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Early Edition: October 8, 2021

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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.

CHINA AND TAIWAN

The U.S. secretly maintained about two dozen special-operations soldiers and an unknown number of marines in Taiwan to train Taiwanese forces for at least the last year, U.S. officials have said. U.S. troops have not been permanently based in Taiwan since 1979 when the U.S. established diplomatic relations with China. The trainers in Taiwan rotate in and out so there is not a permanent troop presence on the island and the troops are part of U.S. efforts to shore up Taiwan’s defenses as concern regarding potential Chinese aggression towards the island mounts. Gordon Lubold reports for the Wall Street Journal.

China has reiterated calls for the U.S. to cut off ties with Taiwan, in a cautious response to reports that U.S. marines and special-operation soldiers have been stationed on Taiwan for more than a year. “Asked about the reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian avoided attacks on Washington and instead repeated standard Beijing talking points, saying that the United States should recognize the ‘high sensitivity’ of the issue and halt military contact with Taiwan,” Christian Shepherd and Michael E. Miller report for the Washington Post.

CIA Director William Burns is establishing a major organization within the CIA focused on China. The China Mission Center is part of agency wide pivot towards China, with Burns citing an “increasingly adversarial Chinese government” in his announcement. The China Mission Center will bring together case officers who recruit spies, intelligence analysts, technology experts and other specialists in a single unit. The spy agency will also recruit and train more Mandarin speakers and deploy China specialists around the world, reflecting the global nature of U.S.-China competition, a senior Central Intelligence Agency official said,” Warren P. Strobel reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Two lawmakers have called for an end to the U.S.’s “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan in conversations with POLITICO. “I think that removing the ambiguity would be good,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ranking member of its personnel subcommittee, said. Likewise, Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the chair of its Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, agreed that he backs a “move away from strategic ambiguity.” Quint Forgey and Alexander Ward report for POLITICO.

Taiwan does not seek military confrontation but will do whatever it takes to defend its freedom, President Tsai Ing-wen said today. Taiwan “hopes for a peaceful, stable, predictable and mutually beneficial coexistence with its neighbors. But Taiwan will also do whatever it takes to defend its freedom and democratic way of life,” Tsai told a security forum in Taipei. Reuters reports.

Just weeks before a critical U.N. climate summit in Glasgow attention is focused on China and whether it will do more to cut emissions. China’s leader Xi Jinping has promised that China will start reducing carbon dioxide and other gases generated by burning coal, gas and oil by 2030 and then stop adding them to the atmosphere altogether by 2060. But climate scientists warn that nations must make a sharp turn away from fossil fuels now. “We want to see ambition from China,” said Alok Sharma, a member of the U.K. Parliament who is overseeing the international climate negotiations. “China is responsible for almost a quarter of all global emissions right now. And they are going to be a critical part of making sure that we get success.” Keith Bradsher and Lisa Friedman report for the New York Times.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping told Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, in a call today that the two nations should handle sensitive issues such as Taiwan “appropriately.” The Communist Party’s official People’s Daily reported the call between the two leaders, quoting Xi as saying to Kashida that “at present, China-Japan relations have both opportunities and challenges.” Xi also told Kishida that China and Japan should actively strengthen their dialogue and economic policy coordination and promote regional cooperation, the People’s Daily reported. Reuters reports.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has raised fears Beijing “could lash out disastrously very soon,” during a keynote address to a regional forum in Taipei today. Abbott referred to growing tensions over the future of Taiwan and called on Beijing to “scale back the aggression,” arguing that the U.S. and Australia could not stand idly by. Daniel Hurst reports for the Guardian.

U.S. RELATIONS

Iranian state TV has reported that speedboats belonging to Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard intercepted U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf. Footage was aired by the Iranian report showing at least one vessel with the U.S. flag and several personnel on board as at least two speedboats appear to be chasing it. A U.S. Navy spokesperson said he was not aware of any such encounter at sea over the past days. Associated Press reporting.

The U.S. and Mexico are developing a new security framework for the two countries that is more “holistic” in addressing crime and will tackle a broader range of issues than the previous initiative. Cabinet secretaries from both countries are scheduled to meet in Mexico City today to advance what is being called the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities, which would bring an end to the Merida Initiative, which governed much of the U.S.-Mexico security relationship during the past 13 years. Christopher Sherman reports for AP.

U.S. and Pakistani officials are meeting today amid a worsening relationship between the two countries over the way forward on engaging with Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is meeting with Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, considered the leading architect of Pakistan’s Afghan strategy, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quresh. Katy Gannon reports for AP.

Turkey has asked to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes from the U.S., sources have said. “The potential deal, worth billions of dollars, is still working its way through the Foreign Military Sales process, which is subject to approval by the U.S. State Department, as well as the U.S. Congress, which can block any such deal,” Humeyra Pamuk and Mike Stone report for Reuters.

The U.S. wants nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna to restart “soon,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said yesterday. “We hope their definition of soon matches our definition of soon,” Price said in a press briefing. “We would like negotiations to resume in Vienna as soon as possible,” he added. Lexi Lonas reports for The Hill.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the BBC that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about actions that undermine peace in the Taiwan Strait. In his remarks, Sullivan also warned the British government that suspending the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit deal would be a “serious risk to stability,” and he warned Russia against exploiting the growing energy crisis in Europe, BBC News reports.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his new Japanese counterpart, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu, “shared their concerns” about North Korea in a call on Wednesday. A statement from State Department spokesperson Ned Price added that, during the call, Blinken and Motegi maintained that the U.S.-Japan alliance is “the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” Jordan Williams reports for The Hill.

Officials have pledged U.S. assistance for Haiti on migration and stability, as the number of U.S.-bound Haitian migrants temporarily stuck in northern Colombia rises to about 20,000. “It’s forming a human bottleneck,” a senior U.S. official told reporters. “As the U.S. continues to expel Haitian migrants, the senior official said the U.S. government would like regional conversations with countries affected by the ongoing migration in hopes of creating a collaborative approach,” DÁnica Coto reports for AP.

Just Security has recently published a piece by Camilo Pérez-Bustillo on how “US Brutality Against Haitian Migrants Highlights US-Mexico Collusion and Repositioning In Latin America.”

JAN. 6 ATTACK

An attorney for former President Trump has asked former aides not to comply with congressional subpoenas issued by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks. The letter asked that the witnesses do not provide testimony or documents related to their “official” duties and to invoke any immunities they have “to the fullest extent permitted by law.” The witnesses—former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, former deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino, former adviser Stephen Bannon, and former Pentagon chief of staff Kash Patel—had until midnight yesterday to produce documents in response to their subpoenas. The subpoenas also called on Patel and Bannon to testify on Oct. 14, and Meadows and Scavino to testify on Oct. 15. Luke Broadwater and Maggie Haberman report for the New York Times

The letter from Trump tells his former aides that the Jan. 6 committee is seeking materials covered by executive privilege, as well as other privileges. “President Trump is prepared to defend these fundamental privileges in court,” the letters, first reported on by POLITICO, said, directing the recipient to “hold back any documents about his White House work and to refuse to testify about his official duties,” Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO.

Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the Chair of the Jan. 6 select committee, said that the committee may issue criminal referrals for witnesses who do not comply with subpoenas and subpoena deadlines. Fights to enforce subpoenas will likely spark litigation. Luke Broadwater and Maggie Haberman report for the New York Times

Analysis of what may happen if subpoenas from the Jan. 6 select committee are ignored, and what it means for the committee, is provided by Paul LeBlanc reporting for CNN.

The Jan. 6 select committee has issued subpoenas to the architect of the “Stop the Steal” rally Ali Alexander; the corporation behind the rally, Stop the Steal LLC; and Nathan Martin, who was connected to permit applications for the rally. Alexander said in a since-deleted video that he worked with Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Mo Brooks (R-AL), and Andy Biggs (R-AZ) to interfere with the certification. Hugo Lowell reports for the Guardian

An individual accused in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has told the FBI that Joseph Biggs, a leader of the far-right group Proud Boys, directed him to challenge the police at a key moment in the Jan. 6 attack. Ryan Samsel was captured on video briefly speaking outside the building with Biggs, minutes before Samsel walked to the front of the crowd and started to shove aggressively at a barricade – a pivotal moment as others joined Samsel knocking down the barricade and a police officer. Samsel told investigators that Biggs encouraged him to push at the barricades and that when he hesitated, the Proud Boys leader flashed a gun, questioned his manhood and repeated his demand to move upfront and challenge the police. Biggs’ lawyer has denied the allegation. “Samsel’s version of events was provided to the government in late January, when he was interviewed by the F.B.I., without a lawyer present, shortly after his arrest in Pennsylvania, according to the people familiar with the matter. He has since been charged with several crimes, including assaulting an officer and obstructing Congress’s efforts to certify the election results,” Alan Feuer reports for the New York Times.

SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE REPORT – TRUMP

In a meeting on Jan. 3, former President Trump considered firing then Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replacing him with Jeffrey Clark because Rosen refused to “do anything to overturn the election,” according to a new report by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Clark drafted a letter urging Georgia officials to convene a special legislative session. Several officials told Trump that they would resign if he put Clark in charge of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and that they would not sign onto Clark’s letter. David Smith reports for the Guardian.

The report reveals that Trump asked the DOJ nine times to undermine the 2020 election results and that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pressured DOJ lawyers to investigate claims of election fraud. Donoghue and Rosen reported that Trump referenced rumors on the internet as a basis for the investigation. Zachary Cohen reports for CNN.

Rosen told congressional investigators that he believed Trump’s unwillingness to accept the results of the 2020 election was misguided and that Rosen would have “strongly preferred if he had chosen a different focus in the last month of his presidency,” according to his testimony made public in the Senate report. The documents released by the Senate also shed new light on how “Clark sought to use the agency’s power to help the president, including by offering to write letters to some state legislatures telling them the Justice Department was probing voting irregularities and urging them to consider appointing new slates of electors,” Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, BJay Pak, resigned abruptly on Jan. 4 after Trump told the DOJ to fire him for failing to find election fraud in Atlanta. Trump complained that Pak was a “never-Trumper” and decided to bypass the normal chain of command to replace Pak with Savannah U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine, according to the Senate report

The report also revealed a delay in transitioning electronic records from the Trump White House to the National Archives may lead to delays for the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. The Judiciary committee reported delays of several months, which could hamper the Jan. 6 select committee’s ability to get records in the event that some witnesses refuse to comply with subpoenas. Zachary Cohen reports for CNN.

U.S. MILITARY

A nuclear powered U.S. navy attack submarine has struck an object while submerged in international waters in the South China Sea, officials have said. The incident happened on Oct. 2. In a brief statement, U.S. Pacific Fleet said the USS Connecticut remained in a “safe and stable condition,” that there were no life-threatening injuries and the sub was still fully operational. Eleven sailors were hurt by the incident and all were treated on the submarine. The submarine’s nuclear propulsion plant was not affected, the statement said, adding that “the extent of damage to the remainder of the submarine is being assessed,” and that the incident will be investigated. Guardian staff and agencies report.

Pandemic burnout and intensive troop commitments played a central role in the drowning of nine U.S. service members last July during a pre-deployment training session, according to an investigation by the U.S. Marine Corps. A previous investigation found that the deaths were “preventable” and due to poor vehicle maintenance and human error. Several senior officers described conditions at that time as “second only to their experience in combat.” Maya Yang reports for the Guardian.

The Pentagon has released a strategy setting out its biggest effort yet to prepare the military for the effects of climate change. The Pentagon’s strategy, known as the Climate Adaptation Plan, aims to transition the military into an agency that can handle and operate within ever increasing hurricanes, wildfires, heat, drought and floods “that can trigger crises and instability around the world,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “Climate change is an existential threat to our nation’s security, and the Department of Defense must act swiftly and boldly to take on this challenge and prepare for damage that cannot be avoided,” Austin said. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

OTHER DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

An investigation by the New York Times has revealed that conservative lawyer Michael Farris played a leading role in drafting the lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 election filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Praxton in Dec. 2020. Farris is the chief executive of Alliance Defending Freedom, which actively opposes abortion and gay rights. Eric Lipton and Mark Walker report for the New York Times.

Two lawyers are expected to plead guilty on Oct. 20 to federal charges involving throwing a Molotov cocktail at an empty New York City police car last year during the racial justice protests. Deanna Paul reports for the Wall Street Journal.

AFGHANISTAN

A former Taliban commander Haji Najibullah has been indicted in connection to a 2008 attack that downed a helicopter and killed three U.S. soldiers and one Afghan interpreter, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has announced. “Najibullah, 45, has been charged with 13 crimes including murder, kidnapping, destroying a U.S. military aircraft, hostage-taking and multiple terrorism-related offenses. Six of the crimes he was indicted for carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. He was already in the U.S. for a previous indictment in connection to a kidnapping,” Joseph Choi reports for The Hill.

The U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution to install a special rapporteur and a team of experts to monitor human rights under the Taliban in Afghanistan. The special rapporteur and team of technical experts will be installed by March of next year. The resolution was endorsed by 50 mainly European and Latin American countries, while “China condemned the initiative for overlooking the abuses by American forces and their allies over the past 20 years. Russia, challenging the ‘biased, imbalanced and destructive’ resolution, also took aim at America’s ‘hasty and irresponsible withdrawal’ without ensuring a smooth transition of power. But the 47-member council, after discarding a series of hostile amendments proposed by China, voted 28 to 5 in favor of the resolution, with 14 members abstaining,” Nick Cumming-Bruce reports for the New York Times.

Nearly 800 people who had been stranded in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, have safely arrived in Qatar, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CN) announced yesterday. Blumenthal said “that two planes, which were chartered by the international development organization Sayara International, had arrived with ‘hundreds of brave, resilient Americans & Afghan allies onboard,’” Caroline Vakil reports for The Hill.

Harsh public justice has returned to the Taliban ruled city of Herat in Afghanistan. On Tuesday the corpses of three alleged robbers were hung high from towering excavation shovels in the Obe district of Herat province, the second gruesome display intended to deter crime, since the bodies of four accused kidnappers were hung from construction cranes at the end of last month. “The revival of such grisly public deterrents, which the previous Taliban regime used to quash street crime and warlord brigandry in the late 1990s, has elicited both praise and foreboding among the inhabitants [of the city],” Pamela Constable reports for the Washington Post.

E.U. countries have made no new pledges to take in Afghan refugees almost two months after Kabul fell to the Taliban, despite calls from the U.N. for further commitments from E.U. member states and promises from the countries to provide a way for at-risk groups to leave Afghanistan. “At a resettlement forum in Brussels on Thursday, the United Nations called on E.U. member states to resettle 42,500 Afghans over the next five years, a figure that E.U. officials called doable but wouldn’t commit to. E.U. officials said the resettlement plans are still a work in progress, with some governments saying they will make pledges to take in a certain number of Afghan lawyers, judges, journalists and other at-risk groups. But the officials provided no detail.” Laurence Norman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

AUKUS DEAL

A group of former U.S. officials and experts have written to President Biden that the use of highly enriched uranium in submarines as part of the Aukus deal with the U.K. and Australia will encourage hostile nations to obtain highly enriched uranium too. Iranian officials have already suggested to the U.N. that they may want highly enriched uranium for naval purposes like Australia. The former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller called on Australia to make a new deal to buy non-weapons grade uranium from France, which would ease diplomatic tensions between France and the Aukus nations and sooth fears about nuclear proliferation. Tory Shepherd reports for the Guardian.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull has said that if Australia buys the submarine reactors from the U.S. without a domestic nuclear industry, it will be “more plug and pray” than “plug and play,” the Guardian reports.

France’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, has called the Australian government “childish” and says he is not sure whether the two countries can repair their relationship after Australia dumped a $90 billion submarine contract with France. While the U.S. conceded that France should have been informed sooner of the Aukus agreement, the Australian government has refused to say it mishandled the announcement and has not apologized to the French. Anthony Galloway reports for the Sydney Morning Herald.

CYBERSECURITY

A report from Microsoft has found that cyberattacks originating in Russia accounted for more than half of intrusions tracked by the company since mid-2020. “The findings were detailed in Microsoft’s annual Digital Defense Report. The company said it tracked threat activity from a number of countries, but found that 58% of attacks reported by customers originated in Russia, followed by North Korea at 23%,” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

A Russian-speaking cybercriminal group is disproportionately using ransomware attacks to target hospitals and health care groups across North America, according to new research from Cybersecurity organization Mandiant. According to Mandiant, one in five of the group’s victims were health care groups, many of which operate hospitals, while other victims have included groups in business services, education, finance, government, manufacturing, retail, and technology. The group has been in existence since at least 2018, but is increasingly hitting organizations in North America with annual revenues of more than $300 million with ransomware attacks. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

YEMEN

Bahrain, Russia, and other members of the U.N. Human Rights Council successfully pushed through a vote to shut down the Council’s war crimes investigations in Yemen. Members rejected a resolution led by the Netherlands to give the independent investigators another two years to monitor the conflict in Yemen. The resolution is the first to fail in the Council’s fifteen year history, Reuters reports. 

At least 10,000 people have been displaced over the past month as a result of fighting over the key Yemini city of Marib, the U.N. migration agency, the International Organization for Migration, has said. The clashes have escalated as Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels intensified their push to take the provincial capital from government forces. “The International Organization for Migration said the newly displaced — the highest monthly tally recorded so far this year — bring to around 170,000 the number of people who have fled fighting in and around the city of Marib and the surrounding province, also called Marib, as well as two nearby provinces, since the beginning of 2020,” Samy Magdy reports for AP.

IRAQ

Iraq is voting in its parliamentary elections on Sunday, however guns and money are still dominating the politics, with most parties appealing to voters on the basis of religious, ethnic or tribal loyalty. “The contest is likely to return the same main players to power, including a movement loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a coalition connected to militias backed by Iran, and the dominant Kurdish party in the semi autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Other leading figures include a Sunni businessman under U.S. sanctions for corruption,” Jane Arraf reports for the New York Times.

Iraqi security personnel across the country cast their ballots today in the parliamentary election, two days before the rest of the nation votes. Today’s “so-called ‘special voting’ two days ahead of the election is meant to free police and soldiers so they can provide security on Election Day,” Associated Press reports.

OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov have won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their fights to defend freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia respectively. The Nobel committee called the pair “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal.” Ressa, who co-founded the news site Rappler, was commended for using freedom of expression to “expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.” Muratov, the co-founder and editor of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions, the Nobel committee said. BBC News reports.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report released today has said that the world is falling short on its mental health investment goals, calling the lack of progress a “worldwide failure.” The Mental Health Atlas concluded that while mental health has received more attention in the past few years, data from 171 countries show the quality of services has not kept up with growing needs. “We must heed and act on this wake-up call and dramatically accelerate the scale-up of investment in mental health, because there is no health without mental health,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. Justine Coleman reports for The Hill.

An Argentinian court has dismissed a legal action against former Argentinian President Cristina Fernández, also the current vice president, which alleged that she sought to cover up the alleged involvement of Iranian operatives in a 1994 bombing that killed 85 people at a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. “The court said in an oral order that it concluded an agreement signed by Argentina and Iran in 2013 for conducting an investigation into the terrorist attack at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association ‘did not constitute a crime,’” Associated Press reports.

In a major step towards “legal Polexit,” Poland’s constitutional tribunal has ruled that some E.U. laws are in conflict with Poland’s constitution. The legitimacy of the constitutional tribunal has been called into question after Poland’s nationalist ruling party, the Law and Justice party, appointed several judges to the tribunal. In a letter reacting to the ruling, the European Commission reaffirmed that “E.U. law has primacy over national law, including constitutional provisions.” Jon Henley reports for the Guardian.

Two teachers have been killed in the latest series of attacks largely targeting Hindu and Sikh civilians in the Kashmir region in India. Tensions are high in the Muslim majority region in India after the Indian government revoked the region’s authority two years ago. “The masked militants barged into a school in Kashmir…demanding to know the religious identity of its teachers. Then they separated two non-Muslim teachers and shot them at close range, a police officer said. The killings on Thursday in the city of Srinagar were the latest in a series of attacks largely targeting Hindu and Sikh civilians in Kashmir, once again raising alarm about the rise of a militancy that drove out religious minority groups from the region nearly three decades ago,” Sameer Yasir reports for the New York Times.

Members of the E.U. Parliament voted on a non-binding resolution yesterday for stricter rules for the super-rich who move their wealth offshore. The move responded to widespread anger in response to revelations of offshore accounts and tax havens from the Pandora Papers. Under the resolution, jurisdictions with very low or zero tax rates would automatically be labeled as tax havens. Jennifer Rankin reports for the Guardian

The malaria vaccine announced by the WHO earlier this week has been welcomed by African parents, government officials, and health workers as a milestone in the fight against Malaria. However, the vaccine alone will not solve the malaria problem in the continent. “In clinical trials, the vaccine, made by the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, was effective at reducing severe malaria by only 30% in the first year after it was administered, according to the WHO — though some experts put the figure at closer to 50%. To be effective, four doses of the vaccine must be administered starting at the age of 5 months — which could pose logistical problems since delivering vaccines on the continent is already a challenge,” Abdi Latif Dahir reports for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus has infected over 44.16 million and has now killed over 710,100 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 236.85 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.83 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley, and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

From April 2020 through to June 2021 more than 140,000 children under the age of 18 lost a primary caregiver who provided their housing, basic needs, and daily care to coronavirus, according to a new Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-led study. About 65% of children who lost a primary caregiver are Hispanic, Black, Asian, and American Indian/Alaskan Native and 35% of the children are white. Shirley L. Smith reports for the Guardian

Pfizer-BioNTech announced on Twitter that it has submitted an application for a Covid-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Nearly 850,000 U.S. children contracted confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the last four weeks and more than 500 U.S. children have died from the virus. The FDA advisory committee in charge of reviewing the application will meet on Oct. 26. Melody Schreiber reports for the Guardian

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.


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4 Ex-Navy Officers Convicted in Corruption Scandal

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Four of five former U.S. Navy officers standing trial as part of the “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal were convicted of fraud, bribery, and conspiracy on Wednesday. They were the last defendants out of 34 people to be charged with taking illicit incentives from Malaysian defense contractor Leonard Francis. Prosecutors said they were lavished with prostitutes, Cuban cigars, and free hotel stays by Francis. In 2015, Francis admitted offering $500,000 worth of bribes to American Navy officers in exchange for classified information, or even rerouting military ships to ports that brought in a lot of cash for his vessel servicing company. Francis overcharged the U.S. military by $35 million, prosecutors say. He is set to be sentenced in July. Former Capts. David Newland, James Dolan and David Lausmen, along with former Cmdr. Mario Herrera were convicted this week, while no verdict was reached by the jury on charges against former Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless.

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Hope and despair: Kathy Gannon on 35 years in Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan policeman opened fire on us with his AK-47, emptying 26 bullets into the back of the car. Seven slammed into me, and at least as many into my colleague, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus. She died at my side.

Anja weighed heavy against my shoulder. I tried to look at her but I couldn’t move. I looked down; all I could see was what looked like a stump where my left hand had been. I could barely whisper, “Please help us.”

Our driver raced us to a small local hospital in Khost, siren on. I tried to stay calm, thinking over and over: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t die afraid. Just breathe.”

At the hospital, Dr. Abdul Majid Mangal said he would have to operate and tried to reassure me. His words are forever etched in my heart: “Please know your life is as important to me as it is to you.”

Much later, as I recovered in New York during a process that would turn out to eventually require 18 operations, an Afghan friend called from Kabul. He wanted to apologize for the shooting on behalf of all Afghans.

I said the shooter didn’t represent a nation, a people. My mind returned to Dr. Mangal – for me, it was him who represented Afghanistan and Afghans.

I have reported on Afghanistan for the AP for the past 35 years, during an extraordinary series of events and regime changes that have rocked the world. Through it all, the kindness and resilience of ordinary Afghans has shone through – which is also what has made it so painful to watch the slow erosion of their hope.

I have always been amazed at how Afghans stubbornly hung on to hope against all odds, greeting each of several new regimes with optimism. But by 2018, a Gallup poll showed that the fraction of people in Afghanistan with hope in the future was the lowest ever recorded anywhere.

It didn’t have to be this way.

———

I arrived in Afghanistan in 1986, in the middle of the Cold War. It seems a lifetime ago. It is.

Then, the enemy attacking Afghanistan was the communist former Soviet Union, dubbed godless by United States President Ronald Reagan. The defenders were the U.S.-backed religious mujahedeen, defined as those who engage in holy war, championed by Reagan as freedom fighters.

Reagan even welcomed some mujahedeen leaders to the White House. Among his guests was Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father of the current leader of the Haqqani network, who in today’s world is a declared terrorist.

At that time, the God versus communism message was strong. The University of Nebraska even crafted an anti-communist curriculum to teach English to the millions of Afghan refugees living in camps in neighboring Pakistan. The university made the alphabet simple: J was for Jihad or holy war against the communists; K was for the Kalashnikov guns used in jihad, and I was for Infidel, which described the communists themselves.

There was even a math program. The questions went something like: If there were 10 communists and you killed five, how many would you have left?

When I covered the mujahedeen, I spent a lot of time and effort on being stronger, walking longer, climbing harder and faster. At one point, I ran out of a dirty mud hut with them and hid under a nearby cluster of trees. Just minutes later, Russian helicopter gunships flew low, strafed the trees and all but destroyed the hut.

The Russians withdrew in 1989 without a win. In 1992, the mujahedeen took power.

Ordinary Afghans hoped fervently that the victory of the mujahedeen would mean the end of war. They also to some degree welcomed a religious ideology that was more in line with their largely conservative country than communism.

But it wasn’t long before the mujahedeen turned their guns on each other.

The fighting was brutal, with the mujahedeen pounding the capital, Kabul, from the hills. Thrice the AP lost its equipment to thieving warlords, only to be returned after negotiations with the top warlord. One day I counted as many as 200 incoming and outgoing rockets inside of minutes.

The bloodletting of the mujahedeen-cum government ministers-cum warlords killed upward of 50,000 people. I saw a 5-year-old girl killed by a rocket as she stepped out of her house. Children by the scores lost limbs to booby traps placed by mujahedeen as they departed neighborhoods.

I stayed on the front line with a woman and her two small children in the Macroyan housing complex during the heaviest rocketing. Her husband, a former communist government employee, had fled, and she lived by making and selling bread each day with her children.

She opened her home to me even though she had so little. All night we stayed in the one room without windows. She asked me if I would take her son to Pakistan the next day, but in the end could not bear to see him go.

Only months after my visit, they were killed by warlords who wanted their apartment.

———

Despite the chaos of the time, Afghans still had hope.

In the waning days of the warring mujahedeen’s rule, I attended a wedding in Kabul where both the wedding party and guests were coiffed and downright glamorous. When asked how she managed to look so good with so little amid the relentless rocketing, one young woman replied brightly, “We’re not dead yet!”

The wedding was delayed twice because of rockets.

The Taliban had by then emerged. They were former mujahedeen and often Islamic clerics who had returned to their villages and their religious schools after 1992. They came together in response to the relentless killing and thieving of their former comrades-in-arms.

By mid-1996, the Taliban were on Kabul’s doorstep, with their promise of burqas for women and beards for men. Yet Afghans welcomed them. They hoped the Taliban would at least bring peace.

When asked about the repressive restrictions of the Taliban, one woman who had worked for an international charity said: “If I know there is peace and my child will be alive, I will wear the burqa.”

Peace did indeed come to Afghanistan, at least of sorts. Afghans could leave their doors unlocked without fear of being robbed. The country was disarmed, and travel anywhere in Afghanistan at any time of the day or night was safe.

But Afghans soon began to see their peace as a prison. The Taliban’s rule was repressive. Public punishments such as chopping off hands and rules that denied girls school and women work brought global sanctions and isolation. Afghans got poorer.

The Taliban leader at the time was the reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar, rumored to have removed his own eye after being wounded in a battle against invading Soviet soldiers. As international sanctions crippled Afghanistan, Omar got closer to al-Qaida, until eventually the terrorist group became the Taliban’s only source of income.

By 2001, al-Qaida’s influence was complete. Despite a pledge from Omar to safeguard them, Afghanistan’s ancient statues of Buddha were destroyed, in an order reportedly from Osama bin Laden himself.

Then came the seismic shock of 9/11.

Many Afghans mourned the American deaths so far away. Few even knew who bin Laden was. But the country was now squarely a target in the eyes of the United States. Amir Shah, AP’s longtime correspondent, summed up what most Afghans were thinking at the time: “America will set Afghanistan on fire.”

And it did.

After 9/11, the Taliban threw all foreigners out of Afghanistan, including me. The U.S.-led coalition assault began on Oct. 7, 2001.

By Oct. 23, I was back in Kabul, the only Western journalist to see the last weeks of Taliban rule. The powerful B-52 bombers of the U.S. pounded the hills and even landed in the city.

On Nov. 12 that year, a 2,000-pound bomb landed on a house near the AP office. It threw me across the room and blew out window and door frames. Glass shattered and sprayed everywhere.

By sunrise the next day, the Taliban were gone from Kabul.

———

Afghanistan’s next set of rulers marched into the city, brought by the powerful military might of the U.S.-led coalition.

The mujahedeen were back.

The U.S. and U.N. returned them to power even though some among them had brought bin Laden from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, promising him a safe haven. The hope of Afghans went through the roof, because they believed the powerful U.S. would help them keep the mujahedeen in check.

With more than 40 countries involved in their homeland, they believed peace and prosperity this time was most certainly theirs. Foreigners were welcome everywhere.

Some Afghans worried about the returning mujahedeen, remembering the corruption and fighting when they last were in power. But America’s representative at the time, Zalmay Khalilzad, told me that the mujahedeen had been warned against returning to their old ways.

Yet worrying signs began to emerge. The revenge killings began, and the U.S.-led coalition sometimes participated without knowing the details. The mujahedeen would falsely identify enemies – even those who had worked with the U.S. before – as belonging to al-Qaida or to the Taliban.

One such mistake happened early in December 2001 when a convoy was on its way to meet the new President Hamid Karzai. The U.S.-led coalition bombed it because they were told the convoy bore fighters from the Taliban and al-Qaida. They turned out to be tribal elders.

Secret prisons emerged. Hundreds of Afghan men disappeared. Families became desperate.

Resentment soared especially among the ethnic Pashtuns, who had been the backbone of the Taliban. One former Taliban member proudly displayed his new Afghan identity card and wanted to start a water project in his village. But corrupt government officials extorted him for his money, and he returned to the Taliban.

A deputy police chief in southern Zabul province told me of 2,000 young Pashtun men, some former Taliban, who wanted to join the new government’s Afghan National Army. But they were mocked for their ethnicity, and eventually all but four went to the mountains and joined the Taliban.

In the meantime, corruption seemed to reach epic proportions, with suitcases of money, often from the CIA, handed off to Washington’s Afghan allies. Yet schools were built, roads were reconstructed and a new generation of Afghans, at least in the cities, grew up with freedoms their parents had not known and in many cases looked on with suspicion.

Then came the shooting in 2014 that would change my life.

It began as most days do in Afghanistan: Up before 6 a.m. This day we were waiting for a convoy of Afghan police and military to leave the eastern city of Khost for a remote region to distribute the last of the ballot boxes for Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections.

After 30 minutes navigating past blown-out bridges and craters that pockmarked the road, we arrived at a large police compound. For more than an hour, Anja and I talked with and photographed about a dozen police officials.

We finished our work just as a light drizzle began. We got into the car and waited to leave for a nearby village. That’s when the shooting happened.

It was two years before I was able to return to work and to Afghanistan.

———

By that point, the disappointment and disenchantment with America’s longest war had already set in. Despite the U.S. spending over $148 billion on development alone over 20 years, the percentage of Afghans barely surviving at the poverty level was increasing yearly.

In 2019, Pakistan began accepting visa applications at its consulate in eastern Afghanistan. People were so desperate to leave that nine died in a stampede.

In 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal for troops to withdraw within 18 months. The U.S. and NATO began to evacuate their staff, closing down embassies and offering those who worked for them asylum.

The mass closure of embassies was baffling to me because the Taliban had made no threats, and it sparked panic in Kabul. It was the sudden and secret departure of President Ashraf Ghani that finally brought the Taliban back into the city on Aug. 15, 2021.

Their swift entry came as a surprise, along with the thorough collapse of the neglected Afghan army, beset by deep corruption. The Taliban’s rapid march toward Kabul fed a rush toward the airport.

For many in the Afghan capital, the only hope left lay in getting out.

Fida Mohammad, a 24-year-old dentist, was desperate to leave for the U.S. so he could earn enough money to repay his father’s debt of $13,000 for his elaborate marriage. He clung to the wheels of the departing US C-17 aircraft on Aug. 16 and died.

Zaki Anwari, a 17-year-old footballer, ran to get on the plane. He dreamed only of football, and believed his dream could not come true in Afghanistan. He was run over by the C-17.

Now the future in Afghanistan is even more uncertain. Scores of people line up outside the banks to try to get their money out. Hospitals are short of medicine. The Taliban hardliners seem to have the upper hand, at least in the short term.

Afghans are left to face the fact that the entire world came to their country in 2001 and spent billions, and still couldn’t bring them prosperity or even the beginnings of prosperity. That alone has deeply eroded hope for the future.

I leave Afghanistan with mixed feelings, sad to see how its hope has been destroyed but still deeply moved by its 38 million people. The Afghans I met sincerely loved their country, even if it is now led by elderly men driven by tribal traditions offensive to a world that I am not sure ever really understood Afghanistan.

Most certainly, though, I will be back.


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Pritzker says balanced budget, ‘big things’ remain priority ahead of second term

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Inflation, crime, pandemic response, abortion rights and Donald Trump are all set to be major issues in the 2022 race for Illinois governor, if the winning candidates’ election night speeches are any guide.

“(Gov. JB) Pritzker doesn’t understand how skyrocketing gas prices and soaring food prices make everyday life harder for Illinois families like you and I,” Darren Bailey, the Republican nominee for governor, said in an election night victory speech.

A farmer and state senator from downstate Xenia who acknowledged to the Chicago Sun-Times this week that he is a millionaire, Bailey received the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and coasted to an election night victory with 57 percent of the vote, compared to about 15 percent for each of the next two closest competitors.

“He doesn’t understand how his and Joe Biden’s extreme national agenda helps fuel inflation and increases utility bills for families like us across Illinois,” Bailey added of the governor. “He doesn’t understand the damage that his lockdowns did to small businesses, schools, mental health and working families all across this state. He doesn’t understand that his war on police has fueled the war on our streets, making our neighborhoods dangerous all across this state.”

Bailey also said in his speech that he entered politics because he was displeased with his local representatives’ votes to end a historic two-year budget impasse in 2017 by raising the income tax rate to 4.95 percent, a level slightly lower than it was when the impasse began two years prior.

The income tax vote was part of the budget package that saw Democrats and Republicans come together to override the veto of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Pritzker, meanwhile, considers it part of his first-term legacy that Illinois has left the politics of the impasse behind it and taken strides to balance the budget each year and pay down old debt.

The governor sat for an interview with Capitol News Illinois Thursday amid a two-day blitz in which he spoke with political reporters from across the state.

He said fiscal prudence – along with pandemic-era revenue spikes that were seen nationwide for many reasons – allowed him and lawmakers to pass $1.8 billion in tax relief this budget year, some of which took effect July 1.

It included a one-year suspension of the 1 percent grocery tax, a six-month delay on a 2-cent motor fuel tax hike, a 10-day partial sales tax holiday on back-to-school items from Aug. 5-14, a permanent expansion of the earned income tax credit, an additional $300 in property tax credit, and direct payments to Illinoisans at $50 per person and $100 per dependent child.

“Those are all things that we Democrats did and were able to do because Democrats balanced the budget, Democrats eliminated the bill backlog, Democrats got the credit upgrades for the state,” he said, referring to double upgrades the state has received from the three New York bond rating agencies in the past year.

“You can’t do any of those items of tax relief if you don’t have the dollars to do it,” he added. “And we had surpluses and what did we do? We provided relief to working family. And we’re gonna look to do that going forward. I might add, if you keep on the path that Democrats have set, that I’ve set, balancing budgets and having surpluses, we can do much more.”

He said he’s hopeful to continue balancing the books even though the state expects revenues to slow as pandemic-driven spikes normalize.

Pritzker touted the state’s use of unexpected revenues for one-time purposes, such as putting $1 billion in the budget stabilization fund, funding pensions $500 million above what is required in law and paying down old health insurance bills amounting to about $900 million.

He also noted the state has, under his watch, increased investments in the Illinois State Police, crime labs, expressway cameras, and youth violence intervention programs.

The one-term incumbent who unseated Rauner with a 16-point victory in 2018 also touched on his spending in the Republican primary in recent months.

While he spent money through his own campaign committee, the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Democratic Governors Association to knock Bailey’s chief primary rival, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, he downplayed the role his money played in that election.

Irvin’s camp has pegged the combined spending of those entities in the GOP primary at roughly $36 million.

“My message is a general election message against all of the Republicans,” he said. “You know, we had messages about the candidate who was talking about corruption in Illinois, when he himself was involved in corruption. We had messages about the candidate who is truly extreme on every issue, including choice. And, you know, we’re fighting the Republicans, this is about Democrats beating Republicans.”

In the coming days, Pritzker said he will call lawmakers back to Springfield for a special session to secure abortion rights, which could include increasing the number of medical professionals who can perform abortions. It will not include providing state aid for people traveling to Illinois to receive an abortion, he said.

In terms of a second-term agenda, Pritzker said continuing the fiscal practices of his first term, as well as increasing subsidies for education and child care are among his priorities.

“But I think that looking back at my first term in office, gives you an idea that we’re gonna get more big things done, and they’re going to be about lifting up working families,” he said.

You can listen to the full episode of Capitol Cast here.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.




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