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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
The Justice Department has said that it is conducting a review of some long-classified documents that families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks think may describe links between Saudi Arabia’s government and the hijackers, with an eye towards disclosing more of the documents. In a letter to two federal judges in Manhattan overseeing a long-running lawsuit that the victims’ families have brought against Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said that the F.B.I. would review its previous decisions on the case “to identify additional information appropriate for disclosure” and would “disclose such information on a rolling basis as expeditiously as possible.” Katie Rogers, Heather Murphy and Charlie Savage report for the New York Times.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called out bullying in the South China Sea and has warned the U.N. Security Council in a meeting on maritime security that a conflict “would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce.” Blinken’s comments sparked a strong rebuke from China with China’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Dai Bing accusing the United States of “stirring up trouble out of nothing, arbitrarily sending advanced military vessels and aircraft into the South China Sea as provocations and publicly trying to drive a wedge into regional countries.” Michelle Nichols reports for Reuters.
Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud yesterday and repeated a call for progress on human rights, the State Department has said. The State Department statement said that Blinken and the Saudi minister discussed regional security and the attack last month on the tanker Mercer Street in the Arabian Sea, as well as “other regional issues, bolstering security cooperation, Saudi support for a comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen and the need for immediate steps to mitigate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.” David Brunnstrom reports for Reuters.
President Biden released a statement praising the decision of the Justice Department to review previously withheld documents relating to the Sept. 11 attacks, saying it follows through on a campaign promise of his to have the department work to release Sept. 11 records. “As I promised during my campaign, my Administration is committed to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law…in this vein, I welcome the Department of Justice’s filing today, which commits to conducting a fresh review of documents where the government has previously asserted privileges, and to doing so as quickly as possible,” Biden said. Jason Hoffman and Christina Carrega report for CNN.
CIA Director William Burns is set to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week during a trip to the Middle East. Burns is expected to meet David Barnea, director of the Mossad intelligence agency, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli senior defense and intelligence officials. Burns is also expected to visit Ramallah to meet Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Barak Ravid reports for Axios.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is under pressure from lawmakers for withholding information about an attack last year in Kenya that killed three Americans. “The lawmakers said in a letter sent to the Pentagon on Friday that the Defense Department has not responded to numerous requests for information since the Jan. 5, 2020 attack which was sprung by militants on a seaside airfield near the Somali border, and that members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform expect more from the Pentagon and U.S. Africa Command,” Dan Lamothe reports for the Washington Post.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), is calling on the Biden administration to sanction those responsible for the mysterious “Havana syndrome” attacks against U.S. officials across the world. Legislation introduced by McCaul yesterday would require Biden to impose such sanctions “within 60 days after receiving persuasive information that a foreign government is responsible for such attacks.” Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.
Biden is taking an even harder line on Cuba than former President Trump, jettisoning former President Obama’s approach of seeking to improve diplomatic relations. Biden’s recent action in relation to Cuba, includes imposing new sanctions on Cuban officials in the past few weeks, asking government experts to draw up plans for the United States to unilaterally expand internet access on the island and pledging to increase support for Cuban dissidents. “To many Cubans who had hoped for a return to normalized relations…Biden’s approach has been a blow,” Ernesto Londoño and Frances Robles report for the New York Times.
The Taliban took control of two more provincial capitals in Afghanistan yesterday, officials have said. “At the same time, they have been waging an assassination campaign targeting senior government officials in the capital, Kabul,” Rahim Faiez reports for AP.
The U.S. has said that it is up to Afghan security forces to defend Afghanistan after the Taliban captured a sixth provincial capital, along with border towns and trade routes. “It’s their country to defend now. It’s their struggle,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said at a news conference yesterday. Kirby acknowledged that the fighting on the ground was “clearly not going in the right direction,” however he explained that “these are their military forces, these are their provincial capitals, their people to defend, and it’s really going to come down to the leadership that they’re willing to exude here at this particular moment.” Akhtar Mohammad Makoii and Luke Harding report for the Guardian.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan weeks before the official end of the U.S. military mission in the country is putting increased pressure on President Biden. “With fears spiking of a total Taliban takeover, opponents of the withdrawal on Monday sharpened their recriminations of Biden and called on him to reverse course,” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.
The U.S. envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is heading to Qatar to “press the Taliban to stop their military offensive,” the State Department has announced. Several planned rounds of meetings are scheduled in Qatar’s capital over three days this week to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. “Ambassador Khalilzad will be in Doha to help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,” the department added in a statement. Al Jazeera reports.
The Taliban took control of Aybak, the main town of the Samangan province, yesterday, with the capital falling without resistance. Six of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals have now fallen: the capital of Nimruz province, was the first to fall, on August 6, Sheberghan, capital of Jawzjan province, followed a day later, and Kunduz, Sar-e-Pol and Taloqan, fell on August 8. It is likely that further towns will fall to the Taliban whose gains have previously been confined to mostly rural districts. “Bigger regional hubs, including Kandahar in the south, and Herat in the west, are under siege. Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, came close to being overrun last week,” the Economist reports.
The Taliban entered the city of Aybak “without a gunshot” residents have said, as Afghan government forces fled and a former member of the Afghan Parliament and prominent militia commander switched sides to join the Taliban, bringing hundreds of fighters with him. “The city’s fall means that the Taliban have effectively placed a stranglehold on much of Balkh Province and its immensely important capital, Mazar-i-Sharif,” Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Najim Rahim and Sharif Hassan report for the New York Times.
The Taliban are tightening their control of captured territory in northern Afghanistan, moving into government buildings, as residents hide in their homes. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called on regional strongmen to support his embattled government with concerns that the Taliban are in a position to advance from different directions on Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city in the north of Afghanistan whose fall would deal a devastating blow to Ghani’s government in Kabul. Reuters reporting.
Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, has been under siege by the Taliban for the past month. Afghan security forces have been trying to hold the Taliban off from capturing Kandahar – an economic hub essential for trade to and from Pakistan. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fahim Abed report for the New York Times.
The Taliban’s newest gains in Afghanistan are putting Kabul in crisis as Taliban forces are uniting in an assault on northern Afghanistan’s main metropolis of Mazar-e-Sharif. The recent losses have fueled calls for Ghani “to change how he governs or step aside. Kabul could fall to the Taliban within a few weeks unless all political forces opposed to the insurgency unite behind a common war plan, a senior government member warned,” Yaroslav Trofimov, Alan Cullison and Ehsanullah Amiri report for the Wall Street Journal.
As six more Afghan provinces have fallen to the Taliban, Kabul fears that the “country will fall apart.” People across Afghanistan “are flooding into the capital to escape the escalating war, straining resources, pushing up prices for food and fuel, and fraying nerves. The clamor to flee the country is growing as borders are closed, choking the outflow of people and inflow of essential supplies,” Lynne O’Donnell reports for Foreign Policy.
A protracted war in neighboring Afghanistan is Pakistan’s “nightmare scenario,” Pakistan’s national security advisor said yesterday. In comments to foreign journalists, Moeed Yusuf also criticized the blaming of Islamabad for the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and said that the U.S. needs to take the lead to get the Afghan government and the Taliban back to the negotiation table. Kathy Gannon reports for AP.
NORTH KOREA AND SOUTH KOREA
South Korea and the U.S. will begin preliminary military drills today, despite warnings from North Korea that the military exercises would negatively impact any thawing of relations between North and South Korea, the Yonhap news agency reported yesterday. Hyonhee Shin reports for Reuters.
Kim Yo-jong, a key adviser and sister to the North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, has called Seoul’s authorities “treacherous” over South Korea’s “dangerous” joint military exercises with the U.S., warning that the U.S. and South Korea would “face greater security threats” as a result. The yearly summertime military exercises have long been considered by North Korea as rehearsals for invasion. “Kim Yo-jong’s latest remarks come despite a surprise thaw on the Korean peninsula, prompted by a series of personal letters between her brother and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in,” Agence France-Presse reports.
Kim warned that Pyongyang could move to bolster its nuclear and conventional weapons program in response to the major joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea set for this month. “The dangerous war exercises pushed ahead by the U.S. and the South Korean side disregardful of our repeated warnings will surely make them face a more serious security threat,” Kim said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. Min Joo Kim and Simon Denyer report for the Washington Post.
Kim criticized Washington and Seoul for ignoring her earlier warnings to halt the planned military exercise and said that in ignoring her the present U.S. administration proves that engagement and dialogue overtures are nothing but “hypocrisy to cover up its aggressive nature.” “The reality proves that only substantial deterrent, not words, can ensure the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said. Timothy W. Martin reports for the Wall Street Journal.
North Korea is not answering routine calls on the hotline between North Korea and South Korea, South Korea has said. The refusal to answer the calls comes after North Korea issued warnings to South Korea and the U.S. over the two countries’ joint drills. “The two Koreas typically check in over the hotlines twice a day, and North Korean officials answered morning calls as usual on hotlines maintained by South Koreas military as well as on those used by the unification ministry, which handles relations with the North. But when the South made calls in the late afternoon they were unanswered, the unification and defense ministries said,” Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith report for Reuters.
A Texas judge has signed an order temporarily blocking Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan from causing the arrest of the lawmakers who fled Texas last month in an attempt to stop the passage of restrictive voting bills, allowing the lawmakers to return home to continue their protest without fear of being arrested. A hearing is scheduled for August 20 to give Abbott and Phelan a chance to argue “why a temporary injunction should not be issued against them,” the order said. If no action to extend the order is taken, it will expire in two weeks. Dianne Gallagher, Wesley Bruer and Jade Gordon report for CNN.
A federal judge suggested yesterday that federal prosecutors were being too lenient in their handling of cases stemming from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Beryl Howell, the chief judge of the federal court in Washington, “raised questions about why some defendants were being permitted to resolve their criminal cases by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and why the amount of money prosecutors are seeking to recover through those plea deals was based on a relatively paltry estimate of about $1.5 million in damages caused by the rioters,” Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.
A U.S. appeals court yesterday has ordered the release, pending trial, of a man accused of macing a police officer at the Jan. 6 attack and attacking Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick who died in the wake of the attack. “The three-judge panel determined that the district court had ‘clearly erred’ when it determined that George Pierre Tanios could not be released into the community without risk to safety,” Jospeh Choi reports for The Hill.
Chinese and Russian military forces are conducting joint military exercises in northwestern China. The exercises involving ground troops and air forces are due to continue through to Friday in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous region, which borders on the Xinjiang region where China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities. The military drills come as ties grow between the two autocratic states amid uncertainty over instability in Afghanistan. AP reports.
Russia has showcased its new arms at a drill with soldiers from Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo told reporters at the training grounds the drills, which involved 2,500 servicemen, hundreds of armored vehicles and 25 aircraft, were being held with Afghanistan in mind, while Shukhrat Khalmukhamedov, chief of the general staff of the Uzbek armed forces, said that “this situation requires us to remain vigilant and to maintain our combat readiness.” Reuters reporting.
Russia’s attempts to keep peace in Syria are being hindered by renewed fighting between Syrian forces and rebels. Increased fighting in and around Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution and one of the last remaining opposition strongholds in the country, is threatening to unravel a Russian-backed truce between the Syrian regime and the rebels based in Daraa. Jared Malsin and Suha Ma’ayeh report for the Wall Street Journal.
Russia’s new fighter jet is aiming to rival the U.S. in the air and on the geopolitical map. The prototype fighter jet would be the world’s second single-engine fighter plane to incorporate the most sophisticated radar-evasion and command systems, the only other plane in this category being the F-35, which is the most advanced plane in the U.S. arsenal and is in demand internationally. Brett Forrest provides analysis for the Wall Street Journal.
Sergei Kovalyov, a leading Russian dissident, human rights activist and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has died aged 91. “Kovalyov was a tireless advocate for Russian democracy and a bitter critic of Putin and his moves to curb rights groups, freedom of speech and the right to protest,” Robyn Dixon reports for the Washington Post.
President Biden’s administration has imposed another round of sanctions on Belarus. The move marks the anniversary of an election that the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won with 80% of the vote but that many Western governments view as fraudulent. Zolan Kanno-Youngs reports for the New York Times.
Biden issued a sweeping executive order yesterday targeting those in the Belarusian regime involved in the repression of human rights and democracy. “The United States will continue to stand up for human rights and free expression, while holding the Lukashenka accountable, in concert with our allies and partners. Toward that end, today, we are issuing a new Executive Order that enhances our ability to impose costs on the regime and announcing new sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities for their role in attacks on democracy and human rights, transnational repression, and corruption,” Biden said in a statement. Jennifer Hansler reports for CNN.
Biden’s order allows the U.S. government to impose sanctions on additional members of the Lukashenko government, including individuals operating in the security, energy, tobacco, construction and transportation sectors of the Belarusian economy, the White House statement said. Brett Samuels reports for The Hill.
The sanctions issued by the Treasury Department also include sanctions against the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, who is accused money laundering, sanctions evasion and the circumvention of visa bans. Ken Thomas reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Lukashenko has lashed out at the west in an eight-hour news conference where he presented his version of recent events in Belarus. During the conference Lukashenko called Britain an “American lapdog” and said that “the tens of thousands of Belarusians who rose up in mass protests against his disputed re-election last year were a clueless minority… manipulated by the insidious West seeking to cleave his country from Russia. He insisted that his actions were not only justified, but had actually preserved world peace,” Ivan Nechepurenko and Valerie Hopkins report for the New York Times.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
Myanmar’s foreign ministry said yesterday that an alleged plot in New York against Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, an opponent of the ruling military, had nothing to do with the country and was a U.S. domestic case. In the military government’s first statement since the arrest of two Myanmar citizens in relation to the alleged plot, the government also rejected comments made in condemnation by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Reuters reporting.
The new president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, has, in his first phone call to French President Emmanuel Macron, asked Macron to help secure Iran’s “rights” in now-stalled talks to revive Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Raisi, who took office last week, told Macron that the U.S. and E.U. must implement their commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, the official IRNA news agency reported. Nasser Karimi reports for AP.
A flare up in violence with one faction in the national unity government in South Sudan over the weekend may have left as many as several dozen people dead, according to officials. “The flare-up of violence inflamed long-simmering divisions and raised concerns about the future of the tenuous peace agreement signed three years ago by rival ethnic factions led by the country’s president and vice president,” Abdi Latif Dahir reports for the New York Times.
More than 200 children remain abducted in Nigeria amid what has been described as a “kidnap epidemic.” More than 1,000 students have been taken this year as schools in northern Nigeria have become prime targets for “bandit” groups, amid a security crisis in the region. Emmanuel Akinwotu reports for the Guardian.
China has demanded that Lithuania withdraw its ambassador in Beijing and said that it would recall China’s envoy to Vilnius in a row over Lithuania allowing Chinese-claimed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy there using its own name. “Taiwan announced the new mission last month, saying it would be called the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania, the first time the island’s name has been used for one of its offices in Europe, as normally only ‘Taipei’ is used,” Reuters reports.
The coronavirus has infected over 35.9 million and has now killed over 617,300 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been close to 203.50 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.30 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
The Pentagon has moved towards making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for all service members. “I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel — as well as contractor personnel — to get vaccinated now and for military Service members to not wait for the mandate,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo to employees. The White House released a statement in tandem with the Pentagon memo, saying President Biden strongly supports mandating the vaccine. “The Pentagon cannot take the step unilaterally because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the vaccine. The move would require a presidential waiver, which Austin plans to ask for by mid-September,” James Doubek reports for NPR.
U.S. intelligence agencies are digging through scores of genetic data from a lab in Wuhan, China as they seek to uncover the origins of Covid-19. The giant catalog of information contains genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied at the lab in Wuhan, people familiar with the matter have said. However, translating the mountain of raw data into usable information presents range of challenges. “It’s unclear exactly how or when U.S. intelligence agencies gained access to the information, but the machines involved in creating and processing this kind of genetic data from viruses are typically connected to external cloud-based servers — leaving open the possibility they were hacked, sources said,” Katie Bo Williams, Zachary Cohen and Natasha Bertrand report for CNN.
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.