Early Edition: March 29, 2021

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A curated guide to the latest major national security news and developments:

CHAUVIN TRIAL

Minneapolis prepared for the start of opening statements today in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd with rallies, prayer vigils, and security yesterday in the areas around the courthouse and the crime scene. The Rev. Al Sharpton declared, “`The criminal justice system is on trial tomorrow…Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial.’” “Protesters — some chanting, drumming and holding portraits of Floyd — demonstrated outside the courthouse throughout the 11 days of jury selection, which concluded last week. Some said they planned to protest throughout the rest of the trial.” Grace Hauck and N’dea Yancey-Bragg report for USA Today.

Video evidence, forensics, and medical testimony will feature large in the trial, likely pivoting on the now-infamous video from a bystander and a police body camera of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck. “Mr. Chauvin, 44 years old, has pleaded not guilty to both second-degree murder, the crime of unintentionally causing Mr. Floyd’s death while assaulting him, and to third-degree murder, which Minnesota law defines as causing the death of another through an eminently dangerous act and evincing a depraved mind.” Jacob Gershman and Joe Barrett report for the Wall Street Journal.

The likely arguments from the prosecution and the defense, are outlined by Daniella Silva for NBC News

Judge Peter Cahill, who will preside over “ the most widely viewed” trial in Minnesota history, has been on the bench for 14 years, served as chief judge, and previously worked as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and “as the top deputy to [now-U.S. Senator from Minnesota] Amy Klobuchar during her tenure as county attorney.” A profile by Rochelle Olson for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

CORONAVIRUS 

Dr. Anthony Fauci said new coronavirus variants identified in the U.K. and South Africa, an increase in travel for spring break, and rollbacks of prevention measures are contributing to recent spikes in infections that account for a continuing plateau, which in turn raises the risk of another surge. “`When you’re coming down from a big peak and you reach a point and start to plateau, once you stay at that plateau, you’re really in danger of a surge coming up,’” Fauci said. Melissa Quinn reports on Fauci’s interview with Margaret Brennan on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the former White House coronavirus-response coordinator under President Donald Trump, said hundreds of thousands of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 could have been avoided with more urgent, aggressive action by the administration. “The comments were among a string of bombshells that emerged during a CNN special report that featured the doctors who led the government’s coronavirus response in 2020.” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for the New York Times. For more, see CNN’s roundup from the report.

Mexico’s Health Ministry issued a report indicating that almost 120,000 people may have died of COVID-19 but were not included in statistics thus far, potentially increasing the pandemic death toll by 60 percent. “The report, titled ‘Excess Mortality in Mexico,’ measures the number of deaths since the start of the pandemic which exceed projections based on previous years.” Karol Suarez reports for CNN.

The Biden administration is working with private companies to develop credentials, essentially “vaccine passports” that would allow people to show proof they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. “The passports are expected to be free and available through applications for smartphones, which could display a scannable code similar to an airline boarding pass. Americans without smartphone access should be able to print out the passports.” Dan Diamond, Lena H. Sun and Isaac Stanley-Becker report for the Washington Post.

The draft of a WHO-China report on the origin of the coronavirus reasserts the scenario that the coronavirus was transmitted to humans from bats via another animal, but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cast doubt on the findings. “The report is being closely watched since discovering the origins of the virus could help scientists prevent future pandemics — but it’s also extremely sensitive since China bristles at any suggestion that it is to blame for the current one. Repeated delays in the report’s release have raised questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew its conclusions.” Ken Moritsugu and Jamey Keaten provide this exclusive at the Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the possibility of curfews to try to get a third wave of coronavirus infections under control, as the number of infections per 100,000 people exceeded more than 100 over seven days. “Coronavirus infections have risen rapidly in recent weeks, driven by more transmissible strains of the virus. Merkel’s chief of staff warned earlier on Sunday that the country was in the most dangerous phase of the pandemic and must suppress the virus now or risk dangerous mutations that were immune to vaccines,” reports Caroline Copley for Reuters.

Brazil’s seven-day average of 2,400 deaths from COVID-19 is on pace to reach 3,000 within weeks. “That’s nearly the worst level seen by the U.S., though Brazil has two-thirds its population. Spikes of daily deaths could soon hit 4,000; on Friday there were 3,650.” A growing number of governors and mayors acknowledge that shutdowns may be unavoidable, though it may be too late, as intensive care units in almost all states are at or near capacity. David Biller and Mauricio Savarese report for the Associated Press

Russia is importing its Sputnik V vaccine from manufacturers in South Korea, even as it trumpets its exports of the shots to Africa, Latin America, and Europe. “While the scale of the imports is impossible to gauge because of nondisclosure agreements, they undermine some of the narrative Russia has proudly presented about its role in the pandemic as an exporter of vaccines to needy countries.” Andrew Kramer reports for the New York Times.

President Biden has to decide by March 31 whether to extend a federal moratorium on housing evictions that expires that day and that has been challenged in court. “More than 10 million Americans are facing housing insecurity, 5.4 million expect to face eviction or foreclosure soon, and more than 78 million said they’re having trouble covering basic expenses.” Sylvan Lane reports for The Hill.

A map and analysis of the vaccine rollout across the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. 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.

MYANMAR

The defense chiefs of the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and nine other nations jointly condemned the Myanmar military’s killing of more than 100 people over the weekend, including young children. “U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the military of `a reign of terror.’” Eline Schaart reports for Politico.

On the same day as the killings, which occurred in more than 40 locations, the Myanmar military held a parade and a gala to commemorate the annual Armed Forces Day. “More than 400 people have now been killed in the suppression of protests in Myanmar” since the Feb. 1 coup, the BBC reports.  

Thousands of villagers from areas of eastern Myanmar that are controlled by the Karen ethnic minority fled across the border to Thailand yesterday, apparently trying to escape military air strikes on guerrilla positions. Leaders of the resistance to last month’s military coup in Myanmar have sought support from the Karen, who have long fought an armed battle against the government for more autonomy. Grant Peck reports for the Associated Press.

CHINA

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, signed a 25-year economic cooperation agreement, as the United States maintains its sanctions against Tehran.“The agreement covers a variety of economic activity from oil and mining to promoting industrial activity in Iran, as well as transportation and agricultural collaboration.” From the Associated Press.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meeting with five members of Parliament whom China sanctioned a day earlier, vowed to take action to make developing countries less dependent on China via its Belt and Road infrastructure investment initiative. Stuart Lau reports on the meeting for Politico.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the United States is open to trade negotiations with China but won’t be lifting tariffs anytime soon. “In her first interview since Senate confirmation, Ms. Tai said she recognized that the tariffs can exact a toll on U.S. businesses and consumers, though proponents have said they also help shield companies from subsidized foreign competition.”  Bob Davis and Yuka Hayashi report on an interview with Tai for the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The massive container ship that has been stuck in the Suez Canal for almost a week was partially refloated early this morning local time, though it’s unclear how long it will take to fully clear the canal for ship traffic. “The Ever Given has moved about 80% of the way back toward a normal position within the waterway, according to the Suez Canal Authority, indicating some success in rescue efforts. However, there’s still a major task ahead to fully dislodge the 200,000-ton ship, according to Peter Berdowski, chief executive officer of Boskalis Westminster, the parent company of the salvage team.” Jack Wittels and Ann Koh report for Bloomberg News.

The Department of Homeland Security, already struggling to handle an influx of teenagers and younger children at the southern border, is preparing for the next phase of a surge that may bring the number of migrants arriving in families to 500,000 to 800,000 for the year ending Sept. 30. “That would equal or exceed the record numbers who entered in 2019, according to government data.” Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti report for the Washington Post.

Suspected Russian hackers in the SolarWinds cyberattack on government and private computer systems gained access to email accounts of Chad Wolf, the Trump administration’s head of the Department of Homeland Security, and department cybersecurity staff. The intelligence value of the hacking isn’t publicly known. “The Biden administration has tried to keep a tight lid on the scope of the SolarWinds attack as it weighs retaliatory measures against Russia.” Alan Suderman reports for the Associated Press.

Fulton County, Georgia, has two grand juries investigating former President Donald Trump and his associates for trying to rig the state’s election results, according to the Daily Beast, which says “jurors in these secret proceedings will soon be asked to issue subpoenas demanding documents and recordings related to the Trump investigation.” Jose Pagliery reports.

Syrian Kurdish forces arrested more than 30 women and men in a U.S.-supported security sweep of the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. The camp “holds almost 62,000 people, mostly women and children,” who authorities believe are family members of ISIS fighters. “`The purpose of this SDF operation is to degrade and disrupt Daesh activities within the camp to ensure the safety and security of camp residents,’” a coalition spokesperson told Agence France-Presse

Dozens of people are dead in the northern Mozambique town of Palma, and as many as 60 foreigners are missing from their escape convoy after an ambush by Islamist militants. “Islamist rebels attacked Palma – where many foreign contractors have been working for a multibillion-dollar liquified natural gas project run by the French energy company Total – on Wednesday, leading to five days of fighting so far.” Hundreds of workers from South Africa, Britain, and France attempted to flee hotels where they had sought refuge. South Africa was considering sending in forces to rescue its civilians remaining in the town, Peter Beaumont reports for The Guardian.

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION

President Biden is getting pressure from Republicans and Democrats on opposing sides to articulate his policy on Cuba. “President Biden has said he wants a reset on Cuba, but that has been complicated by competing political considerations, tensions over Venezuela and suspected microwave attacks targeting American diplomats in Havana. That hasn’t stopped lawmakers, however, from jockeying to influence the administration’s eventual policy.” Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

The Biden administration has yet to fill a new position created by Congress for a national cyber director, amid turf wars and political jockeying. The position will require Senate confirmation. “Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who serves as co-chairman of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission — the body that successfully pushed for the inclusion of the National Cyber Director role in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act — said he was ‘frustrated’ by the delay,” considering the imperatives to respond to major Russian and Chinese cyber intrusions. By Natasha Bertrand for Politico.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has notified 32 members of the agency’s Advisory Council appointed by Republican and Democratic administrations that he was ending their terms. “`I am considering how the HSAC can bring the greatest value to the Department and how the expertise, judgment, and counsel of its members can be harnessed most effectively to advance the Department’s mission,’ he wrote.” Mayorkas retained former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and former Drug Enforcement Administration chief Karen Tandy as chairman and vice chair, respectively, and former FBI and CIA Director William Webster as chair emeritus. Daniel Lippman reports for Politico.

The Pentagon has prepared an internal briefing manual that includes tips on how to spot signs that might indicate extremists infiltrating the military. The 17-page document was “compiled by the DoD Insider Threat Management and Analysis Center, which is part of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.” Betsy Woodruff Swan and Bryan Bender report for Politico 

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).