Early Edition: February 22, 2021

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 DEVELPOMENTS

The State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor concluded earlier this year that China’s treatment of Uighur communities and other minority Muslim communities amounts to crimes against humanity — but also said that there was insufficient evidence to prove genocide, according to three former and current U.S. officials. Such a conclusion is in direction contrast to remarks made by both the Trump and Biden administrations, which have both concluded that genocide has taken place. Colum Lynch reports for Foreign Policy.

U.S. sanctioned Israeli mining magnate and billionaire Dan Gertler — who in 2017 was designated to sanctions lists by the Trump administration over corruption allegations relating to deals he struck with leaders of the Democratic Republic of Congo — had those sanctions quietly lifted by the Treasury Department last month following years of trying. Before former President Trump left office, Gertler made a final attempt to have sanctions lifted, offering to allow authorities to track his business and agreeing to submit regular financial reports. “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin granted Mr. Gertler much of what he wanted, signing off, without any public announcement, on a one-year arrangement that gave him access to money frozen in U.S. banks and allowed him once again to do business with financial institutions worldwide,” Eric Lipton reports for the New York Times.

Eric Prince, founder of private security firm Blackwater and supporter of Trump, “at the very least” helped evade an arms embargo on Libya, according to excerpts from a United Nations report sighted by Reuters. Michelle Nichols reports for Reuters.

Attorney general nominee Garland will also pledge to tackle discrimination and inequality in America, shows his opening statement for his confirmation hearing today. “We do not have equal justice. Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change,” the statement reads. Devlin Barrett reports for the Washington Post.

Democrats have already started “maneuvering to champion candidates and a new approach for nomination” at the Supreme Court, which could come as soon as this summer. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina (SC), the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, reached out to Vice President Kamala Harris’ office to offer his thoughts on a potential future justice: District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, who “would fulfill Mr. Biden’s pledge to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court — and, Mr. Clyburn noted, she also happened to hail from South Carolina, a state with political meaning for the president,” Jonathan Martin reports for the New York Times.

Biden will tomorrow hold a virtual meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “an opportunity for the two leaders to review joint efforts in areas of mutual interest such as the Covid-19 response, climate change, and the economic ties that bind our countries, as well as the deep people-to-people bonds we share,” the White House said. Catherine Lucey reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Former President Trump will deliver a keynote speech at this Sunday’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Orlando, FL, his first public speaking appearance since leaving office, sources said. Alayna Treene reports for Axios.

House minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) refused to accept that President Biden won the 2020 presidential election, while appearing on ABC’s This Week. Martin Pengelly reports for The Guardian.

US CAPITOL ATTACK

Two members of the far-right group the Proud Boys committed “crimes of terrorism” during their attacks on the Capitol, federal prosecutors have said. Although neither Ethan Nordean nor Dominic Pezzola are charged specifically with terrorism — but instead, destroying or removing government property, entering restricted areas and obstructing official proceedings — such terminology used by prosecutors will serve to limit the chances of bail as well as count as a factor which could lead to a sentencing enhancement. Clare Hymes and Cassidy McDonald report for CBS News.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI have reportedly launched a probe into whether high-profile right-wing figures — like Roger Stone and Alex Jones — played a role in the Capitol attack, officials have said. Although focused on the intentions of rioters, investigators will also be looking at whether either Stone, Alex, or others are themselves criminally responsible for conspiracy or aiding the attack, officials added. “That prospect is still distant and uncertain, they emphasized,” report Spencer S. Hsu and Devlin Barrett for the Washington Post.

A full investigation into Stone’s role has not yet been initiated, with investigators still reportedly surveying copious amounts of evidence. “Justice Department officials have debated for weeks whether to open a full investigation into Mr. Stone, the person said. While Mr. Stone spoke at an incendiary rally a day before the attack, had right-wing extremists act as his bodyguards and stood outside the Capitol, those actions themselves are not crimes … Should investigators find messages showing that Mr. Stone knew about or took part in those plans, they would have a factual basis to open a full criminal investigation into him, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing inquiry. While that is far from certain, the person said, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington are likely to do so if they find that connection,” Katie Benner reports for the New York Times.

Pennsylvania police officer Joseph W. Fischer ­— charged with obstructing law enforcement during “civil disorder” and accused of aiding the Capitol attack ­— was “at the front of the pack pushing against the police,” the FBI says. The Bureau said that in Facebook messages, “Fischer declared that he “may need a job,” according to the FBI, adding, “Word got out that I was at the rally..lol.” Fischer allegedly said the FBI might arrest him — “lol,” he added again — and claimed the agency was “targeting police who went,”” reports Hannah Knowles for the Washington Post.

Oath Keepers leader Jessica Watkins, who was charged for her involvement in the attack, has said that she was in the capital Jan. 6 to provide security for lawmakers and meet with Secret Service agents, according to a court filing. Although prosecutors have said that Watkins entered the Capitol “with a line of individuals wearing Oath Keeper clothing, patches, and insignia,” her attorney insisted that, “Ms. Watkins was present not as an insurrectionist, but to provide security to the speakers at the rally, to provide escort for the legislators and others to march to the Capitol as directed by the then president, and to safely escort protesters away from the Capitol to their vehicles and cars at the conclusion of the protest. She was given a VIP pass to the rally. She met with Secret Service agents.” The Secret Service has denied the claims as “false.” Linda So reports for Reuters.

Of the more than 230 people charged thus far, 31 have been identified as part of militia groups, with 26 of them being linked to the far-right groups the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers — despite those numbers being less than 15% of those charged, the groups have been accused of being highly organized, planning and strategizing before Jan. 6. “Although militants were a small part of the mob, their organizational tactics could have influenced others’ behavior and made the riot more violent, said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University,” Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Denise Lu, Eleanor Lutz and Alex Leeds Matthews report for the New York Times.

Despite around 1 in 5 of those criminally charged for attacking the Capitol being military or veterans, and the Pentagon previously warning of the extremism in the ranks, the Pentagon appears unable to effectively deal with the problems “because the Constitution protects freedom of speech and the law prohibits criminalizing affiliations that may be deemed fundamentally political in nature rather than a threat to harm the public,” reports Todd South for the Military Times.

Biden’s nominee for US Attorney General, Merrick Garland, will today tell the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing that he will lead in prosecuting those charged over the Capitol attack, a copy of his prepared opening statement indicates. Rebecca Falconer reports for Axios.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 28.13 million and now killed over 498,900 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 111.43 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.46 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Continued public safety measures are a must, insists Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking on the gloomy reality that the U.S. is soon to reach 500,000 Covid-19 deaths. “It’s something that is historic. It’s nothing like we’ve ever been though in the last 102 years since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” Fauci said, adding, “It really is a terrible situation that we’ve been through and that we’re still going through. And that’s the reason why we keep insisting to continue with the public health measures — because we don’t want this to get much worse than it already is.” Christina Maxouris and Holly Yan report for CNN.

Facebook measures aimed at policing misinformation about vaccines are unintentionally blocking pro-vaccine messages from cities, health care providers and community and faith-based groups. “Paid-for messages from at least 110 groups aimed at raising awareness of how the vaccines work or where to get inoculated were flagged and sent to Facebook’s register of political messages, a POLITICO review of barred ads dating from last September shows,” Darius Tahir reports for POLITICO.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the World Health Organization (WHO) and China must “step up” their investigations into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We need a credible, open, transparent international investigation led by the World Health Organization,” Sullivan said in during an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation. Barbara Sprunt reports for NPR.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Maryland’s Chesapeake Detention Facility over allegations that its unsanitary conditions allowed an outbreak of Covid-19 that affected 234 inmates and employees. Antonio Olivo reports for the Washington Post.

An Israeli study shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is quite effective at stopping the spread of the virus. “The vaccine, which was rolled out in a national immunization program that began Dec. 20, was 89.4% effective at preventing laboratory-confirmed infections, according to a copy of a draft publication that was posted on Twitter and confirmed by a person familiar with the work,” report Naomi Kresge and Jason Gale for Bloomberg.

As part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture, he and his top medial executive worked “with doctors and academic researchers to build an antibody-testing program,” testing over 4,000 SpaceX workers who volunteered for monthly blood tests. What Musk learned is explained by Sarah Krouse for the Wall Street Journal.

A tracker for the number of people in the US who have received one dose of the vaccine is provided by 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.

US-IRAN RELATIONS

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi said a deal has been struck with Iran to allow “necessary” monitoring of its facilities for up to three months, following Tehran’s confirmation that it would cut cooperation with the nuclear watchdog tomorrow. “A key part of Iran’s plan for reducing cooperation this week is ending implementation of the Additional Protocol, under which the IAEA has the right to carry out snap inspections in member states at sites not declared to the agency. Iran had agreed to implement the protocol under the 2015 [Iran] nuclear deal.” Francois Murphy reports for Reuters.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made clear that ending the Additional Protocol will involve turning off all IAEA cameras set up at facilities, which collect and analyze hundreds of thousands of images captured day-to-day. AP reporting.

Zarif also insisted that the U.S. must first lift sanctions before Tehran would consider returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, reconfirming Iran’s refusal to budge its standoff with the United States. Parisa Hafezi reports for Reuters.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has begun talks with Iran over its detention of American citizens, yesterday calling the matter a “complete and utter outrage.” Sullivan told CBS’s Face the Nation that getting those citizens “safely back home” was a “significant priority.” Reuters reporting.

MYANMAR

Thousands attended the funeral of a woman killed during protests against Myanmar’s military coup. “Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing was shot in the head just before her 20th birthday, the first of at least three people to die in the protests … On Sunday, thousands lined the streets to honour her, some making the three-fingered salutes used by demonstrators,” BBC News reports.

Descriptions by witnesses of when Myanmar’s security forces opened fire on protestors are provided The Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has urged his E.U. counterparts to move forward with sanctions on Russia over its jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. E.U. ministers will hold a meeting today with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Reuters reporting.

Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said Monday that China and the U.S. could work together on matters like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic if they repaired the countries’ damaged bilateral relationship. Reuters reporting.

10 Frenchwomen who joined ISIS and have been detained in Syrian camps have recently gone on a hunger strike in protest to the French government’ refusal to bring them home for trial. “We decided to stop feeding ourselves, regardless of the risks, until we meet the right people to get answers about our future,” one of the women said in a voice message obtained by The Times. Constant Méheut reports for the New York Times.

India and China have completed a full pull-back of their troops from an area along their disputed Himalayan border, according to a joint statement issued by the Indian defense ministry. BBC News reporting.

Seven officials of Niger’s electoral commission (CENI) have been killed after their vehicle hit a mine and exploded in the western region of Tillaberi, news that comes as Niger holds a presidential election runoff between frontrunner Mohamed Bazoum and former President Mahamane Ousmane. Al Jazeera reporting. 

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)