Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Two members of the notorious ISIS cell known as “The Beatles” are now facing the U.S. justice system.
The Justice Department announced an indictment Wednesday against two British citizens accused of being part of the ISIS cell that beheaded Western hostages, including Americans.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey were charged with eight criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit hostage taking, hostage taking, conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Their charges relate to the deaths of four Americans in Syria: James Foley, Peter Kassig, Steven Sotloff and Kayla Mueller.
“The families of the victims have suffered the painful loss of their loved ones at the hands of brutal killers,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday at a news conference announcing the charges. “While their pain may never subside, today, with the announcement of this indictment, we’re beginning to bring them the justice they deserve.”
The men were scheduled to make their initial appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday afternoon.
How we got here: The ability of the U.S. to bring charges and extradite the British citizens was delayed for years, resting on key evidence gathered by U.K. authorities that was blocked by a British court from being shared with American authorities over concerns that U.S. justice officials not pursue the death penalty against the alleged terrorists.
The U.K. abolished the death penalty in the 1960s.
Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMilley moved to limit Trump military strike abilities after Jan. 6, Woodward book claims: report Former US attorney enters race for governor in Pennsylvania Families of 9/11 victims hope for answers about Saudi involvement in attacks MORE wrote to the U.K.’s Home Secretary Priti Patel in August that the U.S. would not seek the death penalty in its pursuit of charges against the two British men and Justice Department officials on Wednesday reiterated that promise.
“The attorney general made that clear in his letters to the Home Secretary that he decided, on balance, that we would not be pursuing the death penalty in this case and that’s where we are,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said.
About the “The Beatles”: The so-called Beatles were a four-member ISIS cell given the name by their prisoners because of their British accents.
The most infamous member, Mohamed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2015. He was the masked man seen in videos of the beheadings carrying out the brutal act.
The fourth member of the cell is imprisoned in Turkey.
Elsheikh and Kotey are accused of forcing hostages to witness murders, conducting mock executions, shocking captives with an electric taser, beatings and other “brutal acts,” the Justice Department said.
The men have admitted being part of ISIS and being involved in captivity of hostages, but have denied involvement in the killings themselves.
The pair were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria in 2018 and were transferred to U.S. military custody in Iraq in 2019.
JOINT CHIEFS QUARANTINE SPARKS NATSEC CONCERNS: Following the news that most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are quarantining, we took a look at the national security implications.
The revelation, which came on the heels of President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE’s COVID-19 diagnosis, is raising fears that U.S. adversaries might seek to exploit a perceived weakness.
Few expect any sort of overt military action, but there are other ways to wreak havoc on the United States.
Chief among them is disinformation. Experts have been warning ever since Trump tested positive for the coronavirus last week that disinformation is likely to kick into overdrive.
Now, with six of the seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff waylaid at home, warnings are being amplified about the national security implications of the growing COVID-19 outbreak among U.S. leaders.
“All these kinds of things are just a huge distraction for us where our national security apparatus is consumed with matters domestic and internal,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a Washington Post event after news broke of the Joint Chiefs quarantining. “So this is an ideal time for adversaries, particularly in adversary intelligence services, to look for ways to further confuse us, to distract us.”
ARMY RESERVE INVESTIGATING SENATE CANDIDATE: The U.S. Army Reserve is investigating North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham after he admitted to exchanging romantic text messages with a woman who is not his wife.
"The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham,” Army Reserve spokesman Lt. Col. Simon Flake told The Hill. “As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time."
Background: Cunningham, who first enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2002, apologized for the text messages after they first surfaced Friday.
In the messages, Cunningham and the married woman talk about wanting to kiss each other and be together.
The Associated Press on Tuesday also obtained additional texts between the woman and a friend of hers that suggest the relationship went beyond texts.
The woman, Arlene Guzman Todd, told the AP she and Cunningham had one in-person encounter in March in Los Angeles that she said did not include intimate contact and a second in July in North Carolina, where she said they were intimate.
Why it matters to the Army: The revelations of course have political ramifications in the North Carolina Senate race, seen as pivotal to Democrats’ hope of capturing control of the Senate.
But for the Army Reserve, the issue is whether Cunningham violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
The UCMJ outlaws “extramarital sexual conduct,” but commanders have discretion in bringing charges.
In order to violate the UCMJ, the conduct has to “either be directly prejudicial to good order and discipline or service discrediting or both.”
To be service discrediting means “to injure the reputation of the armed forces and includes extramarital conduct that has a tendency, because of its open or notorious nature, to bring the service into disrepute, make it subject to public ridicule, or lower it in public esteem,” according to the UCMJ.
GUARD UNITS ON STANDBY: The National Guard has put military police units on standby in two states to respond to any potential civil unrest following violent protests across the country this summer, Pentagon officials confirmed Wednesday.
The two units total 600 troops, equally split between Alabama and Arizona.
A National Guard Bureau spokesman said the units “will be ready to deploy within 24 hours if requested by a governor in another state.”
“The forces in Alabama would respond in the eastern half of the country, and those in Arizona would respond in the west,” the spokesman said.
Additionally, the Guard has bought more than $200,000 in new protective equipment and “increased troop training on proper procedures in dealing with protests,” the Guard spokesman said.
"Our goal is to protect the people and property in the communities where we live and serve. This task force will allow us to do so with more speed and efficiency,” National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson said in a statement.
The Associated Press first reported on the Guard designating the two units.
Election worries?: A military official who spoke to The Hill on the condition of anonymity would not say whether the units were put in place in response to possible violence and civil unrest after the presidential election.
Instead, the official stressed that the units were set up as part of “standard procedure” in case state governors requested support and that they would not deploy unless a governor asked for assistance.
“National Guard support of elections is not a new concept,” the official added. “If [governors] request assistance, they will be able to contact the National Guard to support the police while the police are the front lines.”
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Marc Knapper, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Korea and Japan, will speak at an onlive event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/3lp3IkR
Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster will speak at an online event hosted by CSIS at 4 p.m. https://bit.ly/36HSPGT
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-- The Hill: SpaceX awarded contract to build US military tracking satellites
-- Stars and Stripes: Years after they fought in Afghanistan, US troops watch as their children deploy to the same war
-- Washington Post: White House event for families of deceased U.S. troops thrust into new light after admiral’s coronavirus diagnosis