Early Edition: April 22, 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

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

Since last year the Pentagon has been investigating suspected directed-energy attacks against U.S. troops, and the likely culprit is Russia, Pentagon officials told lawmakers earlier this year, according to four former national security officials involved in the investigation. “The briefings included information about injuries sustained by U.S. troops in Syria, the people said. The investigation includes one incident in Syria in the fall of 2020 in which several troops developed flu-like symptoms, two people familiar with the Pentagon probe said. A Pentagon spokesperson, however, said the department is not aware of directed-energy attacks against U.S. troops in Syria. The spokesperson declined further comment on the Pentagon’s interactions with Capitol Hill or any internal investigation … The incidents of suspected directed-energy attacks by Russia on Americans abroad became so concerning that the Pentagon’s office of special operations and low-intensity conflict began investigating last year, according to two former national security officials involved in the effort. It’s unclear exactly how many troops were injured, or the extent of their injuries,” Betsy Woodruff Swan, Andrew Desiderio, Lara Seligman and Erin Banco report for POLITICO.

Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote, her first since taking office, to advance the nomination of Colin Kahl, President Biden’s controversial pick to be undersecretary of Defense for policy, to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. “The Senate deadlocked 50-50 on a straight party-line procedural vote to discharge Kahl’s nomination from the Armed Services Committee, requiring Harris to break the tie. She’ll likely have to cast two more tie-breaking votes on Kahl’s nomination before he is confirmed to the No. 3 civilian position at the Pentagon,” report Jeremy Herb and Red Barrett for CNN.

Management and operational challenges plagued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) for years, affecting “its ability to carry out its oversight mission effectively,” Christopher Currie, director of the homeland security and justice team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday, according to his prepared testimony. The hearing addressed preliminary findings from the GAO which offered 21 recommendations for the OIG. The hearing followed reports that DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari blocked investigations into the Secret Service’s involvement in last summer’s Lafayette Square incident following the death of George Floyd, although lawmakers noted that many of the problems predated Cuffari. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

The Justice Department this week convened a new task force, the Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force, to address the growing ransomware cyberattacks on critical U.S. organizations that have spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. The task force will increase training for employees, focus on intelligence sharing across the agency, improve coordination and leverage all investigative leads, and work to identify “links between criminal actors and nation-states,” according to the memorandum. Dustin Volz for the Wall Street Journal.

Senators yesterday introduced a landmark bill aimed at curtailing facial recognition tools and blocking law enforcement agencies from purchasing American’s personal data through “illegitimate” means. “The legislation, dubbed the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, would ban the U.S. government and law enforcement agencies from buying location data and other personal information without a warrant. It was introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) … It would also block the purchase of data that was ‘illegitimately obtained’ via an act of deception, hacking or breach of contract,”  reports Drew Harwell for the Washington Post.

A Capitol Police official directed units outside of the Capitol building on the morning of Jan. 6 to only pursue anti-Trump protesters, not pro-Trump protesters, according to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), chair of the House Administration Committee, who raised the matter while she questioned Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton, who appeared before the panel yesterday to testify about security failures during the Jan. 6 attack. A committee aide said that the panel “is recently in receipt of new documents and emails related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, including materials which brought to light these issues the Chair asked the (inspector general) about today. The committee is continuing to review those documents and emails and intends to review the relevant recorded audio when it is available.” Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

The Justice Department has launched a probe into the Minneapolis Police Department over alleged abuse, discrimination and excessive force, examining whether its officers have a “pattern or practice” violating the civil rights of residents, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced yesterday. “Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department has opened a civil investigation to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing,” Garland said. Carrie Johnson reports for NPR.

BIDEN NOMINATIONS AND SENATE CONFIRMATIONS

President Biden is set to nominate multiple top officials for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Department of Defense and Department of State: Stacey Dixon for Principal Deputy Director at the ODNI; Ely Ratner for Assistant Secretary of Defense, Indo-Pacific Security Affairs; and Rena Bitter for Assistant Secretary of State, Consular Affairs, according to a White House press statement.

A divided Senate yesterday confirmed Vanita Gupta as the No. 3 Justice Department official, associate attorney general, the first such woman of color to serve in the role. Sadie Gurman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate yesterday confirmed Adm. John Aquilino to be the next chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, taking over the role from Adm. Philip Davidson. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

IRAN

The Biden administration indicates that it is open to easing some sanctions on Iran, including those on oil and finance, according to people familiar with the matter. “Two people familiar with the matter said the U.S. is open to lifting terror sanctions against Iran’s central bank, its national oil and tanker companies and several key economic sectors including steel, aluminum and others. A senior European official said Washington has also signaled potential sanctions relief for sectors including textiles, autos, shipping and insurance, all industries Iran was earmarked to gain from in the 2015 agreement,” report Ian Talley, Benoit Faucon and Laurence Norman for the Wall Street Journal.

However, the U.S. has not yet officially confirmed what sanctions could be eased, although a senior department official said: “We have provided Iran with a number of examples of the kinds of sanctions that, we believe, we would need to lift in order to come back into compliance, and the sanctions that we believe we would not need to lift, and we would not lift as part of a return to compliance with the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

“Nuclear talks [in Vienna] have progressed about 60-70%, and if Americans act within the framework of honesty, we will achieve results in a short time,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday, according to the President’s official website. Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood and Nicole Gaouette report for CNN.

Iran has installed additional advanced centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant that was hit by a blast last week, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Wednesday showed. On 21 April 2021, the Agency verified at FEP that: … six cascades of up to 1,044 IR-2m centrifuges; and two cascades of up to 348 IR-4 centrifuges … were installed, of which a number were being used,” the IAEA report to member states said. Reuters reporting.

AFGHANISTAN

Top U.S. military commanders have sought approval from the Pentagon to deploy an aircraft carrier near landlocked Afghanistan to help protect NATO troops in Afghanistan as they withdraw in the coming months. “The request, from Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of Central Command, is en route to the desk of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, military officials said. Mr. Austin is expected to decide soon,” report Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff for the New York Times.

The Taliban has been recording alleged U.S. violations of the conditions set in February 2020 under the Afghan troop withdrawal deal, recording over 1,000 incidents on an Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. “In a way, the spreadsheets’ very existence supported President Biden’s rationale for pulling out completely, even when his generals wanted to stay: A conditions-based withdrawal, as the Pentagon wanted, seemed bound to fail because neither side could agree on whether the other party was even meeting the conditions they had signed on to,” reports Thomas Gibbons-Neff for the New York Times.

The foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey will hold talks in Istanbul on Friday, after a wider Afghan peace conference was postponed earlier this week until after the Holy month of Ramadan. Reuters reporting.

An in-depth explainer on the difference stance the CIA, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency have taken on alleged Russian bounties paid to kill U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, with a focus on the available evidence each agency had in making their respective, differing assessments by Tom Rogan for the Washington Examiner.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Russia launched major military exercises in Crimea on Thursday, including over 10,000 troops and 40 warships, supervised by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Reuters reporting.

Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested a man in Crimea on Thursday on suspicion of treason for allegedly gathering and handing over secret information to Ukraine’s military intelligence about Russia’s naval fleet based in the Black Sea, the RIA news agency reported. Reuters reporting.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday advanced a bill that seeks to deliver aid to Ukraine amid its struggle with Russia as well as pressure companies helping to build Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that many say could deprive Kyiv of profitable transit fees. “The Ukraine Security Partnership Act, which was approved by voice vote, authorizes $300 million in foreign military financing, of which $150 million would be subject to conditions. It needs to be passed in the full Senate and House of Representatives and signed by President Joe Biden to become law,” Reuters reporting.

OTHER U.S. RELATIONS

The House yesterday passed the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act of 2021, aimed at restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the killings of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The bill was passed by 350 to 71 votes, although it’s unclear if it will pass the Senate. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are urging the House Appropriations Committee to fully fund the $3.8 billion in annual security assistance to Israel. “Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fl.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee, sent a letter Thursday to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Appropriations Committee, chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and ranking member Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas),” reports Laura Kelly for The Hill.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday advanced sweeping legislation to push back against China on issues including human rights, economic competition and international influence. “The 21-1 panel vote sends The Strategic Competition Act to the floor for a full chamber vote. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) cast the lone vote opposing the legislation,” reports Tal Axelrod for The Hill.

President Biden is expected to soon formally announce that the massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century constituted genocide, a U.S. official said.  Lara Jakes reports for the New York Times.

NATO will hold a summit on June 14 in Brussels, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday. “This is a unique opportunity to reinforce NATO as the enduring embodiment of the bond between Europe and North America. We will take decisions on our substantive and forward-looking NATO 2030 agenda to deal with the challenges of today and tomorrow: Russia’s aggressive actions, the threat of terrorism, cyber attacks, emerging and disruptive technologies, the security impact of climate change, and the rise of China,” a statement by Stoltenberg read. The summit will follow a G-7 meeting of leaders in Britain. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 31.86 million and now killed over 569,400 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 143.95 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 3.06 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Around one-third of service members have been partially or fully vaccinated against Covid-19, new Pentagon numbers show. “459,921 troops are fully vaccinated while another 280,667 have received a first shot. Combined, the numbers represent 28 percent of the 2,603,081 doses the U.S. military has administered,” reports Ellen Mitchell for The Hill.

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspection report released yesterday finds unsanitary conditions and other serious failures at the Emergent BioSolutions manufacturing plant in Baltimore that has previously been criticized for ruining 15 million doses worth of raw Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Laurel Wamsley reports for NPR.

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. 

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)