Early Edition: December 11, 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

HUNTER BIDEN PROBE

Attorney General William Barr has been aware of the federal investigations into the finances, business deals and foreign ties of President-elect Joe Biden’s son Hunter since as early as spring, but wanted to keep the investigations private during the election, a person familiar with the matter said. The investigations include: a criminal tax investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware; and one by federal prosecutors in Manhattan who are looking into Hunter’s international business and financial deals. Sadie Gurman and Rebecca Davis O’Brien report for the Wall Street Journal.

The investigations into Hunter are likely to complicate his father’s time in office; unless Hunter is cleared by the Justice Department before his father Joe takes office, the new president will be confronted with the reality that his own administration will have to decide how and whether to move forward with an inquiry that may lead to Hunter’s criminal prosecution. It further raises questions about who will be picked as the new U.S. attorney general, with a close focus paid to whether the pick will be perceived as independent of the White House or more of a political ally. Peter Baker reports for the New York Times.

US DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump’s political appointees at the Pentagon are reviewing the military support given to the CIA by the Department of Defense (DOD), which could see support withdrawn from counterterrorism measures and refocused on Russia and China related issues. The review was ordered to determine whether DOD personnel should be repurposed for missions aimed at “near-peer competition from China and Russia,” which could see the majority of the drone fleet used by the CIA taken back. The options are still being considered, but some will certainly make “it harder for the agency to work out of military bases, use the Defense Department’s medical evacuation abilities or conduct covert drone strikes targeting terrorists in hot spots around the world,” report Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt for the New York Times.

The attorneys general for Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia yesterday asked the US Supreme Court to reject a lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday which seeks to overturn the election results in the four states, and which received support by 17 Republican state attorneys general who also filed a brief to the court. “Texas’s effort to get this Court to pick the next President has no basis in law or fact. The Court should not abide this seditious abuse of the judicial process, and should send a clear and unmistakable signal that such abuse must never be replicated,” wrote Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “Texas presses a generalized grievance that does not involve the sort of direct state-against-state controversy required for original jurisdiction,” said Chris Carr, the attorney general of Georgia. Ariane de Vogue and Paul LeBlanc report for CNN.

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Susan Rice, former President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, to lead the Domestic Policy Council, and Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, to the position of secretary of veterans affairs. Michael Crowley reports for the New York Times.

Matthew Masterson, the senior election security advisor at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), will depart the agency Dec.18 to take up a job outside the federal government. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

The State Department’s acting inspector general (IG) Matthew Klimow will today leave his job following an attack on his office by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s spokesperson relating to a report his office released about official trips taken by Pompeo’s wife, Susan, which it concluded were taken over a two-year period without written approval from the State Department, according to a memo Klimow sent to colleagues. Kylie Atwood and Nicole Gaouette reports for CNN.

The Supreme Court yesterday ruled unanimously that three Muslim men may seek monetary damages from individual government agents they claim placed them on a no-fly list over their refusal to become FBI informants. Following a lawsuit filed in 2013 by the men under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides relief from state actions that substantially burden a person’s religious belief, the case made its way the Supreme Court. “The question here is whether ‘appropriate relief’ includes claims for money damages against government officials in their individual capacities. We hold that it does,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. Robert Barnes reports for the Washington Post.

The US Supreme Court yesterday unanimously ruled that military rape cases have no statute of limitation, upholding the rape convictions of three male Air Force members and reversing a previous ruling by the military’s top court which dismissed their case. In the case, U.S. v Briggs, the court said that the five-year statute of limitations does not apply to such prosecutions and convictions which occurred between 1986 and 2006. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

At least six top FBI officials have faced allegations of sexual harassment at the bureau over the past five years but have avoided disciplinary action, with many choosing to retire or resign during or following investigations into their alleged misconduct. AP reporting.

US IMMIGRATION

President Trump has finalized a raft of new limits on asylum eligibility, a new 419-page rule by Homeland Security and Justice Department revealed, which will place additional bars on and limit the circumstances in which asylum protection can be sought in the United States, which the administration says is “likely to result in fewer asylum grants annually.” “This is the most sweeping attack on asylum that we have seen under the Trump administration,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, an immigration advocacy group, adding, “Under this rule, asylum would be taken out of reach for a large percentage of people who in the past would have been able to qualify.” Rebecca Rainey reports for POLITICO.

Tony Pham, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), will step down from his position at the end of the year following a short tenure that started in August. Priscilla Alvarez reports for CNN.

US SANCTIONS

The US is expected to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchasing and testing of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems, officials familiar the matter have said, a move that is likely to add to tensions between the two NATO allies. The need for sanctions on the country have received bipartisan support and features in the new U.S. defense bill policy that is currently being considered by Congress. The sanctions will reportedly target the Presidency of Defence Industry and Undersecretary for Defence Industries Ismail Demir, and could be announced later this week. Reuters reporting.

Amid yesterday’s International Human Rights Day, the US announced a spate of sanctions on people alleged to be responsible for human rights violations — including 17 officials from China, El Salvador and Jamaica, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed in a statement. Reuters reporting.

The Treasury Department also announced sanctions on alleged human rights violators in Russia, Yemen and Haiti. The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s blocked the property and interests of numerous individuals, including Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and leader of the Kadyrovtsy, a group linked to the assassination Putin opponent Boris Nemtsov. Also, “individuals from Haiti — Jimmy Cherizier, Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan and Fednel Monchery — were sanctioned for their participation in a November 2018 gang attack that led to the deaths of at least 71 people, including children.” In addition, “five people with ties to Yemen’s Houthi-controlled security and intelligence agencies were targeted: Sultan Zabin, Abdul Hakim al-Khaiwani, Abdul Rahab Jarfan, Motlaq Amer al-Marrani and Qader al-Shami. Sarah Polus reports for The Hill.

MOROCCO–ISRAEL–US RELATIONS

Morocco has agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, President Trump announced yesterday in a post on Twitter, which marks the fourth Arab State to resume diplomatic ties with Israel as the US expands its “Abraham Accords” framework  in return, the US will recognize Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara territory, a long-running dispute between the two African nations, the White House has confirmed. The new relations are expected to see liaison offices opened in the country’s capitals, embassies eventually opened, and agreements on airline flights. AP reporting.

Top House Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel (NY), the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that the administration recognizing Morocco’s claim to disputed territory in Western Sahara “upends a credible, internationally supported UN process to address the territorial dispute … which successive administrations of both parties have supported.” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the White House’s announcement was “shocking and deeply disappointing,” and added that he was “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.” Marianne Levine reports for POLITICO.

“The 45-year-old fight between Morocco and separatists in Western Sahara threatens to return to outright war. By recognizing Moroccan sovereignty, the U.S. has taken sides for the first time,” writes Richard Pérez-Peña for the New York Times.

An explainer on the conflict over a disputed territory of Western Sahara is provided by Al Jazeera.

OTHER US RELATIONS    

Two US B-52H bombers flew from Louisiana to the Middle East in an effort to bolster US military presence in the region and deter any Iranian attack amid ongoing tensions, US Central Command said in a statement yesterday. Ellen Mitchell report for The Hill.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said yesterday that China Telecom’s authorization to operate in the US is in the initial stages of being revoked, a move signifying further measures aimed at clamping down on China’s role in U.S. telecommunications. David Shephardson reports for Reuters.

A State Department spokesperson told Reuters that US officials have said that reports suggesting Eritrea is involved in the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are “credible,” although both African nations have denied the claims.  

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 15.61 million and now killed over 292,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 69.72 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.554 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

An independent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee yesterday endorsed Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, in a 17-4 vote in favor of the vaccine, stating the benefits outweigh the risks. The FDA has said it will rapidly work toward” approving the vaccine. Laurie McGinley, Carolyn Y. Johnson and Joel Achenbach 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.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

A no-deal Brexit between the UK and the EU is now most likely on the cards, indicated Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president. Daniel Boffey and Alexandra Topping for The Guardian.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also said that there is a “strong possibility” that no trade deal with be reached with the EU. BBC News reporting.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has said that more evidence is needed before it will open an investigation into claims of genocide against Uighur Muslims by China, but did say a file will be kept open for when if and when such evidence is provided. Patrick Wintour reports for The Guardian.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has been charged with negligence in connection with the August port explosion that killed 200 people in country’s capital, Beirut. Isabel Coles and Nazih Osseiran report for the Wall Street Journal. 

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)