Early Edition: January 6, 2021

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

Russia is the “likely” source of the recent unprecedented foreign hacking operation which compromised a multitude of US government and corporate computer networks, it was confirmed yesterday in a joint statement by the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Security Agency (NSA) and Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), who last month formed a Cyber Unified Coordination Group to oversee the government’s response, with a source telling POLITICO that the statement had actually been approved two weeks ago but was then delayed by the White House. The official statement made clear that the December attack, which infiltrated federal systems via a widely used network-management software, SolarWinds, “is a serious compromise that will require a sustained and dedicated effort to remediate,” adding that, “of the approximately 18,000 affected public and private sector customers of Solar Winds’ Orion product, a much smaller number have been compromised by follow-on activity on their systems.” “We have so far identified fewer than ten U.S. government agencies that fall into this category, and are working to identify and notify the nongovernment entities who also may be impacted,” the statement continued. Eric Geller reports for POLITICO.

US Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard, who leads the US nuclear arsenal, said yesterday that he would “welcome” a review by the Biden administration of the nation’s nuclear weapons strategy, but criticized those who opposed the military’s plans to introduce new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). “I welcome an examination of the nation’s strategy here,” Richard told reporters, adding, “I recommend that based on the threat. The threat is moving so fast that even given the time since the last Nuclear Posture Review warrants another look at it to make sure that we still endorse our strategy, and we have sufficient capability to execute that strategy.” He did however push back when asked if the incoming administration should end a program aimed at replacing existing ICBMs. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

President-elect Joe Biden intends to nominate Jon Finer, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, as his deputy national security advisor, and Wendy Sherman, Mr. Kerry’s lead negotiator during the 2015 Iran nuclear deal talks, as deputy secretary of state, report Michael Crowley and David E. Sanger for the New York Times.

The leader of the far-right group Proud Boys was yesterday banned from DC a day after he was arrested for vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic Black church, where, upon his arrest, he was also found with high-capacity firearm magazines. The court order bans him from entering the country’s capital which will today see pro-President Trump protesters gather in mass in an effort to show support for Trump’s challenge to the election result. AP reporting.

No charges will be filed against a Kenosha police officer who shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in his back last summer and which led to civil unrest in the area. Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley confirmed yesterday that his office would not take forward charges against police officer Rusten Sheskey, 31, further stating that Blake had at the time of the shooring been armed with an open knife in his right hand. We “would have to disprove the clear expression of these officers that they had to fire a weapon to defend themselves,” Graveley said, adding, “I do not believe the state … would be able to prove that the privilege of self-defense is not available.” AP reporting.

“The Justice Department is seeking to change interpretation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by recipients of federal funding. Under these rules, actions are considered discriminatory if they have a discriminatory effect, what’s known as a “disparate impact,” on protected groups. Under the new version, only intentional discrimination would be prohibited,” report Laura Meckler and Devlin Barrett for the Washington Post.

A British judge today rejected WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s application for bail, following a success earlier this week where it was decided Assange would not be extradited to the United State to face charges of espionage. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ordered Assange to remain in prison while an appeal by U.S. authorities is considered. AP reporting.

Following speculation that Trump could spend his final full day in office at his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday that “We are not allowing people to come into Scotland now without an essential purpose, which would apply to him, just as it applies to everybody else. Coming to play golf is not what I would consider an essential purpose.” The White House dismissed the claims that Trump plans to travel to Scotland: “Anonymous sources who claim to know what the President is or is not considering have no idea. When President Trump has an announcement about his plans for Jan. 20 he will let you know,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a written statement. William Booth and David A. Fahrenthold report for the Washington Post.

US ELECTION RESULTS

The joint session of Congress will meet today to certify the 2020 election results, signaling the last stage for President Trump allies to oppose the result. As per the Constitution, Vice President Mike Pence will oversee the session and be responsible for counting the final electoral votes for each state. During today’s session, “Pence, per the Twelfth Amendment and laws stretching back to 1887, must read the results alphabetically by state, introducing the certified electors and entertaining any challenges raised by lawmakers on hand. But Trump, beginning Monday night, has begun leaning on Pence to adopt a radical interpretation of his power and refuse to count [Presidet-elect Joe] Biden’s electors in multiple states — a power Pence does not have.” Those close to the Vice President have emphasized that he intends to follow the Constitution and the law, although drama is expected if and when Republicans from both the Senate and House lodge any formal challenge to the result, which will be read one state at a time. So far, House Republicans have expressed plans to challenge six states, with Senate Republicans expected to challenge three. The session is expected to go on into the early hours of tomorrow as each successful objection will lead to two hours of debate for each state. Kyle Cheney, Melanie Zanona, Gabby Orr and Sarah Ferris report for POLITICO.

Republicans are expected to challenge the votes of at least three state electors’ in today’s joint session: Sens. Ted Cruz (TX) and Tommy Tuberville (AL) plan to object to the certification of Arizona’s electors; Sen. Kelly Loeffler (GA) intends to object to her state’s electors; and Sen. Josh Hawley (M) is expected to objects to Pennsylvania’s slate, according to people familiar with their plans. Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin are also expected to be the target of objections, after House Republicans expressed their intention to challenge the respective state elector votes, although there may not be the necessary support needed from both a member of the House and the Senate. Either way, their efforts to overturn any state result appear slim amid growing bipartisan opposition to their move. Nicholas Fandos reports for the New York Times.

Pence told Trump yesterday that he does not have the authority to block today’s certification of election results, a source confirmed, amidst growing pressure from Trump for Pence to take action: “The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors,” Trump wrote on Twitter yesterday morning — a statement that is in fact not correct and mischaracterizes Pence’s “largely formal and constitutionally prescribed role,” in which he lacks any power to unilaterally change any results sent by each state to Congress. Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni report for the New York Times.

GEORGIA SENATE RUNOFFS

Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock has beat Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler in one of Georgia’s twin runoff elections; Democrat Jon Ossof is also leading in his race against Republican David Perdue, increasing the chances of Democrats claiming control of the Senate. “Warnock will be the first African American Democratic senator from a former Confederate state, and Ossoff, 33, would be the youngest newly elected Democratic senator since Biden in 1973,” report Reis Thebault, Michael Scherer and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. report for the Washington Post.

Live updates on the Senate runoff election results are provided by the Wall Street Journal and CNN.

IRAN RELATIONS

Iran yesterday conducted military exercises featuring a range of domestically manufactured drones, Iranian state media reported. “Iran’s armed forces are to test combat drones used as bombers, interceptors and in reconnaissance missions in the two-day exercises in central Semnan province, the semi-official Fars news agency said,” reports Reuters.

The Trump administration yesterday imposed new sanctions on Iran’s metal industry, targeting 17 companies in China, Europe and the UK that allegedly provided metal materials to Iranian companies. Among those sanctioned were “a Chinese company that makes elements for steel production, 12 Iranian steel and metals makers and three foreign-based sales agents of an Iranian metals and mining holding company,” reports Reuters.

Iran yesterday denied that it was holding hostage a South Korean-flagged tanker and its 20-member crew which Iranian forces seized this week, insisting the ship was being held due to environmental violations. “We’ve become used to such allegations,” Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei told a news conference. “But if there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea’s government that is holding $7 billion, which belongs to us, hostage on baseless grounds,” he continued. Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith report for Reuters.

A South Korean delegation is today heading to Iran in an effort to negotiate the release of the chemical tanker seized in Gulf waters. “In a report submitted to parliament, the ministry said South Korea is reviewing whether the ship violated international law by polluting the waters, as claimed by Tehran, but also whether Iran violated it during the boarding and seizure process,” Sangmi Cha reports for Reuters.

US-CHINA RELATIONS

President Trump yesterday signed an executive order banning transactions with eight Chinese-connected software applications, including the Ant Group’s Alipay mobile payment app, the White House has confirmed, further escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing in the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Andrew Restuccia and John D. McKinnon report for the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is reconsidering its recent decision to allow three Chinese telecom giants to remain listed. If it does back-pedal, it would be the second U-turn on the matter after it confirmed late Monday that it had reversed a decision last week to delist China Mobile Ltd., China Telecom Corp Ltd. and China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd. after consulting with US regulatory authorities. John McCrank, Alexandra Alper and Pei Li report for Reuters.

China has said that it will make a “necessary response” to a planned military dialogue scheduled for late today where Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper will deliver “virtual remarks” at the Taiwan political and military dialogue from the State Department office. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China would make a “necessary response based on how the situation develops” and was “resolutely opposed” to the talks. Reuters reporting.

US RELATIONS

The US and Sudan today agreed to settle the north African nation’s debt to the World Bank, signaling a big step towards an effort to recover the nation’s crippling economy following the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir, a move that came during a visit by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to the country. AP reporting.

Syria and its close ally Russia yesterday clashed with the US and over 40 other UN Security Council members states over a French-drafted measure that aims to suspend Syria’s voting rights in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog, for the country’s failure to provide details on three chemical weapon attacks in 2017 in Syria which President Bashar Assad’s government has been held responsible for. AP reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 21.05 million and now killed over 357,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 86.54 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.871 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report 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)