Early Edition: April 20, 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. DEVELOPMENTS

The Biden administration is “standing down” its two unified coordination groups (UCGs) — made up of the FBI, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — tasked with responding to recent major cyberattacks such as the hacks on SolarWinds and Microsoft’s Exchange Server, said Anne Neuberger, President Biden’s deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology. “The Biden Administration is undertaking a whole-of-government effort – working closely with Congress, the private sector, and allies and partners around the world – to build back better in new and innovative ways, to modernize our cyber defenses and enhance the nation’s ability to quickly and effectively respond to significant cybersecurity incidents,” Neuberger said. “The administration will also shortly roll out an executive order aimed at improving federal cybersecurity following both the recent incidents, and CISA ordered all federal agencies to investigate and immediately patch their systems against both the Microsoft vulnerabilities and those used in the SolarWinds hack,” reports Maggie Miller for The Hill.

Acting Secretary of the Army John Whitley has authorized a request by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for the activation of around 250 unarmed National Guard troops through May 9 to support the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department with traffic management and safety at downtown public transportation stations as the capital braces for potential protests and unrests ahead of the jury verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. “Christopher Rodriguez, the city’s head of emergency management, said the District wanted unarmed members of the Guard to help manage traffic downtown and enhance security at Metro stations. The request includes a ‘quick reaction force,’ which could be deployed in the event of ‘large-scale protests, Rodriguez said,” Marissa J. Laing and Julie Zauzmer report for the Washington Post.

Civil liberties groups, including American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), yesterday asked the Supreme Court to consider whether Americans have a right to access decisions handed down by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). “The filing comes after [FISC] and an associated review panel issued rulings in September and October saying they lacked authority even to consider a public claim under the First Amendment to their secret decisions and lawmaking,” Spencer S. Hsu report for the Washington Post.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis yesterday signed into law a controversial “pro-law enforcement” bill that seeks to crack down on riots and property damage, despite criticism from Democrats who argue it will have a chilling effect on the right to peaceful protest. “Titled the ‘Combating Public Disorder Act,’ the law creates two new crimes of “mob intimidation” and doxing an individual, or electronically publishing someone’s personal information with the intent that the person would be threatened or harassed … it will increase penalties for assault, battery, burglary and theft, and battery against a law enforcement officer during a riot, as well as prohibit the damaging or defacing of memorials or historic property,” report Paul Le Blanc and Maria Cartaya for CNN.

Brandon Hole, the FedEx shooter who killed eight employees at a facility in Indianapolis, browsed White supremacist websites around a year before the attack, according to a police report released yesterday. “Yet after the incident, prosecutors did not try to use Indiana’s “red-flag law,” which could have prevented Hole from obtaining the two guns he used in his mass shooting last week, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said at a news conference Monday,” Katie Shepherd report for the Washington Post.

JAN. 6 CAPITOL ATTACK

Two leaders of the Proud Boys — Ethan Nordean, 30, of Seattle and Joseph Randall Biggs, 37, of Ormond Beach, FL — have been jailed pending trial after their bail applications were denied by U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly of Washington who said that although both men “lacked most of the usual markers of dangerousness” relied on by other judges to detain other Jan. 6 defendants, Nordean and Biggs “are alleged by their leadership and planning to have facilitated political violence on January 6th, even if they themselves did not carry a weapon or strike a blow.” “The defendants stand charged with seeking to steal one of the crown jewels of our country, in a sense, by interfering with the peaceful transfer of power,” Judge Timothy Kelly said while explaining his decision, adding, “It’s no exaggeration to say the rule of law and … in the end, the existence of our constitutional republic is threatened by it.” Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.

Right-wing social media app Parler could be reinstated on Apple’s app store after it was banned in January over its ties to the Jan. 6 attack. “In a letter to two Republican lawmakers in Congress, Apple said it has been in ‘substantial conversations’ with Parler over how the company plans to moderate content on its network … Apple declined to comment beyond the letter, which didn’t provide details on how Parler plans to moderate such content. In the letter, Apple said Parler’s proposed changes would lead to approval of the app,” AP reporting.

Russia and China “weaponized” QAnon conspiracies in the months leading up to and following the Capitol attack, analysis by The Soufan Center concluded, a New York-based research firm with a focus on national security threats, adding that QAnon beliefs pose a growing domestic terrorism threat. “Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran also contribute to amplifying the QAnon conspiracy theory online to reach a broader audience,” the report says, adding, “Such activity blurs the line between domestic and foreign disinformation, representing a significant challenge for the U.S. government and international action.” Zachary Cohen reports for CNN.

Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick suffered two strokes and died of natural causes a day after he confronted mobs at the Capitol, the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office ruled yesterday.  Sicknick was initially thought to have potentially died following an allergic reaction to a chemical irritant that was sprayed by mobs, but the autopsy found no such evidence. “His death was the result of natural causes, not a homicide, and was not hastened by an injury, according to the report. Two men were charged last month with assaulting Sicknick with bear spray, although no homicide charges were filed. The latest report will likely make it more difficult for federal prosecutors to pursue such charges related to Sicknick’s death,” Benjamin Din reports for POLITICO.

Some Senate Democrats — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (IL) — are standing up for Jan. 6 defendants in solitary confinement. While Warren supports solitary confinement in some circumstances, she fears that it is being used on Jan. 6 defendants as a way to “punish” them specifically or to “break them so that they will cooperate.” Kyle Cheney, Andrew Desiderio and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.

IMMIGRATION

The Supreme Court yesterday appeared unlikely to rule that around 400,000 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally and were granted temporary stay on humanitarian grounds may seek permanent residency. “The Biden Justice Department opposed the Salvadoran couple who brought the case, separating the administration from its usual allies on immigration matters … The issue concerns as many as 400,000 immigrants who have temporary protected status (TPS), which means the United States is allowing them to stay because of unsafe conditions or crises in their native countries. There are 12 countries on that list, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, among them El Salvador, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria,” reports Robert Barnes for the Washington Post.

UNICEF said in a statement that there has been a massive influx of children attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico: since the start of 2021, there has been an increase from 382 to nearly 3,500 child immigrants housed in Mexican detention centers. Half of those children, coming primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, travelled to the border without their parents – “one of the highest proportions ever recorded in Mexico”, the group said. Al Jazeera reporting.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki yesterday defended President Biden’s goal of increasing the annual cap on refugee admissions to 62,500, stressing it had always been “aspirational” but that Biden remains committed to increasing the cap above the 15,000 Trump-era level. “We have every intention to increase the cap and to make an announcement of that by May 15 at the latest, and I expect it will be sooner than that,” Psaki told reporters at an afternoon briefing, adding, “The president also remains committed to pursuing the aspirational goal of reaching 125,000 refugees by the end of the next fiscal year.” Morgan Chalfant reports for The Hill.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have been ordered by the Biden administration to stop referring to immigrants in the U.S. as “alien,” “illegal alien” and “assimilation,” reveals a memo sent yesterday to the heads of the two immigration enforcement agencies. “Alien” will become “noncitizen or migrant,” “illegal” will become “undocumented,” and “assimilation” will change to “integration.” Maria Sacchetti reports for the Washington Post.

U.S. RELATIONS

Drafted proposals are underway for the U.S. and Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, officials involved in the Vienna talks said yesterday. Karen De Young reports for the Washington Post.

A joint U.S.-Russia summit, recently discussed by both countries’ presidents, rests on the U.S.’s further actions, RIA cited Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying on Tuesday. Reutersreporting.

U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, will be returning to the U.S. this week for consultations, amid growing tension between the two countries, with the Kremlin recently recommending that Sullivan leave Russia during what it described as “an extremely tense situation.” “I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Sullivan said in a statement Tuesday, adding, “Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit. I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between presidents Biden and Putin.” Andrew Roth reports for the Guardian.

A Russian fighter jet yesterday intercepted and escorted U.S. and Norwegian patrol aircraft over the Barents Sea, the Russian Defense Ministry said. A Pentagon official told The Hill that the Defense Department was “aware of the reports.” Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 31.73 million and now killed over 567,700 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 142.14 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 3.03 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay were eligible for Covid-19 vaccines as of yesterday, a U.S. Southern Command spokesperson said in a statement. Carol Rosenberg reports for the New York Times.

The “State Department has delivered Covid vaccines to all of its eligible workforce deployed abroad as of Sunday and is expecting its entire workforce to have been fully vaccinated by mid-May, State Department officials said,” reports Reuters. .

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.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Over 100,000 Russia troops are stationed along Ukraine’s border and in annexed Crimea, the office of the E.U.’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said following a briefing to E.U. foreign ministers by Ukraine’s foreign minister. “In a press conference on Monday, Borrell had originally spoken of more than 150,000 troops, and declined to give a source for the figure … His office later corrected the number to more than 100,000 troops without giving a reason for the change,” Reuters reporting.

Borrell said it will only take “a spark” to ignite a confrontation between Ukraine and Russia. “Despite the developments, Borrell said after a virtual meeting of the EU foreign ministers that, ‘for the time being, there is no move in the field of more sanctions’ to be imposed on Russia … He also said there wasn’t a request for a synchronized EU diplomatic move of expulsions in the standoff between Czech Republic, an EU member state, and Russia following Prague’s accusation that Moscow was involved in a 2014 ammunition depot explosion,” AP reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

The Center for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), an arm of U.K. intelligence agency MI5, said its assessment that around 10,000 U.K. nationals had been approached by foreign spies in the last five years was in fact a “conservative estimate”, reports Helen Warrell reports for the Financial Times.

The E.U. imposed sanctions on 10 Myanmar military leaders and two military conglomerates, its toughest crackdown so far. “Announcing the sanctions on Monday, which include asset freezes and visa bans, E.U. member states said the individuals were ‘all responsible for undermining democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar/Burma, and for repressive decisions and serious human rights violations,’” Al Jazeera reporting.

“Southeast Asian countries will discuss the crisis in Myanmar at a summit in Jakarta on Saturday, the ASEAN bloc’s secretariat said on Tuesday, but Thailand’s prime minister said several will be represented only by their foreign ministers,” reports Reuters.

“The French government bears ‘significant’ responsibility for ‘enabling a foreseeable genocide,’ a report commissioned by the Rwandan government concludes about France’s role before and during the horror in which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in 1994,” reports AP 

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)