Early Edition: March 11, 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. RELATIONS

Iran’s June elections are not a factor in the Biden administration’s consideration of how to move forward with nuclear weapons talks, said Robert Malley, special U.S. envoy for Iran, during his first interview since taking office. “We don’t intend to base the pace of our discussions on the Iranian elections — the pace will be determined by how far we can get consistent with defending U.S. national security interests,” Malley said, adding, “In other words, we won’t rush or slow things because of the Iranian elections.” Barak Ravid reports for Axios.

The Biden administration’s proposed eight-page draft peace settlement agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban has been leaked, with two senior Afghan officials confirming the documents authenticity. The agreement, a State Department document, details a suggested structure of Afghanistan’s future government and specifies, in some instances, the number of people on councils and commissions. “Overall, the document calls for Afghanistan’s current government to be replaced with temporary leaders, a new constitution to be drafted and a cease-fire to be brokered. Within those proposals are elements both sides have described as nonnegotiable, so the plan is unlikely to be implemented in its current form,” reports Susannah George for the Washington Post.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make a joint trip to Japan and South Korea next week, the State Department said yesterday, the first overseas trip for senior Cabinet officials. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the trip is intended to “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our alliances and to highlight cooperation that promotes peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.”  Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

The two recent hacking attacks on the U.S. — the alleged Russian attack on SolarWinds’ systems at the end of last year and the more recent attack on Microsoft’s Exchange software, thought to have been led by China — “employed U.S.-based computers from at least four service providers to mount their attack, according to an analysis by the threat intelligence company DomainTools LLC,” reports Dustin Volz and Robert McMillan for the Wall Street Journal. “Based on the internet addresses used, the hack [on Microsoft] emanated from lesser-known service providers such as DigitalOcean Inc., as well as servers in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, China and other jurisdictions, said Joe Slowik, a researcher with DomainTools. About half the servers identified as connected to the Exchange hack were in the U.S., according to the DomainTools analysis.”

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet next week with their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, respectively, the first such meeting between the officials since President Biden took office. “The meeting will be held in Alaska to allow Blinken to attend the meeting on his way back from his trip to Japan and South Korea, a statement from the department said. It also allows Chinese officials to give the impression domestically that they are not traveling to the US, the officials said, since a visit to Washington or elsewhere in the US would garner more attention, according to two people familiar with the plans,” reports Vivian Salama for CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and his team have been working on Congress’s second big piece of legislation, following the Covid-19 relief bill, that aims to counter China’s rising global power and economic influence and proposes an injection of funds to bolster the country’s manufacturing and supply chains. Jeff Stein and Jeanne Whalen report for the Washington Post.

China is to make available tens of billions of dollars for its tech industry to borrow, in an effort to cement the country’s technological independence. China released a five-year plan last week, which “pledged to increase spending on research and development by 7 percent annually, including the public and private sectors. That figure was higher than budget increases for China’s military, which is slated to grow 6.8 percent next year, raising the prospect of an era of looming Cold War-like competition with the United States,” report Paul Mozur and Steven Lee Myers for the New York Times.

Beijing is targeting U.S.-based German researcher Adrian Zenz for his critical contributions to evidence which indicates China committed human rights abuses, including genocide, in the Xinjiang region, with companies from the region filing lawsuits against Zenz for alleged reputational damage and economic losses, Chinese state media and the country’s Foreign Ministry confirmed. Eva Dou reports for the Washington Post.

U.S. CAPITOL ATTACK

FBI investigators and federal prosecutors are ramping up their investigation into Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia, for any role he might have had in the Jan. 6 attack, according to multiple court documents and a law enforcement official, although the probe is in its early stages, the official said. Rhodes has been mentioned at least six times in court filings as Person One, and prosecutors have said that on Jan. 4 he issued a “call for action” on the Oath Keepers’ website, urging “all patriots who can be in D.C.” to “stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup.” Rhodes added that the militia group would be sending “multiple volunteer security teams” to offer protection to “V.I.P.s” at events surrounding Trump’s speech and rally in Washington earlier on in the day of Jan. 6. Alan Feuer, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner report for the New York Times. The authors go on to say: “In court papers filed on Monday night, prosecutors significantly raised the stakes against Mr. Rhodes, saying that they now have evidence that he was in direct communication with some of the plot suspects before, during and after the assault on the Capitol. Prosecutors said they have recovered messages — batched together under the title “DC OP: Jan 6 21” — from the encrypted chatting app Signal connecting Mr. Rhodes to regional Oath Keepers leaders from around the country, including two who have been charged in the conspiracy case: Jessica M. Watkins of Ohio and Kelly Meggs of Florida … In the Signal messages, prosecutors say, Mr. Rhodes can be seen assuring members of the group that “well-equipped Q.R.F.s” — or quick reaction forces — would be standing by outside Washington on Jan. 6 “in case of worst case scenarios.” Prosecutors also say that the chats show Mr. Rhodes monitoring events on the ground during the riot and, at one point, ordering a group of Oath Keepers to rally on the southeast steps of the Capitol, after which several members entered the building in what has been described as a military-style “stack.””

The federal investigation into those responsible for the Capitol attack is “ever-expanding” and “has increasingly strained the justice system and required extraordinary measures to churn through a growing roster of cases,” report Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney for POLITICO. The probe is being led by a D.C.-based team of federal prosecutors; however, the team is said to be stretched thin, prompting the Justice Department to request reinforcement from across the nation. “A POLITICO review of the more than 250 (and climbing) cases related to the Capitol breach shows that federal prosecutors from Fort Lauderdale to Wichita to San Francisco have heeded that call. So far, over 30 cases are assigned to attorneys who appear to be outside the staff of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington as it tackles what may be the most sprawling prosecution in U.S. history related to a single event … For context: the office’s 2021 criminal caseload includes fewer than 20 federal prosecutions that aren’t connected to the Capitol assault.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has requested FBI Director Christopher Wray to brief the panel on efforts by white supremacists and other extremist groups to infiltrate law enforcement departments across the nation. The letter sent to Wray called for a briefing on the matter by March 26. Jordan Williams reports for The Hill.

IMMIGRATION

The House is expected to advance two bills next week that aim to build momentum towards a more comprehensive set of immigration laws in the country: “One bill would provide a path to citizenship to certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — currently protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA — and to immigrants with other temporary protections. House Democrats will also put forth legislation that creates a path to legal status for migrant farmworkers while ramping up requirements for E-Verify, an electronic system to verify employees’ work authorization, and restructuring the H-2A agricultural visa program,” reports Suzanne Monyak for Roll Call.

The Biden administration has revived an Obama-era program that allows Central American children to apply from their home country for admission to the U.S. and is taking active steps to source additional funding for housing for the increasing number of child migrants detained at the southern border after crossing from Mexico. “That program and a $4 billion investment in Central America have been framed by the administration as crucial tools to addressing the poverty, persecution and corruption that have for years pushed vulnerable families to seek sanctuary in the United States. But the long-term strategy to deter illegal migration is running up against the immediate challenge of how to process thousands of migrant children at the U.S. border — a situation that has drawn swift backlash from Republicans and Democrats,” report Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Catie Edmondson for the New York Times.

SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARINGS

The Senate voted 70-30 yesterday to confirm Merrick Garland to serve as U.S. attorney general. Matt Zapotosky reports for the Washington Post.

The Senate also voted 66-34 to confirm Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) as secretary of housing and urban development, the first Black woman to lead the agency in more than forty years. Tracy Jan reports for the Washington Post.

OTHER U.S. DEVELOPMENTS 

During a six-minute phone call in December, former President Trump urged Frances Watson, the chief investigator of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, to look for fraud during an audit of mail-in ballots in Fulton County. During the call from Trump, which was first reported by the Washington Post in January, but for which a recording of the conversation has only now been released, Trump insisted that he had won the vote in Georgia, adding, “Something bad happened … When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised.” Watson responded: “I can assure you that our team and the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation], that we are only interested in the truth and finding the information that is based on the facts.” Cameron McWhirter reports for the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. journalist Andrea Sahouri was yesterday acquitted of two misdemeanour charges  failure to disperse and interference with official acts  which she received after being pepper-sprayed and arrested while covering a racial justice protest May 31, causing much condemnation from free-press advocates. “At least 126 U.S. journalists were arrested or detained on the job in 2020, many of them while covering protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, but most of those journalists had their charges dropped, if they were charged at all. Of the dozen or so still facing charges, Sahouri is so far the only one to stand trial, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which monitors such cases,” reports Elahe Izadi for the Washington Post.

Texas authorities issued an arrest warrant yesterday for Austin police officer Christopher Taylor who faces a murder charge for the fatal shooting of unarmed Black man Michael Ramos last year April that sparked protests. He was not in custody as of yesterday, but a bond of $100,000 has been ordered. “Under Texas law, an indictment is not public information until a person has been taken into custody, the American-Statesman noted. The Statesman also reported this was the first murder charge in connection to an excessive force case involving an Austin officer in decades,” Justine Coleman reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 29.15 million and now killed over 529,200 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 118.12 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.62 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Congress gave final approval yesterday to President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package; the bill was approved by a vote of 220-211 and has now been sent to the president for his signature, which he is expected to sign tomorrow. Tony Romm reports for the Washington Post.

A U.K. Covid-19 variant — SARS-CoV-2, also known as B.1.1.7 — which was found in Britain in September but has now been detected in countries worldwide, has a “significantly higher” death rate than other variants, according to a U.K. study revealed in the British Medical Journal yesterday. Kate Kelland reports for Reuters.

E.U. officials have hit back at after the European bloc was accused of withholding vaccines from being exported to countries worldwide, instead blaming that the U.K. and U.S. for having “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory,” according to European Council President Charles Michel. “A European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share the information publicly, said Wednesday that the bloc had approved the export of more than 34 million coronavirus vaccine doses since late January. Britain was the biggest recipient of those exports, with more than 9 million doses, followed by Canada, which got nearly 4 million, and Mexico, which received more than 3 million. The bloc approved the export of more than 950,000 doses to the United States,” report Rick Noack, Quentin Ariès and Loveday Morris for the Washington Post.

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

The U.N. Security Council yesterday agreed by consensus a statement which condemned violence against protesters in Myanmar and urged military restraint, but dropped language that condemned the military coup and threatened further measures, following opposition by China, Russia, India and Vietnam, diplomats said. “The British-drafted statement, which had to be agreed by consensus, now has to be formally adopted at a council meeting,” reports Michelle Nichols for Reuters.

Around 60,000 computer systems in Germany were exposed by a technical flaw that allows unauthorized users to gain access to Microsoft’s email software, the head of the country’s cybersecurity watchdog said yesterday. “More than half of the vulnerabilities were addressed following a warning last weekend by the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), but around 25,000 systems still need to be fixed, BSI chief Arne Schoenbohm said,” reports Andreas Rinke for Reuters.

Russia yesterday slowed down Twitter for hundreds of thousands of Russia-based users after the nation’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, said the social media platform failed to remove banned content that apparently encourages suicide among young people, as well as content linked to child pornography and drug use. “Should Twitter continue to host the prohibited content, the regulator warned that it could move to block the site entirely. For now, though, agency officials said they would throttle Twitter access on all mobile devices, and on half of the users who log on through their computers. The company has more than 690,000 active users in the country, according to a recent report from the research agency Brand Analytics,” reports Homza Shaban for the Washington Post.

Russian and China have agreed to jointly build a research station the moon, which will be open to “all interested countries and international partners,” according to a statement Tuesday from the China National Space Administration. Eva Dou reports for the Washington Post. 

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)