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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.
North Korea has fired a ballistic missile without warning over Japan for the first time in five years, in a significant escalation in its weapons testing program. The missile flew a distance of about 4,600 kilometers (2,858 miles), with an altitude of some 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and a top speed reaching Mach 17 – meaning 17 times the speed of sound, according to Japanese officials. North Korea usually fires its missiles into waters off the coast of the Korean Peninsula – making this flight over Japan considerably more provocative, for both practical and symbolic reasons. This kind of unannounced launch could pose risk to aircraft and ships, and if the test failed, could have endangered major population areas. Jessie Yeung, Yoonjung Seo, Brad Lendon and Emiko Jozuka report for CNN.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – ANNEXATION OF UKRAINIAN TERRITORIES
Russia’s upper house of parliament unanimously sanctioned the accession of four Ukrainian regions into Russia today in violation of international law. The Federation Council passed the constitutional laws on the annexation of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People’s Republic, and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. The lower house, the State Duma, yesterday voted unanimously to authorize the illegal annexation, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported. Anna Chernova and Radina Gigova report for CNN.
As Russia’s parliament moves to approve President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex four parts of Ukraine, there remains uncertainty about the exact boundaries of the territories Russia is attempting to absorb. Russian forces have suffered a series of surprising defeats in eastern Ukraine, forcing them to retreat and abandon several positions in areas the Kremlin declares it is annexing. For instance, much of the territory Moscow claims as its own in the Donetsk region is under the control of Ukrainian forces. Similarly, pro-Russian officials yesterday said that Ukrainian forces had pushed into the Luhansk region – another area that is set to be annexed. Ukrainian forces are also advancing in Kherson. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow needed to “continue consulting” with the local populations before establishing its borders. Olga Voitovych and Joshua Berlinger report for CNN.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – UKRAINIAN COUNTER-OFFENSIVES
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought to reassure Ukrainians living in territory the country has reclaimed that they will be treated fairly. “Our approach has always been and remains clear and fair: If a person did not serve the occupiers and did not betray Ukraine, then there is no reason to consider such a person a collaborator,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly speech. “Hundreds of thousands of our people were in the temporarily occupied territory,” he said. “Many helped our military and special services. Many simply tried to survive and waited for the return of the Ukrainian flag,” he added. Zelenskyy also assured those in recaptured territory that his government was focused on getting their lives back to normal as soon as possible. Juston Jones reports for the New York Times.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – U.S. RESPONSE
The U.S. is considering responses to possible Russian escalation in Ukraine, including its potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. In particular, the U.S. has been developing contingency plans in the event that Russia escalates through what one source called a “nuclear display,” such as a potential military strike on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, or the detonation of a nuclear device at high altitude or away from populated areas. Yesterday, John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said the U.S. is “closely” watching Russia’s actions at the Zaporizhzhia power plant amid concerns that Putin could escalate his war with Ukraine and has been “thinking through” the response for any potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia. Although the U.S. hasn’t seen anything that has changed U.S. strategic posture, “we’re watching this as closely as we can,” Kirby said. Jim Sciutto reports for CNN.
U.S. RELATIONS – IRAN
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday condemned the protests in Iran as a foreign plot by the U.S. and Israel to destabilize the country. Breaking weeks of silence on the issue he told a cadre of police students in Tehran that “these riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees.” He described scenes of protestors ripping off their state-mandated headscarves and setting fire to mosques, banks, and police cars as “not normal” and “unnatural.” His comments come as nationwide protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police entered a third week. AP reports.
The U.S. will take “further action” against “perpetrators of violence against peaceful protesters” in Iran, President Biden said yesterday. “I remain gravely concerned about reports of the intensifying violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iran, including students and women, who are demanding their equal rights and basic human dignity,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. The U.S. has already worked to facilitate greater Internet access, and is “holding accountable” Iranian entities that use violence, Biden said. Olivia Olander reports for POLITICO.
Tehran has temporarily released Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, after seven years of detention in what could be preparation for a prisoner swap between Iran and the U.S.. A U.N. spokesperson also said that Siamak’s father had been permitted to leave the country for medical treatment. A broader prisoner swap deal could lead to the unfreezing of Iranian funds held at South Korea’s central bank, a diplomat aware of the negotiations, said. Qatar, the U.N., and Switzerland have been involved in the negotiations, the diplomat said. Najmeh Bozorgehr and Andrew England report for the Financial Times.
Just Security has published an article by Mani Mostofi titled “How Biden Can Bring Detained Americans in Iran Home.”
OTHER U.S. RELATIONS
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met yesterday with Colombia’s newly elected leftist president, Gustavo Petro. Whilst the U.S. has historically close ties with Colombia, differences in views between Petro and the Biden administration on issues such as Cuba, the drug war, and Venezuela’s anti-American leadership, has put the relationship under strain. However, in a joint news conference with Petro, Blinken downplayed any differences. “We’ve been listening to each other, and we’re learning from one another,” he said. The meeting marks the beginning of a 5 day trip by Blinken through South America, where he will also meet with the newly elected left-wing leaders in Chile and Peru. Michael Crowley reports for the New York Times.
JAN. 6 ATTACK
Opening statements were delivered yesterday in the trial of the Oath Keepers accused of plotting the Jan. 6 attack. Five alleged members of the far-right militia, including its leader Stewart Rhodes, are on trial in Washington DC’s federal courthouse. They have pleaded not guilty to the charge of seditious conspiracy, a charge rarely brought by the Justice Department, and other charges. During the prosecution’s opening statement assistant, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told the jury that the defendants “tried to change history” and “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of democracy.” Lawyer for Rhodes, Philip Linder, however, argued that Rhodes and his subordinates had never planned an attack against the government on Jan. 6. Instead, Linder said the Oath Keepers were waiting for former President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act — a move, they claim, that would have given the group standing as a militia to employ force of arms in support of Trump. Linder also called the Oath Keepers a “peacekeeping force,” arguing that they went to Washington to provide security for speakers and dignitaries. Alan Feuer reports for the New York Times.
The National Archives alerted lawyers for former President Trump in May 2021 that Trump’s letters with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un were missing, according to new correspondence released by the Archives yesterday. The correspondence, released in response to dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, shows that Gary Stern, general counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration, wrote to former Trump White House lawyers Patrick Philbin, Mike Purpura and Scott Gast on May 6, 2021, alerting them that the letters Trump had exchanged with Kim and the letter he received from his predecessor, President Barack Obama, were missing. In the email, Stern asked for the lawyers’ help to ensure the Archives received all presidential records as required under law. The correspondence provides additional detail showing how the Archives engaged with Trump’s team for months before he handed over 15 boxes of materials in January that had been housed at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Jeremy Herb and Elizabeth Stuart report for CNN.
In early 2022 Trump asked one of his lawyers to tell the National Archives that all materials requested by the agency had been returned, but the lawyer declined because he was not sure the statement was true, according to sources familiar with the matter. Alex Cannon, an attorney for Trump, had facilitated the January transfer of 15 boxes of presidential records from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives after archives officials agitated for more than a year to get “all original presidential records” back. Once these 15 boxes had been returned Trump asked his Cannon to send a message to archive officials saying that Trump had returned everything to the archives. However, Cannon told Trump he could not tell the archives all the requested material had been returned. He told others he was not sure if other documents were still at Mar-a-Lago and would be uncomfortable making such a claim, the people familiar with the matter said. Other Trump advisers also encouraged Cannon not to make such a definitive statement, people familiar with the matter said. Attempts by Trump to get his representatives to falsely state he had no presidential records in his possession could serve as evidence that he was intentionally and knowingly withholding documents. Josh Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany report for the Washington Post.
U.S. SUPREME COURT CASES
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether social media platforms may be sued despite a law that shields the companies from legal responsibility for what users post on their sites. The case, Gonzalez v. Google, No. 21-1333, brought by the family of a woman killed in a terrorist attack, argues that Youtube’s algorithm recommended videos inciting violence. The case concerns Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that says online companies are not liable for transmitting materials supplied by others. The court’s decision to explore whether the immunity conferred by the law has limits could have vast significance. Whilst tech companies have argued that the law gives them complete protection, a growing number of bipartisan lawmakers, academics, and activists have grown skeptical of Section 230. In recent years they have advanced a new argument: that platforms forfeit their protections when their algorithms recommend content, target ads, or introduce new connections to their users. Adam Liptak and David McCabe report for the New York Times.
The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments today in a major legal battle as the state of Alabama defends a Republican-drawn electoral map faulted by lower court judges for diluting the clout of Black voters. A three-judge federal court panel invalidated the map delineating the boundaries of Alabama’s seven U.S. House of Representatives districts. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in February, let Alabama use the map for the Nov. 8 U.S. congressional elections in which Republicans are trying to regain control of Congress. The Supreme Court will today hear two consolidated cases brought by Black voters challenging the legality of the map. The dispute gives the court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, a chance to further roll back protections contained in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Andrew Chung and Nate Raymond report for Reuters.
OTHER DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
Former President Donald Trump’s first secretary of State took the stand yesterday in the foreign agent trial of Trump’s longtime friend Tom Barrack. Rex Tillerson, who served as the Trump administration’s top diplomat for a little over a year, testified that he was unaware that Barrack was relaying nonpublic information about the Trump administration’s discussions to officials from a foreign government or that he was otherwise involved in Trump’s foreign policy deliberations. Tillerson is the first member of Trump’s administration to testify in the trial, which began last month. Barrack stands accused of acting as a foreign agent of the United Arab Emirates without notifying the attorney general, and of obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI. Caitlin Oprysko reports for POLITICO.
Former President Trump filed a defamation lawsuit yesterday against CNN, accusing the network of engaging in a smear campaign against him in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential race. The suit accuses CNN of associating him with Adolf Hitler and portraying him as a Russian lackey and a racist. The network, he alleges, has been escalating these efforts recently in the expectation that he may run for president again in 2024. Trump is seeking more than $475 million in damages. The former president’s suit must clear a high legal bar. To win a defamation lawsuit, public figures must prove that a news organization acted with actual malice and either knowingly published a false statement or showed a reckless disregard for the truth. Laura Kusisto reports for the Wall Street Journal.
COVID-19 has infected over 96.44 million people and has now killed over 1.06 million people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 618.652 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 6.55 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
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.