Early Edition: October 29, 2020

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

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

US DEVELOPMENTS

Federal agencies have warned US hospitals and healthcare providers of “an increased and imminent cybercrime threat,” including ransomware attacks, urging providers to take precautions to protect their systems. The FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) all warned yesterday in a joint statement that they have “credible” information about the threats, in which hackers are using malware software to steal providers’ data in exchange for multimillion-dollar ransom payments. Hold Security, a security company that monitors online criminals, said that one of the hackers, a Russian-speaker, said during a private conversation Monday that “we expect panic.” Alex Holden, Hold Security’s founder, said Russian hackers had compiled a list of over 400 hospitals they intend to target. Nicole Perlroth reports for the New York Times.

Miles Taylor, DHS’s former chief of staff, revealed yesterday that he was the anonymous author behind the 2018 New York Times op-ed and the 2019 book, “A Warning,” that denounced President Trump. In a statement yesterday, Taylor admitted he wrote the op-ed describing Trump as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” and the book that said Trump was “undisciplined” and “amoral.” Taylor resigned from the DHS June 2019 and made his criticism of Trump known this summer. Michael D. Shear reports for the New York Times.

The FBI has arrested five Chinese agents in the US on charges of targeting immigrants in China who were deemed dissidents of the Chinese Communist Party. The arrested individuals are accused of being part of a Chinese-led operation called “Fox Hunt” that purports to target fugitives but which critics say is aimed at communist opponents. FBI Director Christopher Wray said: “China is violating norms and laws left and right,” adding that, “surveilling, stalking, harassing and blackmailing our citizens and lawful permanent residents carry serious risks.” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said the operation did in some cases legitimately target individuals who violated financial laws, but that many were targeted for being alleged political rivals, critics or dissidents of the Chinese government. Devlin Barrett reports for the Washington Post.

The FBI Agents Association (FBIAA), an advocacy group representing more than 14,000 FBI agents, yesterday urged Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to retain FBI Director Christopher Wray until the end of his 10-year term, following recent reports that Trump intends to fire Wray. In a letter sent to Trump and Biden, the FBIAA President Brian O’Hare praised Wray for his professionalism and stressed that Wray remaining in his post will help “stability, credibility, and integrity” at the bureau. “Director Wray operates independently from partisan activities, and his nomination and acceptance of the position were predicated on that fact. He has not led the Bureau in a political manner, and politics should not determine his fate as Director,” O’Hare stressed. Matt Zapotosky reports for the Washington Post.

Facebook, Twitter and Google CEOs were yesterday grilled by senators over their online speech policies, as part of Congress’ review of federal law Section 230 that spares social media companies from liability for content on their platforms. Five key takeaways from the hearing are provided by Cristiano Lima for POLITICO.

Three senior Democratic senators yesterday pushed for the Trump Organization to provide further information about a Trump-owned Chinese bank account, which was initially reported by the New York Times last week. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (NY), Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) and Senate Banking Committee ranking member Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH) stressed in a letter to Alan Garten, the executive vice president and chief legal officer of the Trump Organization, that understanding how Trump’s foreign dealings could be influencing foreign policy decisions and trade negotiations with China was crucial. “In light of the President’s refusal to release his tax returns and divest from his financial holdings, it is imperative that Congress have a full understanding of any potential financial conflicts of interest that the President has, especially with China, one of the nation’s most important economic competitors and strategic adversaries,” the letter said. Naomi Jagoda reports for The Hill.
A Marine Corps helicopter hovered over a crowd of Trump supporters during his reelection campaign, raising concerns about the use of military aircrafts for political purposes, an action that Department of Defense (DOD) policy prohibits. A video post on Twitter by Trump shows a helicopter, emblazoned with the Marine Corps’ Helicopter Squadron One green and white paint design, hovering over supporters; the DOD have not commented, although its policies clearly prohibit military members from getting involved in campaign activities, such as volunteering for a candidate, attending a rally or appearing in materials while in military uniform. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

The Visa Security Expansion Act was this week introduced by two senators which would widen the DHS’s visa screening process in order to root out potential terrorists among foreign visitors to the US. The bill was introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and panel member Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and would expand for a minimum of 10 years the DHS’s reach at U.S. embassies and consulates. The measure would ramp up the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations agents “who aid the State Department in making decisions about whether to grant U.S. visas to foreign nationals,” Hassan added. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

ELECTION DAY AND ELECTION INTERFERENCE

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe’s comments last week that Iran had sent threatening emails to Americans in an effort “to damage President Trump” was not part of his prepared and approved statement, two senior administration officials familiar with the situation have said. The script was signed off by FBI Director Christopher Wray and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs; however, neither had expected Ratcliffe to go off script and were taken aback by his political aside. Ratcliffe’s comments pertained to emails sent by Iranian hackers, posing as the far-right group the Proud Boys, to Americans warning them to vote for Trump “or we will come after you” — Ratcliffe said the emails were “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” although many have said the claim is unsubstantiated. He also went off script when he omitted to reference the Proud Boys, who were named in his prepared statement. Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO

Olga Galkina, a Russian public relations executive, was a key source of information for the “Steele Dossier,” compiled by British spy Christopher Steele, which accused Trump’s campaign of being compromised by Russia, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal has revealed. Galkina reportedly fed information to an associate of Steele’s and was the key source of the dossier’s claim that Webzilla played a key role in the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee, according to people familiar with the matter. Alan Cullison and David Gauthier-Villars report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Supreme Court yesterday refused to block lower court rulings that permitted extensions on the deadline for mail-in ballots in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, battleground states that are pivotal to Trump’s chances of being reelected. The court ruled that a three-day extension to the deadline in Pennsylvania and a six-day extension in North Carolina will remain in place, rejecting arguments from Republicans. Jess Bravin and Brent Kendall report for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.85 million and now killed over 227,00 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 44.58 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.175 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN  

Gen. David Thompson, the US Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, has tested positive for Covid-19, the Air Force announced yesterday in a statement, stating that Thompson was tested after he was told that a close family member had contracted the virus. He is currently isolating and working from home. The statement didn’t say whether Thompson had come into contact with any other military personnel. Jacqueline Feldscher reports for POLITICO.

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 Justice Department’s investigation into state-owned Turkish bank Halkbank over potential violation of US sanctions law has shone a light on the influence Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has over President Trump. Top federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman met with Attorney General William Barr in 2019 to discuss the case and was taken aback when Barr presented a potential settlement proposal that would let of the hook Erdogan and other Turkish and bank officials. White House officials were reportedly disappointed in Trump’s handling of the case, particularly because the investigation involved accusations that Halkbank had circumvented Trump’s policy of economically isolating Iran. Eric Lipton and Benjamin Weiser report for the New York Times.

Two House lawmakers will this week introduce a bill that seeks to require the Department of Defense to consider selling to Israel bunker-buster bombs that are able to destroy heavily fortified underground facilities, Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) said in a press release Tuesday. Al Jazeera reporting.

Al-Qaeda is still “heavily embedded” within the Taliban in Afghanistan, despite the February US-Taliban agreement, Edmund Fitton-Brown, co-ordinator of the United Nation’s Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, told the BBC, adding that “The Taliban were talking regularly and at a high level with al-Qaeda and reassuring them that they would honour their historic ties.” Secunder Kermani reports for BBC News.

The defense ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh region confirmed today that there have been a further 51 casualties among its military, upping the military death toll to 1,119 since the conflict between Armenian and Azeri forces broke out Sept. 27. Reuters reporting.

The US will set up an embassy in the Maldives, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, a move that is hoped to boost U.S. influence in a region dominated by China. Pranshu Verma reports for the New York Times.

The Trump administration and Greenland are in the final stages of agreeing deals on security and diplomatic cooperation and trade and investment, a senior diplomatic official said yesterday, following high-level conversations yesterday between U.S., Greenland and Denmark officials. Gordon Lubold reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The EU will permit the US to partake in future joint EU defense projects, but only on an exceptional basis, three EU diplomats confirmed yesterday. Reuters reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

British lawmakers have filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Boris Johnson over an alleged failure to properly protect the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU from Russian interference, following a July parliamentary report that blasted the government for failing to investigate claims that Russia has meddled in the vote. Reuters reporting.

Three people in France have today been killed in a knife attack at church in what the police have described as a terrorist attack. James McAuley reports for the Washington Post. 

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)