The Early Edition: February 18, 2021

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

CORONAVIRUS

Life expectancy in the United States fell by an entire year in the first half of 2020, an astonishing decline that reflects the toll of the Covid-19 outbreak as well as an increase in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the pandemic, according to government data released today. Racial minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years of life expectancy and Latinos losing nearly two years. Lenny Bernstein reports for the Washington Post.

The White House said yesterday it will invest $1.6 billion to expand testing for the coronavirus in schools and underserved areas, increase testing supply production and improve genomic sequencing, a move administration officials called a “bridge” until Congress approves more funding. Shannon Pettypiece reports for NBC News.

The world’s first coronavirus human challenge study will begin in the UK in a matter of weeks, following ethics approval. The study will recruit 90 healthy volunteers aged 18-30 who will be exposed to the virus in a safe and controlled environment while medics track their health. BBC reporting.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, saying 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations and calling for a global effort to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible. Guterres told the Council that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine and declared that “at this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.” The U.N. chief demanded an urgent Global Vaccination Plan to assemble those with the power to ensure equitable vaccine distribution – scientists, vaccine producers and those who can finance the effort. AP reporting.

The two Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna appear to work against the more transmissible variant of the virus first detected in Britain, according to new findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It is not clear, however, if the shots will be effective against the South African variant, alarming some researchers and prompting Pfizer to announce it was taking necessary steps to develop a booster shot or updated vaccine. Erin Cunningham and Paul Schemm report for the Washington Post.

Federal prosecutors have commenced an inquiry into how the administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo handled the Covid-19 outbreak in the state’s nursing homes, people familiar with the matter said. The new probe, headed by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn, is in addition to an August request for documents from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil-rights division about state-run nursing homes. Jimmy Vielkind reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Federal agents have seized more than 11 million counterfeit N95 masks meant for front-line workers in recent weeks, including more than 1 million yesterday, officials said. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said agents have carried out multiple search warrants and seized fake masks from five states “from coast to coast,” adding that more enforcement action is expected “in the coming weeks.” Jordan Williams reports for The Hill.

A review of AstraZeneca’s 52-page contract to supply the UK with 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses is provided by Angela Dewan at CNN.

MIDDLE EAST

President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday for the first time since taking office. The White House said that Biden during the call “affirmed his personal history of steadfast commitment to Israel’s security and conveyed his intent to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel partnership, including our strong defense cooperation.” Netanyahu’s office described the hour-long conversation as “warm and friendly.” AP reporting.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday urged Iran to take steps ensuring its return to full compliance with a 2015 nuclear pact, in a rare phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Merkel’s call came on the eve of talks between three European countries and the United States on how to salvage the deal aimed at reigning in Iran’s nuclear program. Al Jazeera reporting.

An examination of how Biden’s foreign policy changes will affect the Yemen war is provided by John Hursh at Just Security, who considers how this first application of Biden’s approach likely will model the administration’s response to similar situations that will arise throughout its term.

MYANMAR

Hackers in Myanmar have targeted major state websites, including the military’s propaganda page, as part of an online clash with the junta, which has repeatedly imposed internet shutdowns and blocked social media sites. A group called Myanmar Hackers disrupted websites including the Central Bank, the military-run propaganda agency True News Information Team and state-run broadcaster MRTV, as part of a civil disobedience movement intended to prevent the junta from operating. Rebecca Ratcliffe reports for The Guardian.

Myanmar’s military has ordered more arrests, with nearly 500 individuals facing charges or sentenced to jail in connection with the growing protests and civil disobedience movement following the February 1 coup and arrest of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Protesters returned to the streets today. Al Jazeera reporting.

THE KOREAN PENINSULA

The Justice Department (DOJ) has charged three North Korean nationals with stealing $1.3 billion in cash and cryptocurrency from US groups and conducting a series of cyberattacks, including the 2014 Sony Pictures hack. The indictment charges three men — Jon Chang Hyok, Kim Il and Park Jin Hyok — as carrying out cyberattacks against the U.S. as part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s military intelligence agency. The group, known in cybersecurity circles as “Lazarus,” was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2019 for targeting U.S. key infrastructure. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

A North Korean man donning a wet suit and flippers crossed the eastern maritime border with South Korea this week, military officials said yesterday, in what was the second embarrassing breach for the South Korean military’s border security in recent months. The South’s troops failed to spot him until he was walking down a road south of the heavily guarded frontier. Choe San-Hung reports for the New York Times.

IMMIGRATION

President Biden and his aides have begun to show openness to more targeted approaches that could achieve citizenship for smaller, discrete groups of undocumented immigrants, as they continue to push for an extensive overhaul of America’s immigration laws. Smaller bills could advance as the president attempts to gain support for the broader legislation, which is due to be introduced today, according to two top immigration aides to Biden. Michael Shear reports for the New York Times.

A father and son who were kidnapped while waiting in Mexico under a Trump-era policy that banned asylum seekers from coming into the United States were permitted entry into the country yesterday.They were among the first to be admitted since the Biden administration announced last week that it would start letting in some migrant families who had been blocked under the policy. Miriam Jordan reports for the New York Times.

U.S. CAPITOL ATTACK

Republican and Democratic bills for a Jan. 6 Commission differ in major respects, a Just Security chart shows. The illuminating chart comparing both bills to the 9/11 Commission legislation was compiled by Margaret Shields and Heather Szilagyi at Just Security.

A fresh lawsuit against former President Trump over his part in last month’s storming of the U.S. Capitol could raise “thorny” legal issues for President Joe Biden, setting off clashes over executive privilege that could “push the new president toward an uncomfortable alliance with the man he ousted,” Josh Gerstein writes for POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS
Nearly 5,000 National Guard troops will remain in Washington through March 12 amid concerns over potential violence arising from online chatter among QAnon supporters who suggest former President Trump could still be inaugurated on March 4, according to the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Zachary Cohen and Ellie Kaufman report for CNN.

Civil rights groups are urging the Biden administration to oppose facial recognition technology, arguing the rapidly expanding software presents “profound and unprecedented threats” to Americans’ freedom and way of life. The American Civil Liberties Union and more than 40 other groups called on President Biden in a letter to suspend federal use of facial recognition and block federal funds from being utilized by state and local governments to purchase or access the artificial-intelligence tools. Drew Harwell reports for the Washington Post.

Anne Sacoolas, the State Department employee charged in a car accident that killed British teenager Harry Dunn in 2019, has proposed “mediation” with his family, after a Virginia judge ruled against her attempt to have a civil case for wrongful death dismissed. Jonny Hallam reports for CNN.

China has removed troops, pulled down infrastructure and vacated camps along its disputed border with India, according to new satellite photos – just a week after both countries agreed to a mutual disengagement. Jessie Yeung and Swati Gupta report for CNN.

Facebook’s decision to block all news content in Australia prevented the public from accessing key information on government health and emergency service sites today, prompting a backlash from ministers and users. Jamie Smyth, Hannah Murphy and Alex Barker report for the Financial Times 

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About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).