Early Edition: March 8, 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.

U.S. RELATIONS

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said yesterday that the U.S. will carry out a “thoughtful” and “appropriate” response to the rocket attack last Wednesday on an air base housing U.S. troops in Iraq, where one U.S. contractor suffered a heart attack during the attack and later died. “We’re still developing the intelligence. We’re encouraging the Iraqis to move as fast as they can to investigate the incident and they are doing that. But you can expect that we will always hold people accountable for their acts,” Austin said on ABC’s “This Week,” adding, “We want to make sure that again, we understand who’s responsible for this … The message to those who would carry out such an attack is you know expect us to do what’s necessary to defend ourselves.” Zack Budryk reports for The Hill.

With Afghan peace talks making little progress and the U.S. possibly expected to withdraw its troops from the region by May 1, the Biden administration last week proposed far-reaching plans for an interim power-sharing government between Afghan leaders and the Taliban, and “stepped-up involvement by Afghanistan’s neighbors — including Iran — in the peace process,” reports Karen DeYoung for the Washington Post.

Following U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s sharing of the proposal with Afghan and Taliban leaders, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a three-page letter that a withdrawal of troops remains under active consideration and could lead to “rapid territorial gains” by the Taliban in “spring offensive.” “I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone,” Blinken said in his letter. “He also proposed a “transitional peace government” to usher the country through this precarious period, followed by national elections, as well as a UN-led peace conference in Turkey attended by foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US,” reports BBC News.

Reductions in U.S. military support given to Afghan elite forces battling the Taliban is impeding efforts to “roll back the militants’ advances … with decreased airstrikes and a shortage of advanced technology slowing their ground operations,” reports Susannah George for the Washington Post.

Tens of thousands of Microsoft Inc. customers  corporates and government agencies — have been affected by a hacking operation said to be sponsored by the Chinese government, Microsoft said. “The hackers had stealthily attacked several targets in January, according to Volexity, the cybersecurity firm that discovered the hack, but escalated their efforts in recent weeks as Microsoft moved to repair the vulnerabilities exploited in the attack … The U.S. government’s cybersecurity agency issued an emergency warning on Wednesday, amid concerns that the hacking campaign had affected a large number of targets. The warning urged federal agencies to immediately patch their systems. On Friday, the cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs reported that the attack had hit at least 30,000 Microsoft customers,” report Kate Conger and Sheera Frenkel for the New York Times.

The Biden administration is expected to soon retaliate against Russia over its alleged hacking of federal government agencies late last year  the administration is also faced with deciding how to respond to the breach of Microsoft email systems by an alleged state-sponsored Chinese group. “The first major move is expected over the next three weeks, officials said, with a series of clandestine actions across Russian networks that are intended to be evident to President Vladimir V. Putin and his intelligence services and military but not to the wider world …. The officials said the actions would be combined with some kind of economic sanctions — though there are few truly effective sanctions left to impose — and an executive order from Mr. Biden to accelerate the hardening of federal government networks after the Russian hacking.” The U.S. government has not confirmed that China is responsible for hacking Microsoft’s systems, but has confirmed that Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, will lead the government’s response. David E. Sanger, Julian E. Barnes and Nicole Perlroth report for the New York Times.

The U.S. and South Korea have scaled back their planned annual joint military drills set to start today, citing the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing diplomacy with North Korea as the reason. Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the exercises will take place over nine days and predominantly be tabletop and simulation training rather than field training. Zack Budryk reports for The Hill.

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

The Biden administration’s first defense bill budget is expected in spring  but disagreement mounts between Democrats and Republicans over how much funds should be used on nuclear modernization programs. “Democrats have been introducing bills to curtail costly nuclear modernization programs, as well writing letters urging President Biden to support their efforts … But Republicans are shooting back with their own letters and op-eds calling on Biden to stay the course on programs that largely originated during the Obama administration. They’re also working to pin down Pentagon nominees on where they stand … The back-and-forth over nuclear modernization is providing a lens into the larger fight that’s taking shape as the Biden administration prepares to present its first defense budget in the spring. Expectations are that the administration will keep funding flat,” reports Rebecca Kheel for The Hill.

Biden has signed an executive order described as an “initial step” to promote additional access to voting and protect voting rights, with the administration saying that the order uses “the authority the president has to leverage federal resources to help people register to vote and provide information.” “The executive order, according to a fact sheet provided by the administration, gave the heads of every federal agency 200 days to outline a plan to “promote voter registration and participation.” Federal agencies will be directed to notify states about the ways in which they can help with voter registration, in addition to being tasked with improving voting access to military voters and people with disabilities. Biden also directed the federal government to update and modernize Vote.gov, the website it operates to provide the public with voting-related information,” reports Eugene Daniels for POLITICO.

Unaccompanied minors form a large proportion of migrants crossing the southern border into the United States. Officials are apparently trying to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved, with the Washington Post reporting that the Biden administration is planning to convert family detention centers into processing facilities in an effort to speed up the screening process of migrant children and their parents. “President Biden has asked senior members of his team to travel to the border region in order to provide a full briefing to him on the government response to the influx of unaccompanied minors and an assessment of additional steps that can be taken to ensure the safety and care of these children,” White House spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement. Brett Samuels and Jonathan Easley report for The Hill.

Tech giants Apple, Google and Facebook are taking important steps in protecting the personal data of users and also curtailing their tracking systems used to target users with personalized ads. Apple intends to give its users more control over their privacy and Google will be phasing out its current personalized ads system. “Google and Facebook are sort of suffering from an image problem, that they’re invasive, whereas Apple is kind of protective of privacy … So I think this is a move by Google to come across as a kind of champion of privacy. But in fact, the motivations are manifold,” said Vasant Dhar, a professor of information studies at New York University, adding, “Regulators are about to take a deep dive into this whole ecosystem about how people are tracked, where the information is collected, how it’s used so far. So far, Big Tech has been kind of operating in the dark because there have been no rules and so they make the rules up as they go.” “We’re aligned with Google, who like us, continue investment in technology to enable relevant advertising while supporting the free and open web,” a Facebook spokesperson said, adding, “Building more tools that support privacy-protective personalized advertising and collaborating with the industry is how all companies in the ecosystem should move forward in service of people and businesses.” Rebecca Klar reports for The Hill.

Two female generals were promoted Saturday by Biden, after former President Trump’s Pentagon officials repeatedly delayed recommending promotion over concerns Trump would oppose them both because they are women. “Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost and Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson will take on new assignments to four-star commands if approved by the Senate as expected … Van Ovost will lead the Transportation Command, which manages the military’s global transportation network … Richardson is slated to move up from commanding general of the U.S. Army North in Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, to become the head of the Southern Command that handles military activities in Latin America,” reports Justine Coleman for The Hill.

RACIAL JUSTICE

Jury selection is to begin today in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in George Floyd’s death. The “judge is considering a last-minute addition of a third-degree murder charge that would give prosecutors another avenue for conviction, but with a shorter prison term. The addition — or a decision to not add the charge — could trigger an appeal from either side. The judge’s decision, which might not come until Monday morning, has injected even more uncertainty into the case, heightening tension in a city already on edge,” reports Holly Bailey for the Washington Post. The possibility of additional charges was ruled Friday by Minnesota Court of Appeals, which Chauvin could appeal and may see jury selection delayed.

The first challenge in the Floyd murder trial will be selecting an impartial jury, reports Tim Arango and Shaila Dewan for the New York Times. “It is expected to take three weeks just to seat a jury of 12 members and up to four alternates. Lawyers for both sides may have already begun vetting jury-pool members, checking their social media posts. They will have read the returned questionnaires, which are not publicly available, and will use them as a starting point for questions intended to ferret out anything that is “proxy for political bias,” down to their bumper stickers, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn … The questions will help the lawyers pinpoint ideological leanings and flesh out fuller portraits of each prospective juror. The defense will be looking for candidates who are politically conservative and favorably disposed toward law enforcement, while the prosecution may prefer young, highly educated people with liberal leanings … The judge is supposed to strike any potential jurors who show an inability to set aside their preconceptions. In addition, the prosecution may strike nine potential jurors of its choice, and the defense may strike 15.”

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 28.99 million and now killed over 525,400 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 116.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.59 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Three online outlets are being directed by Russia’s intelligence services to undermine Pfizer’s and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines, a State Department spokesperson said yesterday, stating that the outlets “spread many types of disinformation, including about both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as well as international organizations, military conflicts, protests, and any divisive issue that they can exploit.” A Kremlin spokesperson has denied the allegations, which were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Simon Lewis reports for Reuters.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife have tested positive for Covid-19, both displaying only mild symptoms, the president’s office said Monday. Both are reported to be isolating for two weeks and were in “good health and in stable condition.” AP reporting.

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.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Two protesters in Myanmar were killed Monday following gunshots to the head, witnesses said, although it was unclear who was responsible. Witnesses did, however, say that the police and military were at the scene in the northern town of Myitkyina. Reuters reporting.

The International Criminal Court ruled that child soldiers and other victims of convicted Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda should receive $30 million in compensation, the largest reparation order ever given by the Hague-based court. As Ntanganda does not have the resources to foot such a bill, the court’s Trust Fund will help set up and fund vocational and other programs aimed at supporting victims of his crimes. Stephanie van den Berg reports for Reuters.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebel group fired drones and missiles at the center of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry Sunday, although unsuccessfully, the Saudi energy minister said, adding there were no causalities or loss of property. Reuters reporting.

At least 20 have been killed and over 600 injured Sunday following a series of explosions at a military barrack in Equatorial Guinea, which the country’s president said was due to “negligent handling of dynamite.” AP 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)