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A curated weekday guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
JAN. 6 ATTACK
A government watchdog has accused the U.S. Secret Service of erasing texts from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, after it requested them as part of an inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack, according to a letter sent to lawmakers this week. Joseph Cuffari, head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, wrote to the leaders of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees indicating that the text messages had vanished and that efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 attack were being hindered. Secret Service spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi has objected to the letter, saying that the agency did not maliciously delete text messages following a request. “In fact, the Secret Service has been fully cooperating with the OIG in every respect – whether it be interviews, documents, emails, or texts,” he said. Maria Sacchetti and Carol D. Leonnig report for the Washington Post.
A Washington, DC, police officer has corroborated to the Jan. 6 committee, details regarding a heated exchange former President Trump had with his Secret Service detail when he was told he could not go to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The officer with the Metropolitan Police Department was in the motorcade with the Secret Service for Trump on Jan. 6 and recounted what was seen to committee investigators, according to a source familiar with the matter. The alleged exchange between Trump and his Secret Service detail, Robert Engel, was first revealed by Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified to the Jan. 6 committee about a second-hand account told to her by then-White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato. Jamie Gangel and Annie Grayer report for CNN.
Members of the Jan. 6 committee are discussing the next steps in their investigation, including whether to seek an interview with former Vice President Mike Pence and potentially Trump. Speaking ahead of a committee meeting yesterday Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R – IL) said the panel could decide to request a written interview with Pence, and may also discuss whether to issue a subpoena to the former vice president. The committee is also weighing whether it will ask Trump to testify, Kinzinger, who will be leading some of the questioning at next Thursday’s public hearing, said. Scott Patterson reports for the Wall Street Journal.
OTHER DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
The House on Thursday passed an $840 billion policy bill that would increase President Biden’s requested Pentagon budget by $37 billion. The bill reflects a growing bipartisan appetite in Congress to raise military spending amid new threats from Russia and China. The legislation would grant a 4.6 per cent pay raise to military personnel, limit the Biden administration’s ability to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey and require top national security agencies to report on and combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in federal law enforcement and the armed forces. While the measure drew wide bipartisan support, passing 329 to 101, Republicans had unanimously opposed the mandate to root out white supremacy, arguing that no such effort was needed. Catie Edmondson reports for the New York Times.
U.S. RELATIONS – THE MIDDLE EAST
Saudi Arabia has taken a small step toward normalizing relations with Israel by agreeing to allow Israeli planes to fly between the two countries, President Biden has said. The announcement, made hours before Biden was scheduled to fly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, comes as Israel is gaining acceptance among some Arab leaders as their shared fears of a nuclear Iran supersede Arab solidarity with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid thanked the Saudi government but said the move was “only the first step” toward full ties. “We will continue working with necessary caution, for the sake of Israel’s economy, security and the good of our citizens,” Lapid added in a statement. The New York Times reports.
Biden will meet Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank today before flying to a summit in Saudi Arabia. His meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be the highest-level meeting between the U.S. and Palestinians since the Palestinians froze ties in a dispute over the closure of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation – the main representative body of the Palestinians – by the Trump administrations in 2018. Matt Murphy and Emily McGarvey report for BBC News.
Whilst Biden indicated yesterday that he would raise the topic of human rights during his meeting with Saudi Arabian leader this week, he would not commit specifically to bring up the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “I always bring up human rights. But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while,” Biden said at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid when pressed on the issue. Khashoggi’s widow has said that the Biden administration promised to bring up her husband’s death during the visit. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.
Orchestrating Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia took 18 months of intense behind the scene negotiations, according to nine current and former U.S. officials. Pulling off the visit was a “herculean effort,” as an official described it after the Saudis demanded nothing short of personal presidential attention to make amends for Biden’s having maligned the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over the murder of Khashoggi. Getting Biden to approve the stop – one which he knew would draw criticism from members of his own Democratic Party – involved months of internal debate and efforts to get the Saudis to take goodwill steps towards his foreign policy priorities. “Even once the president realized the strategic importance of going to meet with the Saudis, he was still hesitant,” one official said. “Ultimately he realized it was unavoidable.” Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube and Andrea Mitchell report for NBC News.
The Iranian military has warned the U.S. and Israel against threatening Iran with force, Iranian media has reported. The warning comes after Biden said he was prepared to use force as a last resort to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. “The Americans and Zionists (Israel) know very well the price for using the word ‘force’ against Iran,'” Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesperson for the Iranian armed forces, was quoted as saying by state media. Reuters reports.
The U.A.E. is working to send an ambassador to Iran as it seeks to rebuild bridges with the country, the president’s diplomatic adviser said today, adding that a confrontational approach to Iran was not something Abu Dhabi supports. The U.A.E. has been trying to balance between superpower ally Washington, new friend Israel and old adversary Iran as it seeks to avoid regional tension that could torpedo its economic ambitions while at the same time building up the Gulf state’s military capabilities. Talking to reporters, adviser Anwar Gargash said that whilst Abu Dhabi still shared concerns about Iran’s regional activities, it wanted to work on finding diplomatic solutions. When asked about talk of an anti-Iran alliance to counter Tehran’s activities, Gargash said a Middle East NATO was a “theoretical” concept and that for Abu Dhabi confrontation was not an option. John Irish reports for Reuters.
OTHER U.S. RELATIONS
The Biden administration will start talks with Kenya on a strategic partnership aimed at stoking growth and investment in Kenya’s economy while also addressing climate change, corruption and regulatory practices. The United States-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership is “an ambitious roadmap” for “economically meaningful outcomes,” according to a press release from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. The partnership was announced virtually by U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai and Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina yesterday. Julia Mueller reports for The Hill.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – FIGHTING
Russian missiles struck the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia yesterday, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 100 others. Officials said Kalibr cruise missiles fired from a Russian ship in the Black Sea damaged a medical clinic, offices, stores and residential buildings in Vinnytsia, a city 167 miles southwest of the capital, Kyiv. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of deliberately targeting civilians in locations without military value. Maria Grazia Murru and Hanna Arhirova report for AP.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – ALLEGATIONS OF INTERNATIONAL CRIMES
Hundreds of Ukrainians, including civilians and local politicians, are being subjected to forced detentions by Russian forces in occupied regions, according to the U.N. Officials said they had verified some 271 cases of forced detentions, with many of those seized facing torture. Separately, a Ukrainian politician has told the BBC that he was waterboarded after being abducted by the Russian military. Matt Murphy reports for BBC News.
A new report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.) has found patterns of violent acts by Russian forces in Ukraine which meet the qualification for crimes against humanity. The report is the latest instance of groups documenting potential war crimes committed by Russian forces. The O.S.C.E. experts who put together the report traveled to Kyiv and met with Ukrainian authorities there as well as Bucha and Irpin, where they found “grave breaches” of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention. The report “found credible evidence” that suggested “some patterns of violent acts which had been repeatedly documented during the conflict,” including “killing, rape abductions or massive deportations of civilians, qualified as a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.” Jeremy Herb, Ellie Kaufman and Kylie Atwood report for CNN.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – GLOBAL RESPONSE
The U.S. yesterday sought to facilitate Russian food and fertilizer exports by reassuring banks, shipping and insurance companies that such transactions would not breach Washington’s sanctions. Enabling those Russian exports is a key part of attempts by the United Nations and Turkish officials to broker a package deal with Moscow that would also allow for shipments of Ukraine grain from the Black Sea port of Odesa, which have been blockaded by the war. The written U.S. clarification came a day after Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and U.N. officials met in Istanbul for talks aimed at resuming Ukraine’s grain exports. Turkey announced that the parties would return next week to sign a deal. Daphne Psaledakis and Michelle Nichols report for Reuters.
The E.U. has “shot itself in the lungs” with ill-considered economic sanctions on Russia, which, unless rolled back, risk destroying the European economy, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. The surge in gas and electricity prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions forced nationalist Orban to curtail a years-long cap on utility prices for higher-usage households on Wednesday, rolling back one of the 59-year-old prime minister’s signature economic policies. “Initially, I thought we had only shot ourselves in the foot, but now it is clear that the European economy has shot itself in the lungs, and it is gasping for air,” Orban, a long-time sanctions critic, told public radio in an interview. Reuters reports.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned as president of Sri Lanka, less than a week after he was forced to flee by a popular revolt. Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker said on Friday that he had accepted the president’s resignation. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena added that Rajapaksa had sent the letter from Singapore on Thursday evening. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would remain as acting president until a new head of state was elected. John Reed, Mahendra Ratnaweera and Oliver Telling report for the Financial Times.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has tendered his resignation after populist coalition partner Five Star withdrew its support in a confidence vote. The former head of the European Central Bank has led a unity government since February 2021. In a statement, he said the pact of trust that had sustained the unity government had gone. However, Italian President Sergio Mattarella has refused to accept his resignation and has called on Draghi to address parliament to provide a clear picture of the political situation. The effect of Mattarella’s intervention is not entirely clear. Mr Draghi is expected to go to parliament next Wednesday – and with sufficient backing could remain in office. Davide Ghiglione and Paul Kirby report for BBC News.
Chinese President Xi Jinping this week made a rare trip to the region of Xinjiang – his first visit there in over eight years. State media outlets showed television footage of Xi being greeted by musicians and dancers in dress traditionally worn by members of the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority, an ethnic group targeted by what the U.S. and other Western governments say is a vast forced assimilation program. China’s government denies it mistreats its ethnic minorities and says Xinjiang policy is a domestic matter. The brief reporting about Xi’s visit appeared to emphasize national unity instead of ethnic divisions. James T. Areddy and Chun Han Wong report for the Wall Street Journal.
The European Commission has decided to sue Hungary over an anti-LGBT law and its refusal to renew the license of Klubradio, a broadcaster critical of the government. The two lawsuits add to a long list of increasingly bitter standoffs between Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the liberal core of the E.U. over human rights and democratic standards. The E.U. executive has previously withheld billions in aid to Hungary over disputes related to gay rights, as well as the independence of its media and courts. Gabriela Baczynska and Charlotte Campenhout report for Reuters.
Hong Kong’s highest court today overturned the conviction of a protester for carrying plastic zip fasteners, with judges warning that the authorities’ expanded interpretation of the law risked creating a “thought crime”. Both the lower courts had ruled that protestor Can Chun-kit intended to use the ties to illegally bind street railings together to build barricades for fights and roadblocks, contrary to section 17 of the Summary Offenses Ordinance. But a panel of five judges on the Court of Final Appeal unanimously overturned both the conviction and sentence today, saying such a wide interpretation “would do violence to the language”. “Furthermore, such a construction would render the scope of section 17 extremely wide and effectively turn the section into a thought crime,” the judges said in their ruling. Greg Torode reports for Reuters.
COVID-19 has infected over 89.29 million people and has now killed over 1.02 million people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 560.41 5million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 6.36 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
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.