Early Edition: December 8, 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

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of Defense, sources familiar with the process have said — if confirmed, Austin would be the first Black person to lead the Pentagon. Austin ran U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2016, and was eventually chosen after Biden first mulled over another potential pick, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Biden’s pick will raise questions in Congress about whether lawmakers will support a legal waiver which requires any service member to be out of uniform for at least seven years before being eligible to serve as defense secretary — although the waiver was used by the Trump administration for former defense secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general. Seung Min Kim, Annie Linskey, Dan Lamothe and John Hudson report for the Washington Post.

House lawmakers are today expected to vote on the highly contentious defense bill  a bill that President Trump has long threatened to veto unless lawmakers repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal shield for internet and social media companies  with the Senate likely to vote soon after, which may result in first veto override of Trump’s presidency, as the majority of both Democratic and GOP lawmakers have indicated they would press ahead with passing the bill, despite Trump’s threats. “There’s no way we would have a defense authorization bill with that language in it,” said Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) yesterday, adding, “There’s no question about it. And so obviously, I would have to do what I could to override a veto” — Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) also said he would move to override any veto, and so did Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House GOP Conference chair. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) told reporters: “I would hope that he would sign the bill. It’s important. We’ve made it very clear that national security is the No. 1 thing we do around here … If you can’t get that right, the rest is conversation.” And a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), said the bill “will pass one way or the other with a strong bipartisan vote … “I know there are parts of it the president doesn’t like. There are parts of it I don’t like. But you’ve got to take it as a whole.” Andrew Desiderio and Connor O’Brien report for POLITICO.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy is reportedly planning to take administrative action to address findings from an internal review that pointed to serious leadership failures and a culture of violence, including murder and sexual assault, at a US military base in Fort Hood, TX  which will see “significant numbers” of officers and enlisted soldiers fired or suspended, U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said, confirming that the review will likely be announced today. Lolita C. Baldor reports for AP.

US District Judge Carl Nichols yesterday blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to ban video sharing app TikTok in the US, the second judge to deal a blow to the White House’s attack on app. Nichola said that the administration’s “failure to adequately consider an obvious and reasonable alternative before banning TikTok” renders the measures taken against the company under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act “arbitrary and capricious.” Georgia Wells reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The National Security Agency has warned that Russian “state-sponsored” hackers are actively exploiting software vulnerabilities in several products made by cloud computing company VMware Inc., and said organizations should apply “as soon as possible” a software patch the company released Saturday. Christopher Bing reports for Reuters.

TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND US ELECTION RESULTS

President Trump has twice reached out to Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler over the last week to request help in reversing his loss in the state, which follows several state and federal court lawsuit losses by the campaign and its allies, and is the third state where Trump has attempted to overturn state results by pressuring state officials. “The president said, ‘I’m hearing about all these issues in Philadelphia, and these issues with your law’ …  ‘What can we do to fix it?’,” said Cutler’s spokesperson, Michael Straub, adding that Cutler told Trump that the legislature did not have the power to overturn the state’s chosen slate of electors. The conversation comes after Cutler was one of 60 Republican state lawmakers who sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives lawmakers urging them to contest the state’s electoral slate Jan. 6, when Congress is expected to formally accept the result. Amy Gardner, Josh Dawsey and Rachael Bade report for the Washington Post.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro violated the Hatch Act  and Trump should “take disciplinary action,” such as a fine or removal from office  the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) said in a report sent to the president: “From May 26 through October 19, 2020, during at least six media interviews where he appeared in his official capacity as Assistant to the President and Director of the Office on Trade and Manufacturing Policy, Dr. Navarro repeatedly attacked presidential candidate Joe Biden and/or vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris,” the report read. Navarro also stands accused of frequently using his Twitter account to criticize Biden and Harris, although the Act prohibits White House and other executive branch officials from engaging in political activity. “He committed these violations after having received training on the Hatch Act and, for most of the violations, while knowing that OSC was investigating him for engaging in the same prohibited political activity,” the report said. Doug Palmer reports for POLITICO.

Georgia yesterday recertified the state’s election results and again confirmed President-elect Joe Biden as the winner, following a hand recount of the ballots prompted by challenges by the Trump campaign, according to a press release from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “Today is an important day for election integrity in Georgia and across the country,” Raffensperger said in a statement, adding, “Georgians can now move forward knowing that their votes, and only their legal votes, were counted accurately, fairly, and reliably.” Chandelis Duster reports for CNN.

US-RELATIONS

The number of Afghan civilian deaths resulting from US-led airstrikes increased dramatically since 2017 following the Pentagon’s relaxing of its rules of engagement, revealed a report by the Costs of War project at Brown University, with around 700 civilians killed in 2019 alone, which is more than any other year since the war started in 2001. Although U.S. airstrikes slowed down following the February 2020 agreement between the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban, the Afghan Armed Forces ramped up its strikes in recent months, with the Afghan Air Force (AAF) now “harming more Afghan civilians than at any time in its history,” said Neta C Crawford, co-director of the project. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Trump administration yesterday designated Nigeria as a country of particular concern (CPC) over alleged “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom, the first democracy to be designated which such a label, leaving it open to economic sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the African nation, along with nine other countries, were being added to the CPC list “for engaging in or tolerating ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,’” a decision supported by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

The US yesterday announced sanctions and travel bans on more than a dozen Chinese officials over allegations they were involved in Beijing’s disqualification of elected opposition legislators in Hong Kong last month, with China stating it would take “firm counter-measures against the malicious actions by the U.S. to safeguard our sovereignty, security and developmental rights.” Humeyra Pamuk and Gabriel Corssley report for Reuters.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said yesterday that Taiwan faces daily military threats from “authoritarian forces” – comments which come at the same time the Trump administration notified Congress of a new $280 million arms sales package to the island, namely a new Field Information Communications System (FICS), which will provide mobile and secure communication channels to the island and contribute to Taiwan’s goal of modernizing its military communications. Al Jazeera reporting.

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegen, the top US envoy to North Korea, today arrived in South Korea as part of a four-day visit where he is scheduled to meet with the country’s officials, including the foreign minister, the minister of unification and the country’s nuclear envoy. Josh Smith reports for Reuters.

The US, EU, and other Latin American countries yesterday said that they would not recognize the results of Venezuela’s recent Parliamentary election which saw President Nicolás Maduro take the majority victory. Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago report for Reuters.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 14.95 million and now killed over 283,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 67.71 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.547 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Drugmaker Pfizer has told the Trump administration that it will not be able to provide substantial additional doses of its coronavirus vaccines until June or July as other countries have purchased the majority of supplies, according to multiple individuals familiar with the situation, meaning the United States may not be able to ramp up its vaccinations as quickly as it had hoped. Laurie McGinley, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Carolyn Y. Johnson report for the Washington Post.

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.

BREXIT

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that securing a deal with the EU at an impending Brexit summit in Brussel will be “very, very difficult” but endorsed “the power of sweet reason to get this thing over the line.” “We’ll do our level best, but I would just say to everybody – be in good cheer, there are great options ahead for our country on any view. But the key thing is, on 1 January, whatever happens there’s going to be change and people need to get ready for that change,” Johnson said. Daniel Boffey and Jon Henley report for The Guardian.

The EU and UK have agreed “in principle” a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol which saw the British government agree to remove clauses from its taxation and internal market bills which would have breached international law. Jon Stone reports for The Independent. 

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)