Early Edition: October 23, 2020

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours.

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.

ELECTION INTERFERENCE

Russian hackers have conducted a spate of recent cyberattacks on state and local governments and aviation networks, and have stolen data from at least two victims, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned yesterday. The alert said that hackers had “exfiltrated data from at least two victim servers,” although there were no indications hackers had “intentionally disrupted any aviation, education, elections, or government operations.” Federal officials also said that although “there may be some risk to elections information” due to “dozens” of state and local networks being targeted, the intelligence community (IC) has “no evidence … that integrity of elections data has been compromised.” The alert did, however, state that the hackers’ main goal may be to lodge themselves within U.S. computer networks in order to hack and release documents in the future in an effort to influence or undermine the Nov. 3 election. Eric Geller reports for POLITICO.

The Trump Administration has apparently known for weeks that both Iran and Russia had hacked US state and local governments and obtained voters’ data, two U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News. The officials’ comments follow news yesterday by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe that Iran was behind recent emails that targeted Democratic voters with fake and intimidating emails and that both Iran and Russia have obtained voter data on some Americans. The officials said that Iran’s intentions were not completely clear but that one aim was to undermine confidence in the election. Ken Dilanian reports for NBC News.

The Treasury Department has sanctioned Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC’s Quds Force, and the Bayan Rasaneh Gostar Institute “for having directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference,” it was confirmed in a press release. The department has also designated Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union and International Union of Virtual Media “for being owned or controlled by” the IRGC’s Quds Force. “The Iranian regime uses false narratives and other misleading content to attempt to influence U.S. elections,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. Al Jazeera reporting.

Mistakes were made by Iran that easily tied them to emails that threatened Democratic voters to vote for President Trump, according to four people familiar with the matter, who state mistakes made in a video attached to some of the emails made the culprit obvious. “Either they made a dumb mistake or wanted to get caught,” a senior U.S. government official told Reuters. “We are not concerned about this activity being some kind of false flag due to other supporting evidence. This was Iran.” Reuters reporting.

Trump and Ratcliffe are pushing for the speedy declassification of a document that allegedly sheds light on a 2017 IC finding that Russia had helped Trump’s 2016 election campaign, three government officials familiar with the situation have said. The official said that requests for the document have been opposed by the IC, particularly just before Election Day, after Ratcliffe said in a letter Oct 15. to the IC inspector general that he intends to declassify the document following calls by House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). Reuters reporting.

Five takeaways from the recent Iran and Russia interference attempts are provided by Maggie Miller and Rebecca Klar for The Hill.

THE BIDENS

Anthony Bobulinski, the former business partner of Hunter Biden, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, alleged yesterday that Joe had been consulted by his son about his planned venture with a Chinese oil company – however, the presidential nominee has long refuted this, and now the Wall Street Journal has conducted a review of corporate records and confirmed he had no role. Andrew Duehren and James T. Areddy report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday authorized subpoenas to be issued to the chief executives of Social media giants Twitter and Facebook following the social media platforms’ decision to block the Post stories on the Bidens. The GOP-led panel voted 12-0 to authorize committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to issue subpoenas to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Siobhan Hughes and Sarah E. Needleman report for the Wall Street Journal.

An explainer of the situation following a series of stories by the New York Post that revealed emails and documents alleged to be from Hunter’s laptop and hard drive and which embroil both Bidens into an alleged long history with a Ukrainian energy company and China is provided by Kyle Cheney, Natasha Bertrand and Andrew Desiderio for POLITICO, who detail how President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is involved.

US DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump this week ordered an executive order that removes long-held civil service protections from those in policy-making positions, a move that critics have said will cripple job security for tens of thousands of civil servants. The order allows the government much more flexibility in hiring and firing “employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating positions,” similar to the instability seen in political appointees who are often fired. The order states it will provide “greater ability and discretion to assess critical qualities in applicants to fill these positions, such as work ethic, judgment, and ability to meet the particular needs of the agency,” and allows Trump’s administration to determine which roles will be considered “at will” appointments, and effectively easier to dismiss, although the details of the rules will be left to each agency to decide. Andrew Ackerman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has had his state fraud charges dismissed by a New York appeals court due to violation of state double jeopardy laws. Manafort had already been indicted in early 2019 for related crimes that were uncovered as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe; therefore, the appeal court upheld a lower court’s decision last March that said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr.’s office were barred from taking forward the 16-count indictment against Manafort. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

Russia has reportedly granted permanent residency to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who was charged with espionage after releasing classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents related to US surveillance programs in 2013, state-run media and Snowden’s lawyer have confirmed. Snowden originally applied for a three-year extension to his permit earlier this year but the process was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, said, adding that a “permanent residence permit” had now been given but that his client was not yet considering applying for a Russian passport. Henry Austin and Yuliya Talmazan report for NBC News.

The US District Court for the Northern District of California, in a 90-page ruling, yesterday blocked the Census Bureau from providing the White House with data on the number of undocumented immigrants in the US. The decision follows a July order by Trump that required the bureau to provide a state-by-state count of unauthorized immigrants living in the country, which made clear he intended to discount from the 2020 census total when apportioning House seats for next year. The court said the order would violate the Constitution and federal laws that govern the census and reapportionment. Michael Wines reports for the New York Times.

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday advanced, in a 12-0 vote, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to serve as a Supreme Court justice, despite attempts by Democrats to boycott the process. The Senate will hold a final vote on Barrett’s nomination Monday. Seung Min Kim and Paulina Firozi report for the Washington Post.

Seven takeaways from yesterday’s final debate between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are provided by Eric Bradner and Kevin Liptak for CNN.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.41 million and now killed over 223,00 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 41.77 million confirmed coronavirus cases and close to 1.14 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday approved remdesivir to treat Covid-19 patients, making it the first and only drug to so far receive federal approval. BBC News reporting.

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.

US RELATIONS

The Treasury Department yesterday announced that it was sanctioning Iran’s ambassador to Iraq over his support of a “destabilizing foreign agenda” by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force’s (IRGC-QF) in Iraq. A press statement said that Iraj Masjefi, a general in the Revolutionary Guard, “has directed or supported groups that are responsible for attacks that have killed and wounded U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.” Celine Castronuovo reports for The Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are set to visit India next week for annual talks covering “all bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest.” AP reporting.

The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on two officials from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, a group that the United States deems a terrorist group. Reuters reporting.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet in Washington today with Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan over the growing conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Reuters reporting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that close to 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict, a number much higher than what’s being reported by the warring sides. BBC News reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

The Afghan government have denied that children were among those who were killed in recent airstrikes targeting Taliban fighters in northeastern Afghanistan. The country’s Ministry of Defense “has appointed an investigation team to assess allegations about civilian casualties resulting from this attack,” the Afghan Ministry of Defense said. Ahmed Mengli, Adela Suliman and Saphora Smith report for NBC News. 

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)