND US ELECTION RESULTS

President Trump will today join Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, alongside other Republican state lawmakers as they hold a hearing on allegations of voter fraud in the presidential election, two sources familiar with the plans told CNN. Sources have said that Trump directed his aides to make plans for him to travel to the event, which has been touted as an effort to expose election “irregularities.” The event has been organized by the Pennsylvania state Senate GOP and will take place in a hotel, not at the state Capitol. Jeremy Diamond reports for CNN.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said yesterday that her office is “actively investigating” threats made against members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, which recently certified the state’s election results. Although no specific person has been named as being subject to the threats, Nessel said in a statement that: “We will investigate any credible complaints of threats to government officials, elected or appointed, and will prosecute criminal conduct to the fullest extent of the law.” Brakkton Booker reorts for NPR.

US DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump has told close allies that he plans to pardon his former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his link with Russia’s former ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, people familiar with the discussions said yesterday. Those people also said that the pardon will be part of a series of pardons that Trump will issue during his remaining weeks in office. John Bowden reports for The Hill.

Rep. Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, yesterday released an affidavit that indicates that State Department lawyers had warned that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 2019 “emergency” declaration enabling the sale of “lethal weaponry” to Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, could implicate US officials in potential war crimes liability, a press release from the Committee has revealed. The affidavit was submitted to the Committee by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Miller, and read: “[t]here was an analysis produced by the Office of the Legal Advisor in the 2016 timeframe that served as the foundational document for considering the Law of Armed Conflict in connection with the continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.” Although the affidavit only makes reference to the law of armed conflict, Engels makes a connection to a New York Times post in September which said: “the legal office reached the alarming conclusion that it put in writing in a memo in 2016: American officials, including the secretary of state, could be charged with war crimes for their role in arming the Saudi coalition.” Miller’s affidavit also confirms that the mastermind behind Pompeo’s plan to disregard Congress’s concerns and international law obligations was Marik String, then the acting head official in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, now the State Department’s acting Legal Adviser.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned yesterday of a surge in cyber scams targeted at US consumers during the holiday season, with the agency publishing guidance for U.S. consumers on how to avoid the scams. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

“[The] Trump administration is taking steps to dispose of the two specially equipped OC-135B planes the US has used to carry out Open Skies flights,” following the US’s formal withdrawal from the decades-old Treaty of Open Skies, an accord aimed at reducing the risk of war by permitting Russia and the West to carry our unarmed reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories. A top official said the aircrafts are being designated as “excess defense articles,” meaning they could give them to foreign allies at a reduced or no cost. “We’ve started liquidating the equipment,” the official said, adding, “Other countries can come purchase or just take the airframes. They are really old and cost-prohibitive for us to maintain. We don’t have a use for them anymore.” Michael R. Gordon reports for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 12.59 million and now killed close to 260,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 59.90 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.412 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

6.4 million doses of US drugmaker Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine could be sent out to communities across the US by mid-December, with more doses expected to become available each week as manufacturing speeds up, Gen. Gustave Perna, the head of logistics for Operation Warp Speed, the multi-agency vaccine development taskforce. Lena H. Sun reports for the Washington Post.

The White House is considering lifting European travel restrictions for most non-US citizens who were in the UK, Ireland and a list of other European countries, and also Brazil, five government and airlines officials have told Reuters.

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 Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that one of its naval vessels yesterday threatened to ram USS warship John S. McClain after it claimed the US warship had violated Russian seas when navigating through the disputed in the Sea of Japan. However, the U.S. Navy denied the claims, with Lt. Joseph Keiley, a spokesperson for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, stating: “The Russian Federation’s statement about this mission is false. USS John S. McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.” Ryan Browne reports for CNN.

The US, EU and other foreign donors have pledged around $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan for 2021 — but the offer is contingent on progress being made in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it was confirmed at a the virtually-held quadrennial aid conference in Geneva yesterday, hosted by the United Nations, Finland and Afghanistan. The US has pledged $600 million, but would first review progress with peace talks in 2021 before parting with the funds, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said at the conference. “The total commitment of about $12 billion for the next four-year period fell short of the $15.2 billion pledged in 2016. The drop in funding was expected ahead of the conference due to financial strain on donors from the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty over the continuing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as the U.S. draws down its troops there,” reports Sun Engel Rasmussen for the Wall Street Journal.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

At least 600 civilians were brutally killed in an apparent ethnically-driven massacre Nov. 9 in the town of Mai Kadra in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said in a press release following an investigation. Al Jazeera reporting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has rejected growing calls from the international community for the conflict in the Tigray region to stop and for dialogue between the warring sides to restart. Following Ahmed’s 72-hour surrender ultimatum, which runs out today, international calls for peace have grew, but Ahmed responded to the consensus stating: “We respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference … The international community should stand by until the government of Ethiopia submits its requests for assistance to the community of nations.” AP reporting.

“Russia’s Federal Security Service said on Wednesday it had thwarted “terror” attacks planned by Islamic State in the Moscow region, uncovering and breaking up a militant cell, the RIA news agency said.” Reuters 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)