Today's D Brief: Marines' #2 catches COVID; Full Afghanistan pullout?; Qatar wants F-35s; Greek twist in S-400 saga; And a bit more.

The Marine Corps’ second-in-command is the latest high-ranking official to test positive for COVID-19. Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas received his positive test result Wednesday, which is a day after he began quarantining at home because he’d been near the U.S. Coast Guard’s number two officer, Adm. Charles Ray, in a meeting at the Pentagon Friday. Ray tested positive this week, too, triggering an unprecedented wave self-quarantines among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

Worth noting: “Adm. Ray, along with chiefs from each of the services, was last at the White House Sept. 27 for a ceremony, presided over by President Trump, for Gold Star families,” the Wall Street Journal reports, adding, “In White House photos of that event, no one was wearing a mask or socially distancing.”

In case you’re wondering: “Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger was traveling last week in the United Kingdom, so he had not met with Ray,” USNI News reports.

“The Marine Corps is following established policies for COVID, per CDC guidelines, to include quarantine and contact tracing,” Marine Corps Spokesman Capt. Joe Butterfield said in a statement Wednesday. “According to CDC guidelines, any Marine Corps personnel who were in close contact with the general will also quarantine,” Butterfield said.

The Pentagon’s reax: “We are aware of General Thomas’ positive test for COVID-19. At this time we have no additional senior leader positive test results to report,” Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in his own statement Wednesday evening. “We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing.”

Also new: The head of White House’s security office has been hospitalized with COVID-19 since late September, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. His name is Crede Bailey, and he's “in charge of the White House security office, which handles credentialing for access to the White House and works closely with the U.S. Secret Service on security measures throughout the compound.” Tiny bit more, here.

Bailey is among 34 “White House staffers and other contacts" testing positive in recent days, according to a memo sent to FEMA leaders on Wednesday. Trump administration officials have told the public about only 24 of those, ABC News writes. A bit more, here.

Nationwide, it’s not looking good: “New cases in the U.S. topped 50,000 for the first time in five days on Wednesday,” and “The U.S. seven-day moving average of new confirmed cases was larger than the 14-day moving average on Tuesday for the second straight day, suggesting cases are growing more quickly,” according to the Wall Street Journal, citing data from Johns Hopkins University.

Speaking up: “The magnitude of this failure is astonishing,” writes the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine, breaking a 208-year tradition of strict nonpartisanship with an editorial calling for Trump’s defeat in the upcoming election. “Scathing” does not do this piece justice; read it here.

Phantom carriers. In the UK, a study from University College London found that “86% of people infected with the coronavirus didn’t show the main symptoms on the day they were tested,” AP reports from London. The study “looked at data for 36,061 people between April and June. Researchers found among those who tested positive, 86% didn’t have a cough, fever or loss of taste or smell.”

What this would seem to suggest: “[M]any may be spreading the virus while asymptomatic,” lead researcher Irene Petersen told AP. 

From Defense One

Greece Joins the Turkey-Russia S-400 Saga, and Congress Wants Answers // Marcus Weisgerber and Katie Bo Williams: Was Ankara using its Russian air-defense system to track a NATO ally?

Defense One Radio, Ep. 78 // Defense One Staff: Interview with Space Force Vice Commander Lt. General David Thompson.

All US Troops In Afghanistan To Withdraw By Christmas, Trump Tweets // Katie Bo Williams: The bewildering message came just hours after his national security advisor said the United States would draw down to 2,500 by 2021.

Space Force Eyes Orbiting 3D Printers, Satellite Tow Trucks // Patrick Tucker: Instead of lifting heavier satellites into space, new technologies might expand their abilities on orbit.

US Charges ISIS ‘Beatles’ In Virginia Court // Katie Bo Williams: Kotey and Elsheikh each face 14 charges, all of which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1967, Che Guevara and his entourage were captured in Bolivia with the help of U.S. special forces. He would be killed the following day. 

Trump wants all U.S. troops in Afghanistan back to the states by Christmas, he announced in a tweet Tuesday evening. “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Trump wrote.
How this is new: Trump and other officials previously have said that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be down to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops around November, and that any subsequent withdrawal would be conditions-based, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports. Trump’s own National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, even said earlier on Wednesday that there are now less than 5,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and that the White House planned to draw down to 2,500 by sometime early next year.
One possible reason Trump sped up the timeline: Former and current administration officials have described POTUS45 as eager to pull out by November in order to fulfill a key campaign promise from four years ago. However, Williams writes, U.S. “defense officials have long braced for the possibility that Trump, frustrated with the slow pace of the withdrawal process, may order a sudden and complete exit, as he did for U.S. troops in Syria.”
Worth noting: There have been no followup statements or comments from U.S. officials at the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., or in Kabul. Typically, major changes to U.S. force levels or strategy in Afghanistan have been announced with coordinated public messages by administration and military leaders. More from Williams, here.
BTW: How many U.S. troops really are deployed to combat zones? The national security law and policy folks at Just Security are suing the U.S. government to release data on troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, which the Trump administration stopped sharing with the public in 2017.
Read more on why that matters in the words of the plaintiffs — journalist Kate Brannen and former DOD counsel Ryan Goodman — via the Washington Post, here.

At the Pentagon today, SecDef Esper welcomed his Romanian counterpart, Nicolae Ciuca, just after 10 a.m. ET.
Worth noting: Three weeks ago, Romania received its first of four planned Raytheon Patriot surface-to-air missile systems. You can see that in place — the only one of its kind for the Black Sea region — via Balkan Insight, here. (FWIW: Poland also has a Patriot system.)
Said Defense Minister Ciuca: “The set-up of the first Patriot system is only a first step towards building a formidable air defence capability for our country, which will significantly contribute to consolidating deterrence and the defence of NATO on its eastern flank.”
Background: “Since 2016, Romania has hosted a U.S. ballistic-missile system at the Deveselu military base, in the country’s south,” AP reported at the time, adding, “Russia has criticized the deployment of the defense system, but Washington says it is needed to ensure the safety of NATO members from potential attacks by Iran.”

Qatar wants a few of America’s F-35 jets, please. In just the past several weeks, the Gulf nation “formally submitted [its] request in a deal that if pursued could strain U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Reuters reported Wednesday.
The request follows closely behind the UAE’s August announcement that the U.S. was considering selling F-35s to that nation “in a side deal to a U.S.-brokered agreement called the Abraham Accord to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel,” Reuters writes.
One big problem: “Israel has signaled stiff opposition to a UAE sale and would likely be just as resistant to one with Qatar, fearing it could undercut its military advantage in the Middle East.” More here.

Wednesday in infowars, the Justice Department said it shut down 92 web domains run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And “four of the domains purported to be genuine news outlets but were actually controlled by the IRGC and targeted the United States for the spread of Iranian propaganda to influence United States domestic and foreign policy,” the department said in a statement Wednesday. “[T]he remaining 88 domains targeted audiences in Western Europe, the Middle East, and South East Asia and masqueraded as genuine news outlets.”
The alleged goal: To “spread propaganda covertly, to attempt to influence the American public secretly, and to sow discord,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers.
Google tipped off federal investigators, DOJ said, and a collaboration between the FBI, Google, Facebook and Twitter led to the 92-domain rollup. 

Facebook is trying to minimize unnecessary confrontations at the polls this year, vowing Wednesday to “remove calls for people to engage in poll watching” with “militarized language or suggest[ing] that the goal is to intimidate, exert control or display power over election officials or voters.” Read more here.

Trump’s spy chief is digging in for a fight over the origins of the Russia investigation. On Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released more than a thousand pages of documents that he says support a DOJ probe into why members of the president’s 2016 campaign staff were investigated for alleged links to Russian officials, the Wall Street Journal reported.
According to Ratcliffe, "Russian intelligence analysis obtained by U.S. spy agencies claimed that 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan that year to tie then-candidate Mr. Trump to Moscow’s hacking of Democratic emails."
Why this is in the news: In part because the president has been tweeting about it this week — especially Wednesday — in all caps, Politico reports. More strategically, “Mr. Trump and conservative news outlets have seized on the unverified Russian intelligence to suggest that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign created the furor over Mr. Trump’s ties to Moscow,” the Journal writes.
Walk back through what Ratcliffe has declassified via this cautionary analysis from Brian Greer, former attorney at the CIA’s Office of General Counsel as recently as 2018, writing in Lawfare on Wednesday. 

There’s an alarming convergence of state-run Russian media and conservative U.S. publishers like National Review and Newsmax, the Wall Street Journal reported in a data-packed long-ish read on Wednesday.
What’s going on: “Those news outlets agreed to join a distribution network that allows other members’ content to be displayed on their home pages.” The network is coordinated by a company called Mixi.Media, which launched in 2018. And the content displayed on certain sites includes RT, formerly known as Russia Today. The Journal reminds us RT “was a central player in Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Why this matters: It “has allowed Russia’s propaganda machine to spread its message across the online news landscape in the U.S. while escaping the attention that came to Facebook and Twitter,” the Journal writes. This is especially problematic because “the source isn’t always clear until after the headline has been clicked.”
One surprising note about its Mixi’s impact: It’s “delivering more U.S. traffic to RT than YouTube, Reddit and Drudge Report and, at one point this year, Twitter.”
And an ominous follow-up: “July was the last month before some of Mixi’s partners began to drop out of or pull back from the network after being contacted by the Journal” about Mixi. Continue reading, here.

An online firearms seller from Texas pleaded guilty Wednesday to illegally selling a rifle to a man a court had deemed mentally unfit to own weapons. That customer then took his rifle on a shooting rampage that killed seven people and wounded 25 in West Texas just over a year ago. He was shot and killed by police after hijacking a postal truck and leading them on a chase more than 20 miles away to the town of Odessa.
Big picture: The Wednesday plea deal “is a sign of increased scrutiny of private gun sales, including those conducted online,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Such transactions have proven challenging for authorities to regulate in recent years.” More here.

And finally today: A new first for the U-2. The 65-year-old aircraft has now “become the first military aircraft to land with different software lines of code than it had at take-off," Steve Trimble tweeted Wednesday evening after reading this U.S. Air Force news release.
Background: The Air Force’s chief software officer hinted about this in September.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly characterized an Oct. 7, 2020, Wall Street Journal report linking a group of conservative media sites to Mixi.Media, a company that distributes content from Russia's state-sponsored RT outlet. The original article stated that the Daily Caller was one of several sites that displays content from Mixi.Media, including from RT. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported in its article that the Daily Caller has opted out of receiving RT content from its Mixi.Media feed. We regret the error.