Early Edition: February 24, 2021

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.

US RELATIONS

The Biden administration is preparing a host of sanctions and other measures aimed at Russia over its alleged responsibility of the SolarWinds hack as well as other malign cyberactivity and the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, U.S. officials familiar with the matter said. The administration is to describe the SolarWinds operation as “indiscriminate” and potentially “disruptive,” which will allow the United States to distinguish Russia’s actions from the kind of espionage that the United States conducts. The administration is also excepted to release an attribution statement which will more definitively assign blame to Russia for the SolarWinds hack. Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post.

Around $7 billion in Iranian assets frozen in two South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions will be released through consultations with the U.S., Seoul’s foreign ministry said, after the Iranian government stated on its website that an agreement had been reached between Iran’s Central Bank Gov. Abdolnaser Hemmati and South Korean Ambassador to Iran Ryu Jeong-hyun. “Seoul has been in talks with Washington on ways to release the money without violating the sanctions, including expanding humanitarian trade with the Middle Eastern country …  a foreign ministry official said Seoul was finalizing talks with Washington about using some of the frozen funds to pay Tehran’s U.N. dues in arrears, to which the Islamic republic has also agreed,” reports the Korean Times.

President Biden is expected to call Saudi Arabia’s King Salman today in advance of an unclassified report to be released tomorrow by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which implies Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Han Nichols reports for Axios.

The U.S. today announced its intent to seek a permanent seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a post on Twitter. Al Jazeera reporting.

Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said yesterday that he has directed House committees to draft a bipartisan bill aimed at countering China’s rise. “This year’s package would target investment in U.S. manufacturing, science and technology, supply chains and semiconductors, Schumer said, adding he intends to have a bill on the Senate floor by “this spring”,” report Richard Cowan and Alexandra Alper for Reuters.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday spoke with President Biden for their first bilateral meeting, where Trudeau appeared to take a swipe at former President Trump while praising the Biden administration for its commitment to climate change. Brett Samuels reports for The Hill.

Trudeau and Biden also spoke on two Canadians detained in China since 2018 over alleged spying. In remarks following the meeting, Biden said: “Human beings are not bartering chips. We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.” BBC News reporting.

SENATE HEARINGS ON U.S. CAPITOL ATTACK 

Top law enforcement officials responsible for security at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack yesterday testified in two public Senate hearings. Those officials were: former House sergeant-at-arms Paul D. Irving and former Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael C. Stenger, both of whom resigned shortly after the riots; former Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund, who also resigned; and acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III.

All four officials ultimately passed blamed for the inadequacies in law enforcement response, but mainly focused their criticism on the Pentagon’s slow response to deploying the National Guard as well as federal intelligence authorities’ insufficient warnings of the impending attack. Sund said that during the highly-reported call with senior security and military officials, top Pentagon official Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt said he would not be recommending Guard deployment over fear of the “optics” of troops at the Capitol: “Lt. Gen. Piatt then indicated that he was going to run the request up the chain of command at the Pentagon … Almost two hours later, we had still not received authorization from the Pentagon to activate the National Guard.” Contee expressed that he was “literally stunned” by Army officials’ seemingly unconcerned response: “Chief Sund was pleading for the deployment of the National Guard and in response to that, there was not an immediate ‘Yes, the National Guard is responding’.” Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report for POLITICO.

Sen. Gary Peters revealed that an FBI report containing “troubling” intel had been sent to the D.C. police department and Capitol Police headquarters on Jan. 5 but never reached leadership: “How can you not get that vital intelligence on the eve of what’s going to be a major event?” Peters asked Sund. Sund accepted that the information would have been useful but said that it was “coming in as raw data.” Sund added: “I agree that’s something we need to look at. What’s the process and how do we streamline?” Zachary Cohen, Whitney Wild and Marshall Cohen report for CNN.

Paul Irving said in his prepare testimony that intelligence assessments had failed to accurately assess the threat posed on Jan. 6. “Based on the intelligence, we all believed that the plan met the threat, and we were prepared. We now know we had the wrong plan,” he said.

Sund also said that rioters who stormed the Capitol “came prepared for war.” Stenger said: “This was a violent, coordinated attack where the loss of life could have been much worse.” Ed Pilkington and Joan E Greve report for The Guardian.

Five key takeaways from the hearings are provided by Scott Wong and Mike Lillis for The Hill.

SENATE HEARING ON SOLARWINDS HACK

The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday held its first public hearing on the SolarWinds hack that breached federal government systems, with top executives from SolarWinds, Microsoft, FireEye and CrowdStrike Holdings testifying and broadly defending their actions in the unprecedented hack. Microsoft President Brad Smith said that, “the attacker may have used up to a dozen different means of getting into victim networks during the past year,” while CrowdStrikes’ CEO George Kurtz placed the blame on Microsoft for its “antiquated” architecture. “The executives argued for greater transparency and information-sharing about breaches, with liability protections and a system that does not punish those who come forward, similar to airline disaster investigations,” report Raphael Satter and Joseph Menn for Reuters.

Microsoft’s Smith said in written testimony: “At this stage we have found substantial evidence that points to the Russian foreign intelligence agency, and we have found no evidence that leads us anywhere else … There is not a lot of suspense at this moment in terms of who we are talking about.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Mysteries remain following the first day of testimony, including how hackers originally breached SolarWinds’ and Microsoft’s systems, what exactly took place during the breach and following, and the extent of those affected. Tim Starks reports for CYBERSCOOP.

The hearing can be viewed here.

CABINET CONFIRMATION HEARINGS

Linda Thomas-Greenfield was yesterday confirmed by the Senate as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) and will lead as the president of the U.N. Security Council in March. “The upper chamber took an initial step, voting 78 to 20 to elevate Linda Thomas-Greenfield to ambassador status, with Democrats and moderate Republicans praising her decades of experience serving under presidents of both parties. A second vote to make her “representative of the United States of America to the Sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations” was 78 to 21,” report John Hudson and Anne Gearan for the Washington Post.

The likelihood of Neera Tanden being confirmed as leader of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is diminishing, after a handful of lawmakers expressed they would be voting against her nomination. Stephen Collinson reports for CNN.

Shalanda Young has now emerged as a leading contender for the leading position at the OMB after the likelihood of Tanden’s confirmation dwindles. Jeff Zeleny and Paul LeBlanc report for CNN

Deb Haaland, nominee for interior secretary, received pointed questions yesterday from most Republicans on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee over her previous statements on the need to stop drilling on federal lands managed by the Interior Department. Darryl Fears reports for the Washington Post.

RACIAL JUSTICE

The federal investigation into former police officer Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd appears to be regaining traction as a new federal grand jury is empaneled and the Justice Department issues subpoenas for new witnesses to give testimony about Chauvin. “It is unlikely that the Justice Department, in presenting evidence to a new grand jury, is hoping for a quick indictment of Mr. Chauvin before his state trial, which is scheduled to begin March 8. But if there was an acquittal or a mistrial, attention would immediately shift to the federal investigation, and to whether Mr. Chauvin would face trial for violating Mr. Floyd’s civil rights. (The charge does not involve race, but is based on the idea that an officer “willfully” violated someone’s constitutional rights, such as protection against unreasonable seizure, or the right to due process.),” report Tim Arango and Katie Benner for the New York Times.

A grandy jury has declined to charge any of the seven officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude last March, where the Black man, who was mid mental health crisis, was hooded and pinned to the ground by officers where he lost consciousness and died. New York Attorney General Letitia James expressed her disappointment in the outcome: “The criminal justice system has demonstrated an unwillingness to hold law enforcement officers accountable in the unjustified killing of unarmed African-Americans … What binds these cases is the tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could be avoided.” Sarah Maslin Nir reports for the New York Times.

Details of the Prude case are provided by Michael Gold and Troy Closson for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 28.26 million and now killed over 502,600 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 112.18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.48 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Drug companies Pfizer and Moderna yesterday pledged to lawmakers an increase in vaccines delivered which will see around 140 million more doses over the next five weeks, stating that manufacturing challenges had been addressed. Isaac Stanley-Becker and Christopher Rowland report for the Washington Post.

A tracker for the number of people in the US who have received one dose of the vaccine is provided by 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.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

A German court yesterday sentenced former Syrian intelligence officer Eyad al-Gharib to four-and-a-half years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The case was brought by German prosecutors under the principle of universal jurisdiction. BBC News reporting.

E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell yesterday called on China to allow U.N. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to visit and investigate alleged mistreatment of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region and of people in Tibet. “Once again, we urge China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including High Commissioner Bachelet. This is key to enable an independent, impartial and transparent assessment of the grave concerns that the international community has,” Borrell told the U.N. Human Rights Council. Reuters reporting.

Police forces yesterday stormed the party offices of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia, arresting him over accusations that he incited violence at street protests in 2019, worsening a political crisis that saw the country’s prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, resign last week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the arrest was “deeply troubling” and urged the Georgian government to refrain from escalating tensions.  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)