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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
RUSSIAN CYBERESPIONAGE OPERATION
The scope of the Russian hack on US federal agencies has broadened — with the State Department, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and parts of the Pentagon now also reported as having been compromised, following yesterday’s news that the Treasury and Commerce Departments had been the target of the largescale Russian espionage operation. Hackers were reported to have infiltrated federal systems via a widely used network-management software, SolarWinds, which reported yesterday that around 18,000 private and government customers may have been affected. SolarWinds’ customers span some 230,000 and include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the State Department, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the National Security Agency (NSA), other parts of the Pentagon, and many utility companies. David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is also among those affected by the hack. Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg report for the Washington Post.
The scale of the operation is still unknown but “is probably going to be one of the most consequential cyberattacks in US history … That’s the view from inside government — that we’re dealing with something of a scale that I don’t think we’ve had to deal with before,” one U.S. official said. The hack is expected to intensify attention on the DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which since mid-November has been without a permanent leader following President Trump’s firing of CISA director Chris Krebs, and which CNN reported to have also been compromised by the attack. The National Security Council (NSC) yesterday held its second emergency meeting of its Cyber Response Group to discuss the matter and set a plan for assessing the damage, and is said to be assembling a subsidiary body, the Unified Coordination Group, to lead a collaborative approach by affected agencies. Reports indicate email accounts could have been breached from as far back as June. Eric Geller reports for POLITICO.
Lawmakers have called for action to understand the full scope of the cyberattack. The breach is “serious and disturbing … Congress must understand the scope of what happened and what resources Federal agencies will need to secure their networks,” House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) told The Hill. “While many details are still unknown, the attack emphasizes the importance of strong cybersecurity protections and rapid incident responses across all federal agencies,” Senate Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Republican Sens. John Thune (SD) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) said in a joint statement. Thompson has called for CISA to brief his committee, with Rep. John Katko (R-NY), the panel’s new ranking member, calling for a “coordinated and cohesive national strategy” to fight these types of attacks. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) described the attack as “devastating,” and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a statement that “we should make clear that there will be consequences.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.
PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION TO POWER
The Electoral College yesterday affirmed President-elect Joe Biden as victorious in the US election, receiving 306 votes, topping the 270 he needed. Elise Viebeck, Dan Simmons, Amy Worden and Omar Sofradzija report for the Washington Post.
Biden unleashes a verbal attack on President Trump following the Electoral College’s affirmation, describing Trump’s attacks on the election and election officials as “simply unconscionable” and his attempts to overturn the results as an “abuse of power.” Rebecca Shabad, Dareh Gregorian and Dartunorro Clark report for NBC News.
Multiple senior Republican senators yesterday acknowledged Biden’s win following the College’s affirmation, rejecting the prospect of Congress vetoing the decision on Jan. 6. Those senators who publicly recognized Biden include: John Thune (R-SD), the No. 2 Senate Republican; Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham (SC); Rob Portman (OH); Roy Blunt (MI), the Senate’s No. 4 Republican; and Shelley Moore Capito (WV). Patricia Zengerle and Tim Reid report for Reuters.
Four takeaways from Biden’s Electoral College victory are provided by Shane Goldmacher and Adam Nagourney for the New York Times.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is expected to visit the State Department Thursday, where he will meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the first time since Biden’s victory, according to three sources familiar with the matter. The meeting is scheduled for 15 minutes. Kylie Atwood reports for CNN.
Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday recognized Biden’s win for the first time. “In his message Vladimir Putin wished the president-elect every success and expressed confidence that Russia and the United States, which bear special responsibility for global security and stability, can, despite their differences, effectively contribute to solving many problems and meeting challenges that the world is facing today,” the Kremlin said in a statement. Isabelle Khurshudyan reports for the Washington Post.
Attorney General William Barr will step down from his position Dec. 23, President Trump revealed in a post on Twitter yesterday. The news comes after a series of complaints by Trump about Barr, although the president’s public remarks yesterday suggested no underlying and lasting animosity. “Just had a very nice meeting with … Barr at the White House,” Trump’s post read, adding “Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!” Trump also posted Barr’s departure letter, in which Barr stated that he would “spend the next week wrapping up a few remaining matters important to the Administration and depart on Dec. 23.” Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.
The Pentagon yesterday named eight new members to its policy advisory board, the Defense Policy Board, including Trump loyalists and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, after last month nearly a dozen of its members were suddenly purged, including Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Others newly appointed include: Thomas Carter, Edward Luttwak, Scott O’Grady, Thomas Stewart, former Rep. Randy Forbes, former Sen. Robert Smith and Charles Glazer. Connor O’Brien reports for POLITICO.
A $1.4 trillion omnibus federal spending bill could be agreed and revealed today, minimizing the likelihood of a government shutdown Friday at midnight. Lawmakers are expected to announce a bipartisan agreement today, with legislative text shortly following, according to those involved in the process. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a call last night that the remaining issues “could be readily resolved,” according to a Pelosi spokesperson. The bill may also include a Covid-19 relief package, Pelosi and Mnuchin are reported to have agreed. Caitlin Emma and Sarah Ferris report for POLITICO.
The US has imposed sanctions on two Iranian intelligence officials over alleged responsibility for the abduction, detention and likely death of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran almost 14 years ago. “The abduction of Mr. Levinson in Iran is an outrageous example of the Iranian regime’s willingness to commit unjust acts,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, adding. “The United States will always prioritize the safety and security of the American people and will continue to aggressively pursue those who played a role in Mr. Levinson’s detention and probable death.” AP reporting.
The US has sanctioned its NATO ally Turkey over its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems last year, following legislation pushed last week by Congress for such sanctions to be imposed. “The sanctions target Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB); SSB’s president, Ismail Demir; and other SSB officers. The sanctions include a ban on all U.S. export licenses and authorizations and visa restrictions and asset freezes for blacklisted individuals and the agency,” reports Laura Kelly for The Hill.
Turkey condemned the sanctions as a “grave mistake” and threatened retaliation. The country’s foreign ministry said the move was “inexplicable,” adding, “We call on the United States to revise the unjust sanctions (and) to turn back from this grave mistake as soon as possible … Turkey is ready to tackle the issue through dialogue and diplomacy in a manner worthy of the spirit of alliance.” Tuvan Gumrukcu reports for Reuters.
China has used mobile phone networks in the Caribbean to surveil US mobile phone subscribers, exploiting decades-old vulnerabilities in the global telecommunications network, according to Gary Miller, a Washington state-based former mobile network security executive, who said that the attacks have enabled China to target, track and intercept tens of thousands of telephone communications of U.S. phone subscribers. Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports for The Guardian.
The Trump administration offered around $850 million to American victims of terrorist attacks in an effort to reach an agreement with Congress to pass legislation which would remove Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and restore Sudan’s sovereign immunity. “The offer, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations, included $700 million for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and up to $150 million for hundreds of naturalized U.S. citizens who are victims of the 1998 twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,” reports Laura Kelly for The Hill.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday condemned Iran’s “unjust, barbaric” execution of Iranian dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam. Reuters reporting.
The novel coronavirus has infected over 16.52 million and now killed over 300,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 72.95 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.623 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
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.
Russian state security agents are responsible for poisoning Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August, according to open-source investigative research group Bellingcat, which said that spy agents with expertise in poisonous substances had trailed Navalny for years and were in the area at the time he was poisoned by a highly toxic nerve agent. Tim Lister, Clarissa Ward and Sebastian Shukla report for CNN.
The Boko Haram group today claimed responsibility for the abduction of more than 300 boys from a secondary school in the northwestern state of Katsina, Nigeria. Al Jazeera reporting.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have begun a prisoner exchange as part of an “all for all” swap brokered by Russia following a 6-week long bloody conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Russia’s defense ministry confirmed today. Reuters reporting.
Kabul Deputy Governor Mahboobullah Mohebi has been killed in a targeted IED bomb attached to his car, security officials have said. Al Jazeera reporting.
The International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Office of the Prosecutor yesterday released its annual report, which said there is a “reasonable basis to believe” that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs operation implicates the country in crimes against humanity committed between July 2016 and March 2016, including murder, torture, infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm. Ted Regencia reports for Al Jazeera.
The Office of the Prosecutor’s also said that it cannot investigate China for alleged genocide and crime against humanity against Uighur Muslims as the alleged acts took place on China’s territory, which is not a signatory to the ICC. “This precondition for the exercise of the court’s territorial jurisdiction did not appear to be met with respect to the majority of the crimes alleged,” the report read. Al Jazeera reporting.