Early Edition: February 26, 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.

U.S. CAPITOL ATTACK

Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman warned lawmakers yesterday that militia groups involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection want to “blow up the Capitol” and “kill as many members as possible” when President Biden delivers his State of Union address. “We know that the insurrectionists that attacked the Capitol weren’t only interested in attacking members of Congress and officers,” Pittman said, adding, “They wanted to send a symbolic message to the nation as to who is in charge of that legislative process.” Zachary Cohen, Marshall Cohen and Whitney Wild report for CNN.

“So based on that information, we think that it’s prudent that Capitol Police maintain its enhanced and robust security posture until we address those vulnerabilities going forward,” Pittman went on to say. Speaking on the inadequacies in law enforcement’s response to Jan 6., she said: “There was no such intelligence. Although we knew the likelihood for violence by extremists, no credible threat indicated that tens of thousands would attack the U.S. Capitol, nor did the intelligence received from the FBI or any other law enforcement partner indicate such a threat.” Rebecca Shabad reports for NBC News.

Pittman also insisted that her predecessor, Steven Sund, had called for military backup about six times starting at just before 1pm, saying that phone records had been assessed by her agency: “Chief Sund spoke to both sergeants-at-arms [former House sergeant-at-arms Paul D. Irving and former Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael C. Stenger] to request National Guard support,” she said. Both Pittman’s and Sund’s accounts now contradict Irving’s, who told lawmakers during testimony that he didn’t get an early call for military help, saying that Sund did not request National Guard deployment until around 2 p.m. Claudia Grissales reports for NPR.

“A pickup truck parked at the United States Capitol and bearing a Three Percenter militia sticker on the day of the Jan. 6 riot belongs to the husband of freshman U.S. Rep. Mary Miller of Illinois, who approvingly quoted Adolf Hitler a day earlier,” reports Adam Rawnsley, Kelly Weill and Jackie Kucinich for the Daily Beast. An email sent to the Beast from Chris Miller, Rep. Miller’s husband, said that the truck was his but rejected any links to the militia group. “Army friend gave me decal. Thought it was a cool decal. Took it off because of negative pub,” Miller wrote in the late yesterday, stating that he “never was [a] member” of the militia and “didn’t know anything about 3% till fake news started this fake story and read about them.”

U.S. RELATIONS

The U.S. yesterday conducted “airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria … which were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “According to the Pentagon, US fighter jets dropped seven 500-lb Joint Direct Attack Munition-guided precision bombs, hitting seven targets, which includes a crossing used by the armed groups to move weapons across the border … Kirby said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS),” reports Al Jazeera.

The U.S. air strikes on Syria  the Biden administration’s first lethal operation against Iran-backed groups — have thus far killed at least 17 people, local media and sources said, although Syria is yet to make an official statement. Reuters reporting.

President Biden yesterday spoke for the first time with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, where the leaders discussed regional security issues like the war in Yemen and defending the kingdom’s territories from Iran-backed groups. “Saudi officials in a statement in Riyadh about the call said Mr. Biden also told the king he wouldn’t allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons,” Andrew Restuccia reports for the Wall Street Journal.

“The conversation was overshadowed by the expected imminent release of findings on whether the king’s son approved the Oct. 2, 2018, killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s authoritarian consolidation of power, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in 2018 that the prince likely ordered the killing, a finding reported by news media but never officially released,” AP reports.

It is unclear whether Biden and the Saudi King actually spoke about the expected declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI); the White House readout call made no mention of Khashoggi. “The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the readout stated. “The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.” Laura Kelly and Brett Samuels report for The Hill.

TRUMP FINANCIAL RECORDS

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s office has obtained copies of former President Trump’s tax and financial records as part of its criminal grand jury investigation into his business affairs, a spokesperson for the office, Danny Frost, said yesterday, following the Supreme Court decision earlier this week which rejected Trump’s attempts to prevent access. Investigators from Vance’s office obtained the records from Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, following a subpoena it issued to the firm August 2019. Vance’s office “is conducting a wide-ranging investigation that includes an examination of whether Trump or his businesses lied about the value of assets to gain favorable loan terms and tax benefits. The district attorney is also scrutinizing hush-money payments paid to women on Trump’s behalf.” The obtained records are protected by grand jury secrecy rules and so are unlikely to be made public. AP reporting.

Obtaining Trump’s tax records was only the beginning; now comes the hard part, says former prosecutors, with materials to include “any and all statements of financial condition, annual statements, periodic financial reports, and independent auditors’ reports,” according to court documents. Millions of pages of records will now need to be examined, with forensic accountants from FTI Consulting hired by Vance’s office to help construct a timeline using the former president’s tax records, bank documents and communications between banks and his tax preparers, and will then identify any discrepancies between the official information declared to banks and those provided to tax authorities. “The value of the Mazars documents is not in the disclosure of tax returns: that is available to law enforcement from the tax authorities,” said Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor, adding, “Accounting records enable a prosecutor to see how the reported tax numbers were calculated. The underlying data is key to proving criminal intent, as it was in the Manafort investigation.” Witnesses are likely to be called, including “accountants and bookkeepers and lawyers who all had some role in compiling the returns and valuing assets,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor and NBC News legal analyst. Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro report for NBC News.

EXTREMISM AND CYBERSECURITY FUNDS

The Department for Homeland Security (DHS) said yesterday that state and local governments will be expected to spend a portion of the near-$1.9 billion in annual federal public safety grants on fighting domestic extremism and improving cybersecurity. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this move was the first time since the department’s inception that domestic extremism has been specified as a national priority for the purposes of programs which help state and local enforcement agencies in responding to emergencies. “State and local government agencies will still have leeway. DHS will require that 7.5% of the grants be devoted to detecting and protecting against domestic extremism and an equal portion for cybersecurity, including to conduct risk assessments and training … DHS will also now prohibit using the grants to buy military equipment, including grenade launchers, bayonets and “weaponized” aircraft, Mayorkas said, [adding,] DHS will continue to support the purchase of equipment that has “demonstrable impact on enhancing the safety of law enforcement and members of the public,” without specifying what that might entail,” reports AP.

Around $77 million in grant funding for state and local governments will be given to efforts to address domestic violent extremism, Mick Miroff reports for the Washington Post

“Current cybersecurity grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be increased by $25 million across the nation and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was evaluating further cyber grants to help the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) assist state and local governments,” reports Maggie Miller for The Hill.

OTHER U.S. DEVELOPMENTS 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is considering reversing the Trump administration’s last-minute decision which elevated the top civilian Pentagon official overseeing special operations. The initial decision to elevate civil oversight of America’s commandos on par with the civilian leaders of the military branches was made in December by former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. “The move was seen as a way to elevate the needs of America’s elite special operations forces — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Marine Raiders — which have borne the brunt of the fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan over the past two decades. It was also designed to increase civilian oversight following the fatal ambush of U.S. special forces in Niger in 2017 and a series of scandals that have plagued the community.” However, “Austin is considering lowering the special operations job back into the Pentagon’s policy shop, effectively demoting the position, according to two former Trump officials, one current defense official and a House aide familiar with the move. All of the people requested anonymity to discuss sensitive decisions,” reports Lara Seligman for POLITICO.

Former Air Force contractor Isaac Vincent Kemp yesterday pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of unauthorized removal or retention of classified documents after he unlawfully took home around 2,500 pages of classified materials. “Kemp previously worked for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), both located on Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and had training as part of his position regarding the proper procedures for retaining classified documents. 112 documents totaling roughly 2,500 pages of material were found by investigators at his home last year, according to the release,” reports John Bowden for The Hill.

The FBI has offered a reward of $250,000 for information leading to the arrest of Russian figure Konstantin Kilimnik who is wanted for “obstruction of justice & engaging in a conspiracy to obstruct justice [between Feb 2018 & April 2018,” the bureau’s Washington Field posted on Twitter. “Kilimnik is one of several individuals who the agency is seeking for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” reports Jordan Williams for The Hill.

The House yesterday voted 244-206 to pass the Equality Act, which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, education, access to public accommodation and other areas. “President Biden has signaled his support for the measure, but it still faces an uphill fight in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to break a legislative filibuster,” reports Felicia Sonmez and Samantha Schmidt for the Washington Post.

Pamela Smith was yesterday named as the new chief of the U.S. Park Police. Tom Jackman reports for the Washington Post.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 28.41 million and now killed over 508,300 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 113.08 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.50 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Atlantic has published its latest weekly report in its COVID Tracking Project

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.

CHINA

The Dutch parliament yesterday passed a non-binding motion stating “a genocide on the Uighur minority is occurring in China,” the third country to make such a declaration following the United States and Canada, although it did not specifically place responsibility on the Chinese government. Reuters reporting.

China is expected to announce a significant increase in its military budget during its March 5 annual opening of parliament, Chinese and Western security experts said. David Lague, Yew Lun Tian reports for Reuters.

ALEXEI NAVALNY

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been moved from a maximum-security jail in Moscow to an unspecified detention center, said Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), who insisted “that there exists no threat to his life and health.” Al Jazeera reporting.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. expert on killings, and Irene Khan, U.N. expert on freedom of opinion and expression, will on Monday release the findings of their investigation into the Navalny case, a U.N. statement said. Reuters reporting.

LIBYA

Libya’s newly-elected Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has delayed naming members of the much-anticipated Cabinet. “Instead, Dbeibah told reporters he only shared with Libyan legislators proposed guidelines for the selection of Cabinet members and a “vision” of his priorities in the coming period,” reports Al Jazeera.

Libya is “at the mercy of foreign powers … Libyans ousted a dictator, but an ensuing civil war has drawn in Russia, Turkey and others with a thirst for control,” write Greg Miller, Missy Ryan, Sudarsan Raghavan and Souad Mekhennet for the Washington Post, who provide a detailed account of the conflict and the foreign powers “seeking to control the country’s fate.”

OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Social media giant Facebook has signed partnership agreements with three Australian media firms Private Media, Schwartz Media and Solstice Media  following legislation passed in the country which requires big tech firms to pay for news content produced by local media outlets which appears on their platforms. Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.N. Security Council yesterday passed a resolution  14-0 votes, with Russia abstaining imposing sanctions on a top police security official in Yemen’s capital, which is controlled by Iran-back Houthi Rebels, over allegations he had a prominent role in “intimidations, systematic arrests, detentions, torture, sexual violence “and rape against politically active women”,” AP reports.

“A secretive Israeli nuclear facility at the center of the nation’s undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades,” the AP reports after analyzing satellite photos.

Over 300 Nigerian schoolgirls are thought to have been kidnapped from a school in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state, following a similar kidnapping last week of some 42 people, all of which are yet to be released. Details of the kidnapping are limited, although Sulaiman Tanau Anka, information commissioner for Zamfara state, told Reuters that “vehicles and moved the students, they also moved some on foot,” adding that security forces were hunting through the area. Al Jazeera reporting.

Hundreds of civilians killed by Eritrean troops in the ancient Ethiopian town of Axum in November amounted to “a series of human rights and humanitarian law violations,” Amnesty International said in a report. Adam Taylor reports for the Washington Post.

“The militaries of India and Pakistan said in a rare joint statement on Thursday that they had agreed to observe a ceasefire along the disputed border in Kashmir, having exchanged fire hundreds of times in recent months,” reports Devjyot Ghoshal for Reuters. 

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)