Early Edition: April 8, 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

U.S. troops in Iraq will be redeployed after further talks, with U.S.-coalition forces now likely to provide only training and advice, following yesterday’s conclusion of a third round of talks, “Strategic Dialogue,” between the U.S. and Iraq, and the first round of talks under the Biden administration. A statement following the talks said: “Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF [Iraq Security Forces], the parties confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks.” “But in practice, the statement’s newly debated description of the U.S. troop presence appeared to be more a restatement of current realities than a strategic shift. The coalition, led from Baghdad by U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout, officially transitioned to a formal advisory capacity in July,” reports Louisa Loveluck for the Washington Post.

China is using American chip software to power a supercomputer used to simulate conditions on hypersonic vehicles travelling through the atmosphere, according to former U.S. officials and Western analysts. “The computer is powered by tiny chips designed by a Chinese firm called Phytium Technology using American software and built in the world’s most advanced chip factory in Taiwan, which hums with American precision machinery, say the analysts,” report Ellen Nakashima and Gerry Shih for the Washington Post.

The Biden administration plans to provide at least $235 million in U.S. aid to Palestinians, reversing a 2018 Trump administration suspension. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that $150 million would go to humanitarian aid, funneled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, $75 million would be allocated to economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, and $10 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development to carry out peace-building operations. Pranshu Verma and Rick Gladstone report for the New York Times.

President Biden is considering appointing a special envoy to lead negotiations on stopping the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to convey natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, current and former U.S. official said. Amos Hochstein, who served as the special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs under President Barack Obama and last year stepped down as chair of the Supervisory Board at Ukraine’s energy giant Naftogaz, was informally offered the special envoy role late last month by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and is currently being vetted, although he has not yet accepted the role. Natasha Bertrand and Andrew Desiderio report for POLITICO.

The U.S. rejoining the Open Skies Treaty would send the “wrong message” to Russia, according to a State Department memo obtained by Defense News. The March 31 diplomatic memo told several international partners that the administration is “frankly concerned that agreeing to rejoin a treaty that Russia continues to violate would send the wrong message to Russia and undermine our position on the broader arms control agenda.” It added: “While we recognize that Russia’s Open Skies violations are not of the same magnitude as its material breach of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty], they are part of a pattern of Russian disregard for international commitments — in arms control and beyond — that raises questions about Russia’s readiness to participate cooperatively in a confidence-building regime.” Joe Gould and Aaron Mehta report for Defense News.

The battle between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels for Yemen’s ancient city of Marib is emerging as a key source of growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. “The fight also squeezes a pressure point on the most powerful Gulf Arab ally of the United States and ensnarls any US return to Iran’s nuclear deal. It even complicates efforts by Biden’s administration to slowly shift the longtime mass US military deployments to the Middle East to instead counter what it sees as the emerging threat of China and Russia,” reports Al Jazeera.

JAN. 6 CAPITOL ATTACK

A suspected Oath Keeper member charged in the Capitol attack is helping the Justice Department bring conspiracy charges against leaders of the Proud Boys, according to an attorney and court records. “Jon Schaffer, a guitarist with the heavy metal band Iced Earth, is considering cooperating, according to a filing on Monday. Schaffer allegedly charged at police officers in the Capitol insurrection and is in jail while he awaits trial. In court, he has distanced himself from the Oath Keepers,” reports Katelyn Polantz for CNN.

Ten Democratic lawmakers have joined the NAACP’s lawsuit against former President Trump, alleging he incited those that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. The lawmakers joining the case include: House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (NY), a House prosecutor in Trump’s first impeachment trial, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA), and three former chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus, California Reps. Barbara Lee, Karen Bass and Maxine Waters. Marty Johnson report for The Hill.

Trump “incited that bloody insurrection for nothing more than selfish reasons, perpetuated by the bullshit he’d been shoveling since he lost a fair election the previous November,” wrote former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in a book expected to be published this month. Excerpts from the book were obtained by The New York Times, where Boehner is said to say that Trump’s “refusal to accept the result of the election not only cost Republicans the Senate but led to mob violence,” adding, “It was painful to watch.” Maggie Haberman reports for the New York Times.

Divisions between Democrats and Republicans intensified after the Capitol attack, with some Democrats struggling to work with GOP members, especially those that perpetuated Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud that ultimately fueled mobs on Jan. 6. The aftermath of the attack saw talks “of cutting off certain Republicans entirely from the legislative process, denying them the basic courtesies and customs that allow the House to function even in polarized times.” Catie Edmondson and Luke Broadwater for the New York Times.

Extensive surveillance methods used by law enforcement agencies to track down Capitol rioters could be used against protesters lawfully exercising their constitutional rights. “Recent news coverage of the riot has largely focused on facial recognition – and how private citizens and local law enforcement officials have conducted their own facial recognition investigations in an attempt to assist the FBI with the help of social media. But charging documents reveal that the FBI has relied on a variety of other technologies, including license plate readers, police body cameras and cellphone tracking. And civil rights watchdogs like the ACLU are concerned that the same technologies used to surveil the rioters could impede protesters exercising their first amendment rights,” write Hannah Harris Green for the Guardian.

GUN CONTROL 

President Biden is expected to today unveil several executive orders and directives aimed at strengthening gun control and curbing gun violence, with more measures possible in the future, although the White House said such actions would not preclude legislation in Congress, such as the pair of bills aimed at expanding background checks that passed the House last month. “Biden plans to announce his new directives at a White House event accompanied by Attorney General Merrick Garland, as well as advocates for stricter gun laws and lawmakers who have worked on the issue,” report Seung Min Kim and Tyler Pager for the Washington Post.

The orders and directives will require the Justice Department to introduce regulations on “ghost guns,” which are unregistered firearms that can be assembled from parts purchased online, and clarify regulations to ensure that pistols fitted with stabilizing braces will be regulated under the National Firearms Act. Biden will also “ask various agencies to direct more resources to community violence prevention measures, and call on the justice department to develop model “red flag” laws – which allow family members to petition courts to take firearms away from people who are deemed a threat – for states to take up and adopt. Several states, including Colorado, already have red flag laws on the books,” reports Maanvi Singh for the Guardian.

Biden will also nominate David Chipman, a top policy adviser to the gun-control organization Giffords, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, sources say. “The agency, which has not had a permanent director since 2015, is seen as a force within the government to combat gun violence,” reports Sarah Mucha for Axios.

OTHER U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

Chinese hacking groups suspected of carrying out the major cyberattack on Microsoft’s Exchange Server are thought to have succeeded by mining huge amounts of personal data prior to the actual attack. Investigators suspect that prior reconnaissance, in the form of previous hacks and mining information from social media, assisted hackers in their attack on Microsoft’s systems, which was disclosed March 2. “Such a method, if confirmed, could realize long-held fears about the national security consequences of Beijing’s prior massive data thefts. And it would suggest the hackers had a higher degree of planning and sophistication than previously understood,” report Dustin Volz and Robert McMillan report for the Wall Street Journal.

Chris Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said “it is well past time for a 21st-century ‘digital infrastructure investment act,’ where we provide the equivalent of block grants to state and local [government] where they can modernize their IT infrastructure,” responding to a question on ransomware at a Center for Strategic and International Studies panel on the role of Homeland Security in cybersecurity. “Krebs highlighted shifts to cloud-based services and multifactor identification as avenues that such a plan could tap to improve state and local cybersecurity,” reports Joe Uchill reports for SC Magazine.

The Biden administration is looking into 5,600 previously unreviewed cases of migrant children who may have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump-era policies. “A U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told reporters the review seeks to find any separated children beyond those already identified through litigation. The official said the aim is ultimately to reunite any families who remain apart,” report Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg for Reuters.

Trump had restarted his small-donor fundraising operation for the first time since leaving office, in an effort to broaden his financial network ahead of a potential 2024 comeback. “Trump on Wednesday reopened his online merchandise store, which was shuttered following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, when Shopify, the e-commerce company that had been hosting the site, closed it down. The former president’s political operation also sent out text messages to supporters directing them to the store, which is promoting new items like “Don’t Blame Me I Voted for Trump” emblazoned bumper stickers, doormats and yard signs,” reports Alex Isenstadt for POLITICO.

The second week of witness testimony in the criminal trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin “is smashing cops’ ‘Blue Wall of Silence’,” writes Trone Dowd for VICE. “The unspoken bond among police to defend each other, often no matter the circumstances, has continuously hindered investigating and prosecuting officers accused of wrongdoing. But that so-called Blue Wall of Silence is now crumbling around Derek Chauvin.”

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 30.92 million and now killed over 559,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 133.22 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.89 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The U.K. coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7, is now the most common strain of the virus in the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said yesterday. Betsy Klein reports for CNN.

Under 30s in the U.K. will be offered an alternative vaccine to the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended, weeks after some European countries suspended the use of the jab in younger people amid concerns over rare blood clots. Prof. Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England described the move as “a course correction,” with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) making clear in a statement that the benefits still outweigh the risks “for the majority of people.” Helen Collis reports for POLITICO EU.

Critics have said that last week’s joint inquiry report by the World Health Organization and China into the origins of Covid-19 did not investigate all possible origins. A group of scientists this week released an open letter detailing ways for a more thorough investigation to be carried out, arguing that “critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insights into pandemic origins remain inaccessible.” James Gorman reports for the New York Times.

A map and analysis of the vaccine roll out 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.

OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

The Iranian foreign ministry has confirmed that an Iranian cargo ship, the Saviz, suspected of carrying out covert operations for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp since early 2017 was attacked Tuesday in the Red Sea, with images broadcast by Iranian news agencies showing parts of the ship on fire. “Briefing materials from the Saudi military obtained by the Associated Press … showed uniformed men on the Saviz, as well as a variety of antennas on the vessel that Riyadh described as unusual for a commercial cargo ship, suggesting it conducted electronic surveillance. Other images showed the ship had mounts for .50-calibre machine guns,” report Bethan McKernan and Oliver Holmes for the Guardian.

The number of Russian troops stationed along its border with Ukraine is the highest recorded since 2015, The Insider investigative news website reported yesterday, adding,

Russia has no plans to intervene militarily in Ukraine, said Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, “but we are carefully monitoring the situation and depending on how it develops, we will take concrete steps,” he added. Henry Meyer reports for Bloomberg.

China conducted both air and sea military exercises close to Taiwan, in what analysts say was a warning to the self-ruled island and its allies, including the U.S. Brad Lendon repots for CNN. 

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)