The Early Edition: July 17, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news. 

TWITTER HACKING

The FBI and New York state have opened investigations into Wednesday’s unprecedented hack of Twitter, as the social media giant faced widespread concern over its security practices leading up to the US presidential election. A spokesperson at the FBI’s San Francisco division confirmed that the agency was probing the hack, in which attackers took over the official accounts of former Vice President Joe Biden, former President Obama, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to solicit more than $100,000 in bitcoin. Separately, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in a statement that he had directed a “full investigation” into the incident through the New York Department of Financial Services “and any other relevant state agency.” Hannah Murphy and Kadhim Shubber report for the Financial Times.

A day after the Twitter security breach, lawmakers and cybersecurity experts are anxious that whoever hijacked the company’s system could have gained access to private direct messages. The hackers appeared to have unlimited access to a tool that allowed Twitter administrators to reset the password of any account, according to screenshots that circulated online and were removed by Twitter. There is mounting concern among lawmakers and experts that the feature alleged to have been exploited by hackers would enable access to the direct messages, or DMs, of any account that had its password reset. Ben Collins and Cyrus Farivar report for NBC News.

The major breach “served as a warning that some of the most critical infrastructure that could influence the [November] election is not in the hands of government experts, and is far less protected than anyone assumed even a day ago,” David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth and Nick Corasaniti write in an analysis for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The United States reported more than 77,000 new coronavirus cases yesterday the highest daily jump in cases so far. The US continues to be, by far, the world’s coronavirus hot spot, with 3,576,000 confirmed infections and 138,360 fatalities. Helen Sullivan and Kenya Evelyn report for The Guardian.

Around the world, cases of the coronavirus are closing in on 14 million, with over 590,000 Covid-19 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

The US National Security Agency, as well as its counterparts in Britain and Canada, all are alleging that Russia is trying to steal information from researchers working on a coronavirus vaccine in the three countries. The Western intelligence agencies allege that the hacking group known as APT29, “Cozy Bear” or “The Dukes,” which is widely believed to operate as part of Russia’s security services, is conducting an “ongoing” cyber campaign to swipe intellectual property about a potential Covid-19 vaccine. Russia has denied the accusation. Alexander Smith and Matt Bradley report for NBC News.

The White House is demanding that Congress include a payroll tax cut as part of the next coronavirus stimulus package, potentially confounding negotiations with lawmakers by pushing a measure that President Trump has tried but failed to advance for nearly a year. As he has done since the beginning of this pandemic, President Trump wants to provide relief to hardworking Americans who have been impacted by this virus and one way of doing that is with a payroll tax holiday,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement. “He’s called on Congress to pass this before and he believes it must be part of any phase four package.” Trump’s renewed push for a payroll tax break comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) prepares to release legislation next week that he hopes will start talks on the next major coronavirus bill. Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report for the Washington Post.

The Republican National Committee announced plans to scale back its convention scheduled for next month in Jacksonville, Florida. It had moved the event from North Carolina before the surge in infections in Florida, hoping for fewer restrictions on crowds. But with coronavirus cases soaring in Florida, Party Chairperson Ronna McDaniel, who is managing planning for the convention, wrote to RNC members saying that attendance for the first three nights of the four-night event will be limited to delegates, explaining, “adjustments must be made to comply with state and local health guidelines.” Alex Isenstadt reports for POLITICO.

The Democrats are also scaling back their national convention, with the party urging elected leaders and party delegates to skip the convention in August altogether. The party had already announced plans to hold a mainly virtual convention using online streaming.  Lisa Lerer reports for the New York Times.

An unpublished report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force indicates that almost 20 hard-hit states should implement stricter public health measures, like mandating the use of face coverings and cutting down the size of gatherings. The document, dated Tuesday, was made public by the Center for Public Integrity. The Washington Post reporting.

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. 

RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORMS

Defense leaders, who for weeks have been torn over the contentious issue of banning the Confederate flag, are considering a new policy that would bar its display at department facilities without actually mentioning its name, multiple U.S. officials said yesterday. No final decisions have been made, but officials said the latest plan offers a creative way to ban the Confederate flag in a manner that may not infuriate President Trump, who has defended people’s rights to display it. AP reporting.

At least 26 of America’s 65 largest police departments have banned or bolstered restrictions on the use of neck restraints since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes, a Washington Post analysis shows. The swift response followed nationwide protests. Ted Mellnik, Kevin Schaul and Kimberly Kindy report for the Washington Post.

US DEVELOPMENTS

Defense officials have revealed to CNN details about the hypersonic missile President Trump has long promoted as a “super duper” new military weapon part of a massive effort to catch up to Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons programs. Pentagon officials outlined for the first time some of the capabilities of the hypersonic missile, which Trump has described as traveling 17 times the speed of sound. Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr report for CNN.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is accusing President Trump’s lawyers of deliberately delaying a legal fight over a subpoena for eight years of Trump’s tax records. During a court hearing held by telephone yesterday, one week to the day after the Supreme Court dismissed Trump’s most sweeping arguments against the grand jury subpoena, a lawyer from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office said it was clear that Trump’s legal team was “playing for time.” Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday ripped into the media as promoting Chinese propaganda and slammed the US’s national reckoning on racism in remarks unveiling the State Department’s first report on the Commission on Unalienable Rights. The commission, intended to establish a foundational text for how the U.S. defines human rights, has been criticized as creating a blueprint to ignore modern concepts such as support for women and the LGBTQ communities. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

A Navy sailor has been charged after purportedly disclosing classified information to a Russian national. Chief Petty Officer Charles Briggs, who works at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, faces a bunch of charges, including unauthorized distribution of classified information obtained from a government computer, obstructing justice and communicating defense information. Blake Montgomery reports for The Daily Beast.

There is growing evidence that the Trump administration has engaged in corrupt practices relating to antitrust enforcement, Professor Christopher Sprigman writes for Just Security, citing, among other things, whistleblower testimony from Trump Administration antitrust official John Elias, who alleged that Attorney General William Barr ordered investigations out of political dislike for an industry and without any predicate under standard Department of Justice (DOJ) policies.

Trump’s new Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe has misinterpreted his critical role, Brett Holmgren writes for Foreign Policy, commenting, since taking up office, Ratcliffe “has acted more like a White House press secretary protecting Trump’s political interests” and undermining the intelligence community than providing objective intelligence that serves U.S. national security. 

DEFENSE BUDGET: OPINION

“National security means a lot more than building bombs, missiles, nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) makes the liberal case for reducing defense spending in a piece for POLITICO Magazine, in which he proposes cutting the military budget by “a modest 10 percent” and investing that money in fighting the pandemic, providing health care and taking care of neglected communities.

“Republicans in Congress need to start tackling the Pentagon budget just as boldly as they do other areas of discretionary spending … doing so would put our nation on a better fiscal path and create opportunities for unlikely political alliances.” Andrew Lautz and Jonathan Bydlak suggest ways to cut Pentagon spending that are in line with conservative principles and goals in a piece for POLITICO Magazine.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

The US has “several” intelligence signs that Iran has put parts of its air defense system on “high alert” in recent days, following unexplained explosions at major facilities linked to the country’s military and nuclear programs, according to a U.S. official who is closely monitoring developments. The change in alert status means Iranian surface-to-air missile batteries would be ready to fire at targets believed to be a threat. Barbara Starr reports for CNN.

The United Nations envoy on Yemen urged yesterday for a transparent probe into air strikes that killed at least 11 civilians in al-Jawf province, saying resurgent violence is vexing U.N.-led efforts to end the five-year war. Reuters reporting.

A Pentagon report yesterday sharply criticized a $174 million American drone program that was designed to give Afghan forces an advantage over the Taliban but has instead shown few gains. The report from the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction cited delays and a lack of management or clear metrics for success for the program, known as ScanEagle. The report found multiple issues plaguing the program, including poor training for Afghan forces, who showed an “inability to account for ScanEagle equipment” and failed to exploit the intelligence gathered by the drones for military missions. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports for the New York Times.

Two US Navy aircraft carriers have restarted rare dual exercises in the South China Sea, the second time this month the huge warships have teamed up in the disputed waters. The U.S.S. Ronald and U.S.S. Nimitz carrier strikes groups, comprising over 12,000 US military personnel among the two warships and their escorting cruisers and destroyers, were operating in the South China Sea as of today, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement. Brad Lendon reports for CNN. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).