Early Edition: May 25, 2021
Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here. A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
BELARUS European leaders yesterday agreed to impose tougher sanctions on Belarus and to bar E.U. airlines from flying over the country’s airspace, or using their airports, after a passenger plane was forced to land by a MiG-29 fighter jet sent by Belarusian authorities, arresting opposition journalist Roman Protasevich onboard. E.U. leaders described the situation as a “hijacking” of the flight and demanded authorities to release Protasevich.
Mychael Schnell reports for The Hill. Protasevich was paraded on Belarusian television yesterday in what appeared to be a confession to inciting mass riots – his father said the confession was a result of coercion. Daniel Boffey and Andrew Roth report for the Guardian. President Biden condemned the arrest of Protasevich in the “strongest possible terms” and called for an international investigation into the forced diversion of the flight; he also said he had asked his “team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.” “This outrageous incident and the video Mr.
Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” the president said in a statement last night. Kelsey Tomborrino and Len Leonard report for POLITICO. At least six people, including Protasevich and his partner, were forced to leave the plane after it landed in Minsk, Belarus, although the four other people’s identities are unknown, the police commissioner of Lithuania said on Monday, confirming investigations are underway to identify the others onboard and forced to alight in Belarus.
Anton Troianovski reports for the New York Times. Hamas has rejected claims by Belarus that it is to blame for the false bomb threat that supposedly led to the flight being grounded. Al Jazeera reporting. The situation has received international condemnation. “Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, said America ‘strongly condemns’ the ‘shocking act’ …
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called it an ‘unprecedented act of state terrorism.’ NATO branded the incident ‘serious and dangerous.’ Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted: ‘The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,'” reports the Economist. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply concerned over the apparent forced landing” of the plane “and the subsequent detention of …
Protasevich,” said a statement issued by his spokesperson. The U.N. chief urged for “a full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident” and for all parties concerned to cooperate with the inquiry. UN News Centre reporting. Some critics have accused the West, including the U.S., of double-standards and similar tactics to Lukashenko. “It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking,'” Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, wrote on Facebook on Monday, pointing to instances where the U.S. had intervened in international travel, although such did not involve bomb scares or crackdowns on the political opposition. “A report released by Freedom House this year found that there had been 608 cases of ‘direct, physical … transnational repression since 2014, which the organization defines as including state-sponsored assassinations, abductions and assaults that took place across international borders,” reports Adam Taylor for the Washington Post.
What you need to know about Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko by Claire Parker for the Washington Post. “Belarus ‘Hijacking’ Opens New Playbook for Autocrats,” writes Amy Mackinnon for Foreign Policy. “Belarus Is Becoming Europe’s North Korea,” writes Vladislav Davidzon for Foreign Policy.
ISRAEL-PALESTINE Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to the Middle East this week with the aim of bolstering the fragile ceasefire — but he intends to avoid engaging in peace talks that have for years lay dormant as they “currently have almost zero chance of success,” write Lara Jakes, Vivian Yee and Isabel Kershner for the New York Times. Critics have said that Blinken veering clear of any long-term peace talks indicates that the Biden administration is effectively sticking to a decades-old U.S. foreign policy approach that has long failed. “Blinken and the Biden administration don’t have an answer for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
They don’t want to get sucked into what they see as an impossible mission,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Al Jazeera reporting. President Biden spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi yesterday, after both leaders helped broker the Israel-Hamas ceasefire agreement. Biden thanked al-Sisi for Egypt’s “successful diplomacy and coordination with the United States to end the recent hostilities in Israel and Gaza and ensure violence does not reoccur,” a White House readout said, adding that the leaders also spoke about the “urgent need” to provide humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza and “support rebuilding efforts” in a way that “benefits the people there and not Hamas.” Mychael Schnell reports for The Hill.
51% of voters in a May 21-23 Hill-HarrisX poll say they would oppose Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)’s resolution aimed at stopping the planned £735 million U.S. arms sales to Israel, with the 49% saying they would support the measure. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to visit Israel this week for the retirement party of Yossi Cohen, the head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, according to three people with knowledge of the plans – and could cross paths with his successor, Blinken. “A person close to the former secretary of state said the plans are not finalized because of Israel’s Covid protocols.
That person added that Pompeo, a former CIA director, would travel as a private citizen … Pompeo may also meet privately with nongovernmental officials, according to the person, who added that Pompeo alerted Blinken of his plans,” Betsy Woodruff Swan and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO. Israel’s “dependence” on Washington for its “survival” may be coming to an end, with security experts and political analysts saying that the country that once heavily relied on American diplomatic and military support is reaching a point of autonomy. “Israel no longer needs American security guarantees to protect it from neighboring states, with which it has mostly made peace.
Nor does it see itself as needing American mediation in the Palestinian conflict, which Israelis largely find bearable and support maintaining as it is … Once reliant on American arms transfers, Israel now produces many of its most essential weapons domestically. It has become more self-sufficient diplomatically as well, cultivating allies independent of Washington.
Even culturally, Israelis are less sensitive to American approval — and put less pressure on their leaders to maintain good standing in Washington,” writes Max Fisher for the New York Times. The Israeli police have arrested over 1,550 people accused of being involved in recent violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israeli cities. “At least 70 percent of those arrested are Arab citizens of Israel. Three Israeli Jews are charged with the attempted murder of an Arab driver,” reports Isabel Heershner for the New York Times.
Israeli police intend to ramp up arrests targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel this week for their suspected involvement in demonstrations against the recent Israel-Hamas conflict. Al Jazeera reporting. Patients in Gaza with urgent medical needs were still waiting Monday for Israel to allow them to leave the enclave for surgeries, transplants or cancer treatments that halted during the clashes and are unavailable in Gaza. Steve Hendrix and Hazem Balousha report for the Washington Post. U.S.
RELATIONS Russia’s foreign ministry has accused the Biden administration of exceeding the agreed limit of U.S. launchers and bombers under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), expressing concern over Washington’s implementation of the treaty. “In a statement, the ministry said 56 U.S. launchers and 41 heavy bombers had been removed from Washington’s declared arsenal and that Moscow was unable to confirm that they were no longer nuclear-capable. It also said four underground missile silos had also been removed from the count,” reports Reuters.
The “planned” summit between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin may take place in Switzerland next month, one news outlet said. “An advance U.S. mission has already arrived in Geneva for that purpose, the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger added, citing ‘reliable sources.’ Plane spotters reported on Twitter seeing an unusual US cargo aircraft landing at the city’s airport on Sunday,” reports Al Jazeera. U.S. prosecutors yesterday unsealed bribery charges against the Republic of Chad’s former ambassador and former deputy chief of mission to the U.S. and Canada, who stand accused of receiving a £2 million bribe from a Canadian energy company. Dylan Tokar reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Ethiopia’s government has accused the U.S. of meddling after Washington imposed restrictions on economic and security assistance as well as visa restrictions on officials accused of alleged human rights violations in the northern Tigray region. Al Jazeera reporting. A U.S. journalist has been detained by Myanmar’s military junta as he was trying to leave the country. Danny Fenster, the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar magazine, was seized at Yangon International Airport and taken to Insein Prison, his employer has said in a statement. “We do not know why Danny was detained and have not been able to contact him since this morning.
We are concerned for his well-being and call for his immediate release,” the statement said. Shibani Mahtani reports for the Washington Post. RUSSIA PROBE
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is appealing a judge’s order directing it to release in its entirety a legal memo on whether former President Trump had obstructed justice during the Russia investigation. The memo was prepared for then Attorney General William Barr, who cited the opinion as a reason not to pursue obstruction of justice charges against Trump. “U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson earlier this month ordered the Justice Department to release the entire March 2019 memo as part of a public records lawsuit from a Washington-based advocacy organization.
She said the department, under Attorney General William Barr, had misstated the purpose of the document in arguing that it was legally entitled to withhold it from the group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,” Eric Tucker reports for AP. The DOJ has however released to the public a page and a half of the memo. The parts of the memo released “offer a deeper glimpse into why the judge was angry — and indicate that the decision not to accuse Trump of a crime had been the subject of previous conversations among Justice Department leaders,” Devlin Barrett reports for the Washington Post.
Former Trump White House Counsel Don McGahn has agreed to testify about Trump’s attempt to obstruct former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation before the House Judiciary Committee next week. The agreement comes after House Democrats and Biden’s Justice Department struck a deal earlier this month, allowing the closed-door testimony to happen. Jeremy Herb and Katelyn Polantz report for CNN.
IMMIGRATION AND BORDER CONTROL Pressure is building on President Biden to abandon a Trump-era immigration rule that sealed off the U.S. to most migrants during the pandemic. The policy, known as Title 42, allows border agents to turn away migrants on the southern border without allowing them to apply for protections on the basis of preventing coronavirus from spreading in holding facilities. However, human rights officials and two of the Biden administration’s medical consultants have said that the measure endangers vulnerable families.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reports for the New York Times. Biden’s attempts to dismantle Trump’s immigration policies are “being hamstrung by a State Department that’s still operating with limited capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill. “The bureaucratic processing is as important as any formal policy. And right now what we’re seeing is State Department’s broad closures are affecting the vast majority of legal immigrants seeking to come to the United States right now, and not enough is being done to facilitate processing of those applications,” said David Bier, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who analyzed the number of partially closed embassies and consulates.
Democrats have taken a much quieter stance to concerns about conditions at some of the emergency shelters set up by the Biden administration to deal with minors at the southern border, compared to their stance against the Trump’s administration’s treatment of migrant children. “Democratic lawmakers are voicing worries privately to administration officials and the small staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care,” Eilee Sullivan reports for the New York Times. A new report from a Department of Homeland Security watchdog has found that the Trump administration failed to give at least 348 parents the option of reuniting with their children before deporting them under its family separation policy. The U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported “some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country,” the report states. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill. JAN.
6 CAPITOL ATTACK As National Guard troops leave the Capitol tomorrow, officials have warned that the hardened security measures would remain. “They will not be able to return immediately to the open campus where people can openly visit the Capitol because of the strain on the Capitol Police,” has said Ret. Army Lt.
Gen. Russel Honore, who conducted a security review following the attack. Nancy Youssef and Lindsay Wise report for the Wall Street Journal.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden have thanked the National Guard troops. “Since the insurrection on January 6, thousands of proud service members, from states and territories all across our Union, have stood watch over the citadel of our democracy. As they return now to their homes and families, we salute each of them for their commitment to country,” the Bidens wrote in a statement. Kate Sullivan report for CNN.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has thanked the National Guard for their services at the Capitol as they prepare to end the nearly five-month deployment in Washington, D.C. “Many of them volunteered for this duty, and most of them did so on little notice. In good weather and bad — sometimes cold and wet and tired — they provided critical capability to the Capitol Police and local authorities,” Austin said in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has said that we should support a House-passed bill to create an independent commission to probe the Jan.
6 attack on the Capitol. The comments make him the first Republican senator to say that he would vote for the bill, which needs the support of 10 Republicans to pass the Senate.
Jordain Carney reports for The Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called on the Senate to take action on the setting up of a Jan.
6 commission. In the statement, thanking the National Guard for protecting the Capitol, Pelosi said that there is “no time to waste” in setting up the commission.
Olafimihan Oshin reports for The Hill. OTHER DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS The White House has appeared to affirm President Biden’s vow to prevent the Justice Department seizing reporters’ phone data.
The confirmation came from a White House spokesperson who confirmed that the Biden administration would not permit federal prosecutors to seize reporters’ phone and email records in leak investigations, something which would require a potentially major change in law enforcement policy. A spokesperson for Attorney General Merrick Garland, however declined to comment when asked about Biden’s remarks and whether they were now policy. Charlie Savage reports for the New York Times.
A Democratic feud on the reform of military sexual assault bill erupted when Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Committee, objected to a vote on the Senate floor on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s bill. Reed has argued that an annual defense policy bill should “incorporate the [independent] review commission’s recommendations, which focus on sexual assault.
Gillibrand’s bill, however, would go further, removing the commander from felony-level crimes, including sexual assault and murder,” Jordain Carney reports for The Hill. Updating and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years is projected to cost £634 billion, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said in a report published yesterday. The report could inform Biden’s review of U.S. nuclear policy and programs. “Over the coming years, the Congress will need to make decisions about what nuclear forces the United States should field in the future and thus about the extent to which the nation will continue to modernize its nuclear forces,” the CBO report said.
Rebecca Kheel reports The Hill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has received a suspicious package with an unidentified white powdery substance.
The package also featured an image of Paul in bandages with a gun to his head. The FBI and Capitol Hill police are investigating the package. Tara Palmeri reports for POLITICO.
Texas is poised to allow people to carry handguns without a license, and the background checks and training that go with it. “The Republican-dominated Legislature approved the measure Monday, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he will sign it despite the objections of law enforcement groups who say it would endanger the public and police,” AP reports. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has signed a bill which prevents Twitter, Facebook and others from blocking political candidates.
The bill is “aimed at making big tech platforms more accountable for their content decisions, a move with political overtones that appeared likely to draw legal challenges,” John McKinnon reports for the Wall Street Journal. 53% of Republicans view Trump as the true U.S. president according to Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll. The majority of Republicans blame Trump’s loss to Biden on illegal voting according to the poll. Reuters reports.
AFRICA Members of Mali’s military have arrested the country’s acting president Bah N’Daw and prime minster Moctar Ouane, raising fears of a second military coup. The detention follows a cabinet reshuffle that removed two members of the junta that overthrew Mali’s government in August, and has drawn a fierce rebuke from the African Union and others in the international community. “The international body monitoring Mali’s 18-month transition to a civilian-led government — comprising the AU, the West African bloc known as ECOWAS, the United Nations and U.S. officials, among others — said in a statement that it ‘expresses its deep concern’ over the arrests,” Danielle Paquette reports for the Washington Post. The U.N. mission in Mali has called for the immediate release of the country’s president and prime minister.
The mission also called for calm in the West African nation. BBC News reports. Sudan has declared a state of emergency and imposed a night curfew in some parts of the state. The announcement comes after tribal violence that killed at least five people, according to a state news agency. Reuters reports. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is preparing to hear the first war crimes case from Sudan’s Darfur conflict.
Prosecutors have accused Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, who faces 31 charges, including persecution, murder, torture and rape, of being a “feared and revered” militia leader behind a campaign of deadly raids in Sudan’s Darfur conflict. Al Jazeera reports. WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION Taiwan’s government has criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for capitulating to China after Taiwan failed to be invited to the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA) convened by the WHO.
China has blocked Taiwan from participating in the assembly since 2016, however “this month, the countries of the Group of 7 — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — for the first time voiced their joint support for Taiwan’s bid for observer status in the W.H.A., the top decision-making body of the W.H.O. Chinese officials condemned the G-7 announcement as ‘gross interference’ in its internal affairs,” Amy Qin reports for the New York Times. The leaders of France and Germany have backed efforts to strengthen the WHO and make it more independent, with the aim of improving its ability to respond to global health crisis. “The European Union has drafted a proposal to give the W.H.O. powers to rapidly and independently investigate disease outbreaks, bypassing the kind of delays the organization faced from China in trying to investigating the coronavirus outbreak.
But the proposal has run into strong resistance from a number of states, including China and Russia,” Nick Cumming-Bruce reports for the New York Times. OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS GCHQ, the U.K. government’s intelligence and security organization, violated the right to privacy and its regime for collection of data was “not in accordance with the law” in its methods for bulk interception of online communications, ruled the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.
The case was brought by a group of NGOs, including Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, Amnesty and Privacy International, relying on revelations made by Edward Snowden in 2013. Haroon Siddique reports for the Guardian. Iran has reached an agreement with the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to extend for one month the use of surveillance cameras at Iran’s nuclear sites. The announcement, which comes after Iran had previously indicated that the use of cameras would not continue, follows last minute discussions and buys more time “for ongoing negotiations seeking to save the country’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers,” Philipp Jenne and Jon Gambrell report for AP.
Australia has said that it is shutting its embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan due to fears of violence. The announcement comes as the withdrawal of international troops proceeds. In a statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talked of “an increasingly uncertain security environment” in the country.
Shaimaa Khalil reports for BBC News. Russia’s foreign minister has warned Turkey against “fueling Kyiv’s militaristic sentiment.” The statements come after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to support Kyiv last month amid a buildup of Russian forces along its border with Ukraine. Al Jazeera reports. The U.N. has appealed for dialogue in Samoa, where Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the first woman elected as Prime Minister, was locked out of Parliament amid a power struggle with the country’s long-standing leader. A statement issued by the U.N. said that U.N.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “urges the leaders in Samoa to find solutions to the current political situation through dialogue in the best interest of the people and institutions of Samoa.” “The United Nations stands ready to provide support to Samoa if requested by the parties,” it added. UN News Centre reports. A mysterious airbase is being built on a volcanic island off Yemen. The island sits in a crucial maritime chokepoint for energy shipments and commercial cargo.
No country has claimed the airbase, however “officials in Yemen’s internationally recognized government say the Emiratis are behind” it, reports AP. At least 14 people, including two children, have been killed in a remote region of Peru known for the production of cocaine and that authorities believe is being used as a hideout by remnants of the Shining Path movement that battled the government in the 1980s and 1990s. The events have occurred less than two weeks before a presidential election and have been condemned by interim Peruvian President Francisco Sagasti. Al Jazeera reports.
CORONAVIRUS The coronavirus has infected over 33.14 million and now killed over 590,500 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 167.36 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 3.475 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
U.S. intelligence agencies are examining reports of Covid-19 infections in a Wuhan lab in November 2019, a month before the first case of Covid-19 was reported. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has however cautioned that there is still no proof that the disease originated in the lab. “We need data. We need an independent investigation.
And that’s exactly what we’ve been calling for,” Psaki told a news briefing. Mark Hosenball reports for Reuters. The former head of the Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottleib has said that there is growing circumstantial evidence that Covid-19 may have originated in a lab and not nature. “I think the challenge right now is that the side of the ledger that supports the thesis that this came from a zoonotic source, from an animal source, hasn’t budged.
And the side of the ledger that suggests this could have come out of a lab has continued to grow,” said Gottlieb, who now sits on the board of Pfizer. Jospeh Choi reports for The Hill. U.S. citizens have been warned not to travel to Japan due to a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in the country.
The announcement comes as the postponed Tokyo Olympics, which is facing increasing hurdles, nears. Forrest Brown and Michael Callahan 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.