Early Edition: September 2, 2020

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

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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.

US ELECTION SECURITY AND INTERFERENCE

A Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency has been targeting Americans with disinformation by using a network of fake accounts and a fake website set up to imitate a left-wing site in a bid to influence the presidential election and push voters away from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden – what makes this particularly worrying is that American citizens were hired to write for the site, social media giants Facebook and Twitter reported yesterday. Evidence suggests that the group, known as the Internet Research Agency, is repeating its efforts prior to the 2016 election to assist President Trump’s success. The campaigns have been said to have achieved very little success, with the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force working with the social media companies to investigate the interference efforts, including the fake website use, known as PeaceData. Kevin Collier and Ken Dilanian report for NBC News.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) yesterday denied seeing any evidence of attacks on the US voting infrastructure in the run up to this year’s election, stressing in a joint statement that they closely monitor any risks, regularly provide this information to state and local election officials, and urged voters to “look to trusted sources of info.” The statement follows reports yesterday from Russia’s Kommersant newspaper that reported a Russian hacking website had hacked over 7.6 million Michigan resident’s data and millions more nationwide; however, Michigan’s Department of State refuted this and assured voters that the information in question is available through a Freedom of Information act, adding: “Our system has not been hacked.” Tim Starks reports for POLITICO.

Trump and his associates have painted a picture of a concerted Chinese efforts to interfere in this year’s election in support of Biden – but the actual intel does not corroborate their allegations, according to public statements by William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), and multiple sources who have had access to the underlying intelligence. Officials privy to the intel have said the Trump administration is attempting to detract the public’s focus from the “most acute threat” to the election, Russia, although one national security official did accept that China could “interference on a huge scale” but that the intelligence does not support the pressing risk of that concern. Natasha Bertrand reports for POLITICO.

DHS withheld the publication of a July intelligence bulletin that warned of a Russia effort to promote “allegations about the poor mental health” of Biden, internal emails and a draft of the documents have revealed. The draft bulletin, titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 election,” was sent to the department’s legislative and public affairs office on July 7 and was intended to be sent out to law enforcement partners two days later; however an email from DHS Chief of Staff John Gountanis read: “Please hold on sending this one out until you have a chance to speak to [acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf],” and nearly two months later the bulletin remains uncirculated. Josh Margolin, Lucien Bruggeman, Will Steakin and Jonathan Karl report for ABC News.

Hackers have ramped up their efforts to disrupt Trump’s campaign websites ahead of the election, internal emails from U.S. cybersecurity firm Cloudflare reveal. Senior managers of Cloudflare, which was tasked by Trump to protect his campaign websites from hacking and foreign interference, received emails in July that stated the frequency and severity of attacks on Trump’s websites had rocketed in May and reached record levels in June. The email did not disclosure specific number of attacks. Reuters reporting.

Top House Democrats join in their demand for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to reinstate in-person election security briefings to Congress following a letter sent Friday by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe that confirmed all future briefings would be in writing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), and chair of the House Appropriates subcommittee responsible for overseeing defense spending, Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN), said in a joint letter that if briefings do not resume, they would “consider the full range of tools available to compel compliance.” Cristina Marcos reports for The Hill.

US DEVELOPMENTS

A New York appeals court yesterday temporarily blocked Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr’s latest effort to obtain eight years of President Trump’s tax and financial records, issuing an order that granted Trump’s lawyer’s requests to have the grand jury subpoena temporarily blocked until the issue could be resolved before the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The order provided no rationale for the court’s decision, but set the appeal date for Sept. 25. Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum report for the New York Times.

Attorney General William Barr yesterday issued two memos that would tighten Department of Justice (DOJ) procedures for seeking the approval of intelligence-related surveillance of candidates for federal office or their staff members and advisers. The pertinent policy changes relate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and how the FBI seeks permission from the FISA Court when it wants to target elected officials as part of its investigation. The reforms “will empower the FBI to build a more robust internal compliance program … that will ensure, among other things, the accuracy of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] applications, as well as the active oversight of applications targeting federal elected officials, candidates for federal elected office, and their staffs,” the DOJ said in a release on its website. Quint Forgey reports for POLITICO.

The US Postal Service (USPS)’s internal watchdog has found that more than one million mail-in ballots were delivered late to voters during the 2020 primary election, deepening concerns about whether the service has the ability to deal with the inevitably high number of mail-in votes expected for the presidential election. An audit by the watchdog of mail-in ballots sent between June and August found that over one million ballots had not been sent until the final week of the election. Luke Broadwater reports for the New York Times.

The Trump administration plans to drastically expand the government’s collection of biometric information from immigrants seeking US citizenship, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed yesterday. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services already requires from those over the age of 14 fingerprints, photographs and signatures; however, the proposed policy change would include DNA, eye scans, voice prints and photographs for facial recognition. According to a draft of the policy obtained by BuzzFeed News, immigration enforcement officials would be permitted to conduct continuous vetting, in which they could request biometrics from immigrants with work permits or green cards at any time. AP reporting.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has postponed a second attempt to vote on its proposed changes to its whistleblower award program, indicating that the commission’s commissioners have yet to reach a consensus on a final draft of the changes. The amendments to the program, which have been the workings of two years, would allow the SEC to limit some of its largest rewards and speed up the process of some claims. “In light of a combination of factors, including holiday schedules and other work demands, we will reschedule the meeting for a future date,” an SEC spokesperson said. Dylan Tokar reports for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 6.07 million and killed close to 185,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 25.78 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 857,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Trump administration will not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine – partly because it would be led by the World Health Organization (WHO), the White House said yesterday, a decision which could negatively impact on the country’s ability to fight the pandemic and leave it behind in a race for a vaccine. More than 170 countries are discussing joining forces to participate in the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, Covax, which will focus its efforts on developing a vaccine and distributing it worldwide. Emily Rauhala and Yasmeen Abutaleb report for the Washington Post.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the US is available at the New York Times.

US 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.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

Four protestors in Kenosha, WI, who were arrested for curfew violations while protesting over the police killing of Jacob Blake have filed a legal suit against the city and county yesterday, arguing that they had had their constitutional free speech rights infringed. “In Kenosha, there are two sets of laws – one that applies to those who protest police brutality and racism, and another for those who support the police,” the group argued in their complaint. The plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) until the case can be heard in court. Reuters reporting.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s 2019 pledge to focus on national extremism, including domestic terrorism, white nationalist groups and other forms of national violence, remains “unfulfilled,” writes Zolan Kanno Youngs for the New York Times. Young argues that new DHS leadership, including acting secretary Chad Wolf, have this year done the very opposite to what was promised – the department’s handling of recent nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality highlight their failings.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS          

China is drastically increasing its nuclear and missile forces, the Pentagon has stated in a report released yesterday, which predicted that the Chinese government would be able to double its 200 nuclear warheads over the next 10 years. The Pentagon’s projection was based on factors including China “probably” already having enough raw material to ramp up nuclear production without the need for new production material. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The Afghan government has release close to 200 Taliban prisoners as part of an ongoing peace deal between the two warring sides, a move that signifies an important development towards addressing a standoff over peace talks. Al Jazeera reporting.

The US plans to halt a 33-year arms embargo on Cyprus and strengthen its security operation with the country, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday. “Cyprus is a key partner in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Pompeo said in a post on Twitter, adding: “We will waive restrictions on the sale of non-lethal defense articles and services to the Republic of Cyprus for the coming fiscal year.” Reuters reporting.

The US may impose sanctions of seven Belarusians it alleges were involved in falsifying the widely-condemned presidential election result earlier this month, a State Department yesterday confirmed. Reuters reporting. 

About the Author(s)

Siven Watt

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