Early Edition: December 3, 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

Lawmakers press ahead with finalizing the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), despite President Trump’s vehemence that he will veto the next US defense bill unless lawmakers repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal shield for internet and social media companies. The situation will potentially lead to a showdown with Congress and could see for the first time in over 60 years the NDAA not signed into law; the question remains whether Republican lawmakers will move to override Trump’s veto. “[Section] 230 has nothing to do with the military,” said Trump ally and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-OK), adding, “I agree with his sentiments, we ought to do away with 230 — but you can’t do it in this bill.” “I don’t think that the defense bill is the place to litigate that,” Sen. John Thune (R-SS), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters yesterday. “We have to pass the defense authorization bill. … It’s the most thing, arguably, that we do around here,” he added. Karoun Demirjian and Tony Romm report for the Washington Post.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley yesterday warned that the Pentagon needs a “reality check” before drafting and agreeing the next batch of defense budgets. “We have to tighten up and take a much harder look at priorities,” Milley said during a virtual Brookings Institute event yesterday, suggesting that the Pentagon’s budgets will start to peter out in the next administration with “a reasonable prospect that they could actually decline significantly, depending on what happens.” Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan, have invited hundreds of guests to attend their large indoor holiday receptions at the State Department in the coming weeks, despite growing concerns of coronavirus spread and a notice sent to department staff recommending that “any non-mission critical events” be changed to “virtual events as opposed to in-person gatherings” — although event planners for the Pompeo’s get-togethers were told the guidance didn’t apply to them. A copy of one invitation obtained by the Washington Post reveals that an event, titled “Diplomacy at Home for the Holidays,” will take place on Dec. 5 in the Benjamin Franklin Room, with invitations sent out to over 900 people, said U.S. officials familiar with the matter. Those officials also said a separate invite for an additional event was sent to more than 180 ambassadors in the country. John Hudson reports for the Washington Post.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka has been deposed by attorneys from Washington DC, attorney general’s office, alleging that the president’s 2017 inauguration committee misused donor funds, a new court filing revealed, which follows the office’s lawsuit against the Trump Organization and the Presidential Inaugural Committee over allegations they abused more than $1 million raised by the non-profit by “grossly overpaying” to use event space at the Trump hotel in Washington. Others have been deposed, including Tom Barrack, chair of the committee, with the attorney general’s office also subpoenaing records Barrack, Ivanka, First Lady Melania Trump, and Richard Gates, the committee’s former deputy chair, court filings revealed. Kara Scannell reports for CNN.

TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND US ELECTION RESULTS

25 former presidents and a former CEO of the DC Bar in an op-ed for the Washington Post have denounced Trump campaign lawyers for helping Trump push forward his clams of voter fraud before the US courts. “Since the election, instead of telling their client to stop, some lawyers — too many — have leveled attacks on the integrity of the electoral process, basing their assertions on unfounded allegations of “voter fraud” or “ballot tampering.” Lawyers for President Trump have filed at least three dozen lawsuits in various states, charging grave abuses of the electoral process. Their goal has been to scuttle the process for counting and certifying the vote, thereby expunging millions of votes. If any legitimate evidence to support the challenges existed, we would defend the lawyers in raising the pertinent legal issues. But in the absence of any meaningful evidence, we must condemn the abuse of the judicial system to subvert the democratic process,” the group wrote. “It is deeply troubling that so many lawyers and law firms have been willing to sign their names to these filings, letting themselves be used in this corrosive undermining of confidence in the democratic process. Members of the bar have an obligation to refrain from undertaking a matter for a client when the lawyer knows that the purpose of the lawsuit is purely political and lacks concrete factual support or plausible legal merit,” they added, citing the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct which instruct lawyers to refrain from bringing proceedings “unless there is a basis in law or fact for doing so that is not frivolous.”

Trump is reportedly “disappointed” with Attorney General William Barr’s recent comments that his department had found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, sparking fears that Trump is set to fire the US’s top lawyer — although administration officials are reportedly dissuading Trump from ousting Barr or any other top administration officials. When White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked if Trump still had confidence in Barr, she responded: “If the President, if he has any personnel announcements, you’ll be the first to know it,” adding, that she did not know whether Trump and Barr had spoken, although Barr did visit the White House Tuesday for “pre-planned meeting with the chief of staff, [Mark Meadows]” where the two “discussed an array of issues.” Jim Acosta and Devan Cole report for CNN.

Trump yesterday rehashed his voter fraud claims and declined to concede during a 46-minute speech from the White House. Trump referred to the speech as “maybe the most important speech I’ve ever made,” then proceeded to spout further baseless claims about the election results. Philip Rucker reports for the Washington Post. 

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION TO POWER

William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), yesterday warned that Chinese foreign influence efforts, what he described as an influence campaign “on steroids,” have focused on members of President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration — and stressed that it was “really important” Biden gets sight of the intel. “We are starting to see that now play across the country to not only folks that are in the new administration, but those who are around those folks in the new administration,” he said, adding further, “That’s one area we are going to be very keen on making sure the new administration understands, that influence, what it looks like, what it tastes like, what it feels like when you see it.” Evanina’s comments were made alongside John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, who linked the efforts to why “more than 1,000” Chinese People’s Liberation Army-affiliated researchers have recently left the United States. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Biden’s top picks for his Covid-19 White House response team are emerging — including Jeff Zients, co-chair of the Biden transition team, who led the Obama administration’s National Economic Council; the other is Vivek H. Murthy, a co-chair of the transition’s Covid-19 advisory board and a former US Surgeon General. Murthy has also been considered to head the Department of Health and Human Services. “These names reflect the latest internal thinking, but the chess pieces are still in motion, and final decisions have not jelled, according to a variety of individuals close to the Biden transition,” report Amy Goldstein and Toluse Olorunnipa for the Washington Post.

Biden does not plan on removing FBI Director Christopher Wray if he is still in the job when Biden takes office – and may choose David S. Cohen, a former deputy CIA director, to serve as director of the CIA. Anna Moneymaker reports for the New York Times.

Biden’s transition team will soon have to make difficult decisions on what approach his administration will take with North Korea and its nuclear weapon program — that decision will be informed by Biden’s soon-to-have access to secret letters Trump exchanged with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. The letters “may help paint a richer psychological portrait of Kim Jong Un and offer insight into his thinking, or at least his approach to his engagement with Donald Trump.” Kyle Atwood reports for CNN.

US–AFGHAN RELATIONS

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley said yesterday that the Pentagon has approved US troop reductions in Afghanistan to 2,500 by Jan. 15 — but said that two larger bases will remain, as well as “several satellite bases,” speaking at a virtual event hosted by the think tank Brookings Institution. Milley did not confirm which bases would be closed, nor did he address the impact the withdrawal would have on U.S. capabilities in the region. He also made clear that what would happen in the region during the new Biden administration will be up to that new administration to decide. Phil Stewart reports for Reuters.

Speaking at the same event, Milley said that the US military has achieved a “modicum of success” in Afghanistan. “We went to Afghanistan … to ensure that Afghanistan never again became a platform for terrorists to strike against the United States … And to a large measure we have been, at least to date, successful in preventing that from happening again,” Milley said, although he admitted that during the last five to seven years, the U.S. military has entered a stalemate “where the government of Afghanistan was never going to militarily defeat the Taliban.” Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Negotiators for the Afghan government and the Taliban have agreed to the rules and procedures that will inform the ongoing peace negotiations between the two sides, officials from both camps announced yesterday, marking an important step in peace agreement talks that have stood on shaky ground over the past few months. The three-page agreement codifies “rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, said in a post on Twitter. Susannah George reports for the Washington Post.

US–CHINA RELATIONS

The House yesterday voted in favor of passing legislation which could see Chinese companies booted off US stock exchanges if they continue to prevent US regulators from accessing their audits — the bill now sits with President Trump. The House vote follows a unanimous passing of the bill by the Senate in May and is one of the few bipartisan measures taken by Congress against China since the Covid-19 pandemic. Kellie Mejdrich reports for POLITICO.

The Trump administration yesterday introduced rules that restrict travel to the US by Chinese Communist Party members and their families, with visas for party members now limited to a single entry of no more than one month, people familiar with the matter have said. Paul Mozur and Raymond Zhong report for the New York Times.

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency said yesterday that it had initiated a “Withhold Release Order” against a quasi-military Chinese organization, banning them from importing cotton into the US, over claims it uses the forced labor of detained Uighur Muslims. Al Jazeera reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The US plans to temporarily withdraw “dozens” of personnel from its embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, over fears of retaliation around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, two sources familiar with the decision said, stating that the withdrawal would last until mid-January after the Jan.3 anniversary of Soleimani’s death. One of the sources said the decision was made at a meeting of the National Security Council’s (NSC) Policy Coordination Committee on Tuesday. Another diplomatic source, however, said the reduction would be “slight” and take pace when many State Department employees usually take leave. Justine Coleman reports for The Hill.

Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council yesterday passed pre-emptive legislative measures that will end UN inspections and allow the country to enrich its uranium in excess of the limit sanctioned by the 2015 nuclear deal if sanctions on the country do not ease within two months. Celine Castronuovo reports for The Hill.

Iranian arms and parliamentary operatives have been deployed to Venezuela to help President Nicolás Maduro keep a grip on power, Adm. Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters yesterday, citing a growing influence by Iran in the area and an “alarming and concern” military presence from the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Michael R. Gordon and Ian Talley report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Organization of American States (OYS) yesterday urged the International Criminal Court to formally investigate human rights abuses in Venezuela, and suggested that the court’s slow response to examining the situation in the country has emboldened Maduro’s regime. Ruby Mellen reports for the Washington Post.

“The United States could begin sharing sensitive intelligence with Honduras about inbound flights carrying drugs, U.S. officials told Reuters, even as the Central American country faces scrutiny from Washington over drug-related corruption,” reports for Phil Stewart for Reuters.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 13.92 million and now killed over 273,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 64.64 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.495 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The US yesterday recorded a record high number of Covid-19 deaths — 3,100 — 20 percent more than the previous record. Madeline Holcombe reports for CNN.

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. 

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)