Early Edition: March 4, 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. COUNTERTERRORISM AND AIRSTRIKES

The Biden administration has secretly imposed temporary checks on the military’s and CIA’s ability to carry out counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids in war zone regions that have few American troops  and is conducting a wider review on whether to tighten rules brought in under the Trump administration. Although not applicable to battlefield zones like Afghanistan and Syria, the temporary limits require the military and CIA to first obtain authorization from the White House before carrying out attacks on terrorism suspects in places such as Somalia and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, such attacks were ultimately authorized internally within each department or agency, as long as certain requirements were met and the operation could be justified. Although the administration has not announced the new limits, officials said that national security advisor Jake Sullivan issued an order Jan. 20. Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) yesterday introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at repealing decades-old authorizations for the use of military force in the Middle East, following criticism from lawmakers over President Biden’s authorization of airstrikes on Syria last week, in which congressional approval was not sought. Co-sponsors of the bill include: Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Andrew Desiderio and Connor O’Brien report for POLITICO.

The White House has warned that a military response is being considered following Wednesday’s rocket fire which hit an Iraqi base hosting U.S. and coalition troops and resulted in the cardiac failure and death of a U.S. civilian contractor, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, suggesting that the “calculated” U.S. airstrikes last week on Syria could be a model any military response. AP reports.

DOMESTIC EXTREMISM

The U.S. Capitol Police force has warned of a possible further attack on the Capitol building today after receiving intelligence of a plot by a militia group, with the House canceling a scheduled session for today, instead finishing up planned votes yesterday. The police department declined to name the group or give any further details, citing the “sensitive nature” of the information, but made clear that it was “prepared for any potential threats.” Tom Jackman, Matt Zapotosky, Michael Brice-Saddler and Craig Timberg report for the Washington Post.

The plot appeared to be inspired by QAnon, although federal officials described the threat as more “aspirational” than operational, report Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Matthew Rosenberg for the New York Times.

D.C. National Guard chief Gen. William Walker told senators yesterday that he would have “immediately” deployed his forces to assist law enforcement during the Jan. 6 attack  but his authority was placed under “restrictions [he] hadn’t had in the past” by then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller. Walker said during his testimony to the Senate Rules Committee and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he received an “unusual” letter Jan. 5 from Miller which limited his ability to authorize the Quick Reaction Force and seek approval from senior officials. “My next call would have been to my subordinate commanders, to get every single guardsman in this building and everybody that’s helping the Metropolitan Police…to the Capitol, without delay,” said Walker, who insisted that he could have deployed around 150 troops to the Capitol within 20 minutes if he had not been delayed by higher ranking officials. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

A DEA agent has been put on leave and his security clearance suspended after officials said he was outside the Capitol when rioters breached the building, his lawyer has said. The agent, Mark Ibrahim, said in a phone interview that he “never entered the building,” but added nothing further. Ibrahim’s lawyer said he was off duty but was carrying his service weapon outside the Capitol, and remained a part of the crowd outside the Capitol. Brad Heath reports for Reuters.

Prominent member of the Proud Boys Ethan Nordean was yesterday released from jail pending trial for his alleged involvement and leadership role in the Capitol attack. Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington upheld a lower court’s Feb. 8 release order for Nordean, stating: “[Nordean] was a leader of a march to the Capitol. But once he got there it is not clear what leadership role this individual took at all for the people who went inside … Evidence that he directed other defendants to break into or enter the Capitol is weak, to say the least.” Spencer S. Hsu reports for the Washington Post.

HOUSE REFORMS

The House yesterday approved a sweeping package of election and government reforms to “create uniform national voting standards, overhaul campaign finance laws and outlaw partisan redistricting, advancing a centerpiece of the Democratic voting rights agenda amid fierce Republican attacks that threaten to stop it cold in the Senate,” reports Mike DeBonis for the Washington Post.

The House also passed a police reform bill that would ban chokeholds and aims to address racial profiling. “The vote was 220-212, with all but two Democrats, Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Ron Kind of Wisconsin, supporting it. Just one Republican, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, voted to pass the bill. Gooden later tweeted that he doesn’t support the bill and said he “changed the official record to reflect my opposition!” (Golden and Kind supported the measure last year, while Gooden opposed it.),” reports Nolan D. McCaskill for POLITICO.

OTHER U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

Former transport secretary during the Trump administration, Elaine Chao, used office staff to help relatives who run a China-linked shipping company, concluded a report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. “The inspector general referred the matter to the Justice Department in December for possible criminal investigation. But in the weeks before the end of Trump administration, two Justice Department divisions declined to do so … The investigators did not make a formal finding that Ms. Chao violated ethics rules. But they detailed more than a dozen instances where her office took steps to handle matters related to her father, who built up a New York-based shipping company after immigrating to the United States from Taiwan in the late 1950s, and to her sister, who runs the company now,” reports Eric Lipton and Michael Forsythe report for the New York Times.

As part of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s probe into former President Trump’s tax and financial records, investigators are looking closely into the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, including his personal and financial dealings, his loyalty to Trump, and a Trump-owned apartment which Weisselberg’s son once occupied, said people familiar with the probe. “This questioning is now led by a former mob prosecutor, and one person familiar with the investigation said it is aimed at “flipping” Weisselberg — attempting to turn one of Trump’s longest-serving and most important aides into a witness against him … Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D), Manhattan’s top prosecutor, has not formally accused anyone of wrongdoing, including Trump, Weisselberg or the latter’s family. But the focus on Weisselberg underscores the depth and ambition of Vance’s inquiry, a criminal investigation broader than any Trump’s company is known to have faced before,” report David A. Fahrenthold, Jonathan O’Connell, Shayna Jacobs and Tom Hamburger for the Washington Post.

A Ukrainian court yesterday rejected an extradition request from the U.S. for Craig Laing, an American citizen and Army veteran who served in the European country’s right-wing paramilitary units and was charged by U.S. prosecutors for his connection with a double murder in Florida. “The appellate court in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv largely agreed with Mr. Lang’s lawyers that, notwithstanding the murder charge, he faced prosecution in the United States for his military service in Ukraine, under the Neutrality Act, a seldom-used law against fighting in foreign wars. The court ruled that he was thus entitled to a hearing as an asylum seeker … While ending the extradition process, the ruling did not necessarily put Mr. Lang beyond the reach of American law, his lawyers said, noting that he could be deported to the United States if his asylum application fails,” reports Andrew E. Kramer for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 28.76 million and now killed over 518,400 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 115.25 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.56 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Covid-19 crisis that Brazil is currently facing is “a warning to the whole world,” scientists warn, as the South American country’s death toll sees record high. Manuela Andreoni, Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado report for the New York Times.

President Biden yesterday agreed to further limit eligibility for the next round of stimulus payments, a key part of Biden’s economic relief measures, in a bid to receive the requisite support from lawmakers in the 50-50 split Senate. The new proposal means that “individuals earning more than $80,000 and households with incomes exceeding $160,000 would be disqualified from receiving stimulus checks. The caps are $20,000 lower than they were in the last round, wiping out payments for millions of Americans … The plan would send $1,400 checks to individuals earning up to $75,000, single parents with children earning $112,500 and couples making $150,000, with the amount gradually falling for people with larger incomes. The payment would disappear altogether for those over the cap of $80,000 for individuals, $120,000 for single parents and $160,000 for couples. Mr. Biden’s original proposal, which passed the House over the weekend, would have set the cap at $100,000 for individuals, $150,000 for single parents and $200,000 for couples,” reports Emily Cochrane for the New York Times.

Texas and Mississippi are relaxing restrictions, both lifting mask mandates, and the former allowing businesses to now operate at full capacity. Brittany Shammas, William Wan, Sarah Fowler and Eva Ruth Moravec report for the Washington Post.

Biden yesterday criticized such relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions as “Neanderthal thinking” and insisted that it was a “big mistake” for anyone to stop wearing masks. Michael D. Shear reports for the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the US is available at the New York Times.

U.S. 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.

ETHIOPIA

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has requested Ethiopia to allow monitors into the Tigray region to investigate reports of potential war crimes being committed in the northern region since late last year. Stephanie Neberhay reports for Reuters.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki “is fueling bloodshed in Tigray — and offering other regional leaders lessons in authoritarianism,” writes Alex De Waal for the Foreign Policy.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Germany has placed its largest parliamentary opposition party  the far-right populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)  under surveillance for being a “suspected case” for far-right extremism. Germany’s intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), is now permitted by law to spy on the activities and monitor the phones of AfD members. Kate Connolly reports for The Guardian.

A German warship will cross the South China Sea in August, the first such crossing for the European nation since 2002, government officials said yesterday. The U.K. will also send naval ships to the region in May. The German “ship will not pass within what officials called the ‘12-nautical-mile’, officials in the foreign and defense ministries added, in a reference to contested areas of the sea, which China claims almost in its entirety,” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.K., France and Germany have backpaddled on their lobbying for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s 35-nation Board of Governors to adopt a resolution at this week’s quarterly meeting expressing concern at Iran’s recent breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal and calling on Iran to undo its actions, three diplomats said. “Separately but almost simultaneously, the IAEA said its chief Rafael Grossi would hold a news conference at midday (1100 GMT). Two of the diplomats said Grossi had told the IAEA board he plans to hold technical discussions with Iran next month,” reports Francois Murphy for Reuters.

Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups  including the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Command  have told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that they are temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in opposition to the Brexit deal, although the groups made clear that any opposition would be “peaceful and democratic.” Guy Faulconbridge and Amanda Ferguson report for Reuters.

Myanmar saw its “bloodiest day” on Wednesday, with at least 38 people killed by security forces who opened fire with rubber and live bullets, the U.N. envoy to Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener warned. BBC News reporting.

International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, announced a statement released on the ICC website. “The probe would cover events in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip since June 2014,” reports Al Jazeera.

In 2020, 29 countries intentionally shut down or reduced their international communications over 155 times, concludes a report by Access Now, a non-profit digital rights group. Hanna Duggal reports for Al Jazeera. 

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)