Early Edition: December 7, 2020

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the weekend.

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

US-RELATIONS

The Trump administration has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all 700 US troops present in Somalia by Jan. 15, U.S. officials have said. The troops would be moved to bases in Kenya and Djibouti, and only engage in Somalia on shorter counterterrorism missions against al-Shabaab and a smaller group of IS militants. The order to “reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021 …. is not a change in U.S. policy,” a Pentagon statement said, adding, “We will continue to degrade violent extremist organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition.” Nancy A. Youssef and Michael M. Phillips report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration is considering designating Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement as a terrorist group, a move that has prompted backlash by humanitarian groups and US officials from the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department over fears it would seriously impact on humanitarian efforts in the war-torn country, with recent data by the U.N. indicating that around 17,000 people were facing famine-like conditions in the country, with that number expected to rocket to 47,000 by mid-2021. Abigail Williams and Dan De Luce report for NBC News

Oman’s foreign minister, Sayyed Badr Al Busaidi, also confirmed Saturday that David Schenker, a top US diplomat for the Middle East, had discussed with him blacklisting the Houthi group. Reuters reporting.

The US has reached an “uneasy deterrence” with Iran following what was months of regional attacks and seizures of tankers at sea, said Vice Adm. Sam Paparo, who oversees the Navy’s 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, during the annual Manama Dialogue held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He added: “That uneasy deterrence is exacerbated by world events and by events along the way. But I have found Iranian activity at sea to be cautious and circumspect and respectful, to not risk unnecessary miscalculation or escalation at sea.” AP reporting.

The US, Japan and France will for the first-time next May conduct joint military drills on land and sea, a move that is said to be focused on natural disaster response efforts, although a strategic counter of the Chinese military’s ramped-up activity in the region may also be addressed. Reuters reporting.

The US is preparing to place new sanctions on over a dozen Chinese officials from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over their alleged involvement in Beijing’s disqualification of elected opposition legislators in Hong Kong, according to three sources, including a U.S. official familiar with the matter. The sanctions could be imposed as early as today. Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick report for Reuters.

China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi today expressed hope and belief that US policy on China could eventually “return to objectivity and rationality.” Reuters reporting.

A new report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) has indicated that medical evidence supports claims by intelligence officials that mysterious neurological symptoms experienced by US diplomats in China and Cuba may have been caused by directed microwave energy — the report, however, does not conclusively state that the energy was delivered intentionally but also doesn’t exclude the possibility. The CIA has suggested that Russia is to blame, although no evidence has yet been furnished, except for that Russian operatives had been working on microwave weapons in the same cities that CIA agents were when they started experiencing symptoms including dizziness, pressure in the head and hearing loud sounds. Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION TO POWER

The Pentagon last week blocked President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team from meeting with the nation’s military intelligence agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and other military spy services, despite his team having meetings with other federal agencies, according to former senior intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, familiar with intelligence transition discussions. Sue Gough, a Defense Department spokesperson, said Friday that the Biden team “has not been denied any access,” and confirmed that the requested meetings were “tentatively scheduled” for this week. Greg Miller and Missy Ryan report for the Washington Post.

The Pentagon released an unsigned statement Saturday to reporters stating that “the accusation by anonymous sources [that the Department of Defense] had not been fulfilling its commitment” to transition efforts “is demonstrably false and patently insulting,” while Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller praised the Pentagon for its record of “bipartisan excellence” during the highly contentious transition, stating his department was “fully cooperating with the Biden transition team.” Officials speaking on a call Saturday insisted that reports that the Pentagon had refused to work with the transition team were “untrue,” and that the issue appeared to be no more than a process error which was quickly rectified, suggesting Biden’s team was to blame for not following process. Paul Szoldra reports for Task & Purpose.

Biden has chosen California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to serve as the Department Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary, according to multiple people familiar with the decision. Becerra has been in the running for an administration position for a while, with Biden offering him the HHS position Friday, a source said. Tyler Pager, Adam Cancryn and Alice Miranda Ollstein report for POLITICO.

TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND US ELECTION RESULTS

Lieutenant Governor of Georgia Geoff Duncan made clear yesterday that he and his boss, Governor Brian Kemp, were “certainly not going to move the goalposts at this point in the election,” responding to calls by President Trump for a special session of the state’s legislature to decide the state’s election result. Duncan’s comments come after Trump reportedly called Kemp Saturday and asked for help in overturning the election results.  Al Jazeera reporting.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said yesterday that dozens of armed protesters gathered outside her home Saturday evening “shouting obscenities,” threatening violence and chanting “bogus” claims about electoral fraud, a statement by Benson revealed. “The demands made outside my home were unambiguous, loud and threatening,” Benson said, adding, “They targeted me in my role as Michigan’s Chief Election Officer.” Tim Stelloh reports for NBC News.

OTHER US DEVELOPMENTS

Attorney General William Barr is reportedly considering, although has not made a final decision about, resigning from his post before President Trump exits office Jan. 20, a source familiar with the matter has said, citing that Barr “is not someone who takes bullying and turns the other cheek!” The reason for Barr’s potential departure is not clear, but comes at a time when he and the president have contradicted each other on voter fraud allegations. If Barr does leave, the deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, would be expected to lead the Justice Department until President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office. Katie Benner, Michael S. Schmidt and Peter Baker report for the New York Times.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigators last week issued a subpoena which demanded that by Dec. 22 BuzzFeed News must identify its sources, a move that could amount to government interference in a new outlet’s protections under the First Amendment and which has been described as “embarrassing” by the agency’s former acting director. “The subpoena, issued on Dec. 1 by an agent with the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, concerns emails sent to ICE attorneys on a fast-track deportation program and plans to fine certain undocumented immigrants. It demands that BuzzFeed News “provide all documentation including, but not limited to: (1) date of receipt, (2) method of receipt, (3) source of document, and (4) contact information for the source of the document.”” The new outlet’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Schoofs said: “BuzzFeed News emphatically rejects any requests for information about possible sources and methods of our reporting … We do not confirm or discuss confidential sources, and this subpoena is an outrageous overreach by the federal government. It’s fundamentally at odds with the US Constitution and will not have any impact on our journalism.” Hamed Aleaziz reports for BuzzFeed News.

The US remains the world’s largest arms manufacturer, with China ranking second position and Russia and some of the top European nations following behind, revealed a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Brett Forrest reports for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 14.76 million and now killed over 282,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 67.17 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.537 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, has tested positive for Covid-19, according to a post on Twitter by Trump. Giuliani has been in close proximity to many U.S. and state officials over the recent days and weeks, appearing on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” just hours before Trump’s post. Giuliani was being treated at Georgetown University Medical Center, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Felicia Sonmez and Josh Dawsey report for the Washington Post.

China is preparing itself for a large-scale rollout of an experimental, domestically developed coronavirus vaccine, with provincial governments already placing their orders, although the country’s health officials have not yet confirmed how well the vaccine works or how they envisage it reaching the country’s 1.4 billion people. China’s foreign minister said that developers were speeding up final testing. AP 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. 

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)