Early Edition: February 25, 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.

U.S. RELATIONS

A hacking group tied to Russia’s military intelligence group Sandworm has been targeting U.S. energy systems and infrastructure for years, warns cybersecurity firm Dragos in its annual report released yesterday. The report identified four new groups — “Three of those newly named groups have targeted industrial control systems in the US, according to Dragos. But most noteworthy, perhaps, is a group that Dragos calls Kamacite, which the security firm describes as having worked in cooperation with the GRU’s Sandworm. Kamacite has in the past served as Sandworm’s “access” team, the Dragos researchers write, focused on gaining a foothold in a target network before handing off that access to a different group of Sandworm hackers, who have then sometimes carried out disruptive effects. Dragos says Kamacite has repeatedly targeted US electric utilities, oil and gas, and other industrial firms since as early as 2017,” reports Andy Greenberg for WIRED.

“The two private jets used by a Saudi Arabian assassination squad that killed and allegedly dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi were owned by a company that less than a year prior had been seized by the Kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman,” reports Alex Marquardt for CNN after sighting recently filed court documents.

A declassified report set to be released today by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) found that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter. Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay and Trevor Hunnicutt report for Reuters.

Iran this week said that it was considering an offer by the E.U.’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to hold unofficial talks with China, Russia, the U.K., France and Germany, often dubbed the P4+1, although the U.S. would attend as a “guest.” “Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said it is likely officials from Tehran and Washington would sit together at an informal meeting hosted by the EU in the coming weeks.,” reports Al Jazeera.

The Taliban has accused the Afghan government and the U.S. of not abiding by the Doha deal signed last year,which requires the release of many prisoners and withdrawal of foreign troops. Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria is funding the expansion of a detention facility in northeastern Syria, “a move that may reduce the chance of breakouts but which signals that no better way is in sight to deal with captured foreign and local militants,” reports Katie Bo Williams for Defense One.

Tuesday’s arrest and detention of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia has prompted former U.S. officials and others to warn of sanctions and other policy action. David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President George W. Bush, said: “The international community needs to respond swiftly and forcefully and say that unless Melia is released and all parties return to the negotiating table, sanctions are going to be imposed on those responsible for pushing Georgia to this crisis point.” “Pressure from the West is more important than it is in other countries,” said Ghia Nodia, a professor of politics and director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. “Western sanctions on officials in Georgia would carry significantly more clout than in other former Soviet republics; Georgian officials for political reasons can’t well shift their assets to Russia,” writes Amy Mackinnon for Foreign Policy.

U.S. CAPITOL ATTACK

Federal judges asked Congress earlier this month for around $113 million in special funding to prevent court buildings from being the target of a “hostile incursion” similar to the Jan. 6 attack, it was disclosed at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing yesterday. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

A close ally of Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) was involved in the attack, who themselves admitted to being among the rioters who stormed the building. Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck report for CNN.

Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman wrote in her prepared statement for a House hearing today that officers in her department were “unsure of when to use lethal force” during the Capitol attack. “We have provided guidance to officers since January 6th as to when lethal force may be used consistent with the Department’s existing Use of Force policy. The Department will also implement significant training to refresh our officers as to the use of lethal force,” Pittman wrote, adding, “We also learned that the Department’s less lethal munitions were not as successful in dispersing insurrectionists in the attack, and we have already begun to diversify our less lethal capabilities.” Ursula Perano reports for Axios.

Intelligence officials from the FBI, Pentagon and Homeland Security will testify before senators Wednesday during the second hearing focused on law enforcement’s response to the attack. Officials will testify before a joint session of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

Over $30 million has already been spent repairing the damage caused during the Capitol attack and on related security expenses, Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton told lawmakers yesterday. Bill Chappell reports for NPR.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has received bipartisan rebuke for his claims that those responsible for the Jan. 6 attack were not Trump supporters but instead “agent provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters,” adding further that, the “great majority” of those at the Capitol had a “jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor.” “In fact, more than 200 rioters have been criminally charged by federal prosecutors, including many who have self-identified as Trump supporters and who have documented ties to far-right extremist groups. Federal officials have said there is no substantial evidence of left-wing provocation or that anti-fascist activists posed as Trump supporters during the riot,” reports Katie Shepherd for the Washington Post.

CABINET CONFIRMATION HEARINGS

Biden’s pick to serve as the CIA director, William Burns, yesterday received bipartisan support from lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing. Zachary Cohen, Alex Marquardt and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.

Burns told the Senate committee that he viewed countering China’s “adversarial, predatory” leadership as key to US national security, stating that his four priorities if confirmed would be “people, partnerships, China and technology.” The committee is expected to vote on Burns’ confirmation next week or the week after, a congressional official said. Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball report for Reuters.

“Out-competing China will be key to our national security in the days ahead,” said Burns, adding that for the CIA this will “will mean intensified focus and urgency, continually strengthening its already impressive cadre of China specialists, expanding its language skills, aligning personnel and resource allocation for the long haul and employing a whole of agency approach to the operational and analytical challenges of this crucial threat.” Martin Matishak reports for POLITICO.

Biden’s nominee as undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, is expected to face his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on March 4 — however, the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Jim Inhofe, has “serious concerns” over the nomination, according to three congressional aides. Lara Seligman and Connor O’Brien report for POLITICO.

The likelihood of Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Neera Tanden, is dwindling as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget committees sent out notices yesterday stating that their slated votes on Tanden’s nomination would be delayed. “We are postponing the business meeting because members need more time to consider the nominee,” said a Democratic aide on the Homeland Security committee, adding, “The president deserves to have a team in place that he wants, and we’re going to work with our members to figure out the best path forward.” Marianne Levine and Caitlin Emma for POLITICO.

IMMIGRATION AND ASYLUM

A federal judge in Texas, District Judge Drew Tipton, granted Tuesday a preliminary injunction that blocks the Biden administration’s 100-day moratorium on most deportations, a moratorium that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in a memo. The lawsuit was brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton against the federal government over the 100-day pause. Judge Tipton said in their 105-page ruling: “This preliminary injunction is granted on a nationwide basis and prohibits enforcement and implementation of the [100-day pause] in every place Defendants have jurisdiction to enforce and implement the January 20 Memorandum,” adding, “The core failure of DHS lies not in the brevity of the January 20 Memorandum or the corresponding administrative record, but instead in its omission of a rational explanation grounded in the facts reviewed and the factors considered … This failure is fatal, as this defect essentially makes DHS’s determination to institute a 100-day pause on deportations an arbitrary and capricious choice.” Sabrina Rodriguez reports forPOLITICO.

President Biden yesterday revoked a Trump administration ban on green card applicants entering the U.S., arguing in a proclamation that the policy, which was purported to help U.S. workers during high unemployment rates due to the Covid-19 pandemic, had prevented families from uniting in the United States and had actually harmed U.S. businesses. Ted Hesson reports for Reuters.

Asylum seekers held in the Matamoros migrant camp at the Texas border will this week start being processed for entry into the U.S. after the area was lashed by severe weather, DHS said yesterday. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 28.33 million and now killed over 505,800 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 112.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.49 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

A new coronavirus variant — B.1.427/B.1.429 — has been identified in California, with two studies suggesting that the variant is more contagious than others and that it may also cause more severe disease. Ivana Kottasová report for CNN.

Analysis by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine meets requirements for emergency use authorization. The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee is set to meet tomorrow, where it will make its authorization recommendation to the FDA, which the latter typically follows. Jen Christensen reports for CNN.

Ghana is the first country to receive AstraZeneca’s vaccine under the Covax vaccine-sharing and distribution scheme, led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 600,000 doses arrived in Accra yesterday, and the roll-out is not part of a trial. 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.

OTHER U.S. DEVELOPMENTS 

A Pentagon report on extremism sighted by CNN provides concerning insight into how White supremacists are active members in the military and also offers recommendations on how to identify those with extremist thoughts and prevent them from serving. The report, commissioned by Congress and dated October 2020, concludes that although there were “a low number of cases in absolute terms … individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events.” The report goes on to say that the Pentagon could better use other government resources like FBI units to root out extremist views during vetting and recruitment. Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann report for CNN.

The CIA has set up a task force which will focus on suspected microwave attacks on U.S. intelligence officers, drawing on a wide range of resources, a U.S. official said. Kylie Atwood reports for CNN.

A man from Florida has been charged with attempting to join ISIS fighters in Syria after he travelled to Turkey and attempted to enter into Syria, a federal grand jury indictment stated. “The grand jury on Tuesday charged Mohamed Suliman, 33, with attempting to provide material support to a designated “foreign terrorist” organization … [he] was previously charged last September but the complaint was not made public until the beginning of the month when Suliman was arrested, following his expulsion from a foreign country, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors did not say where he was arrested, though court documents noted he had been living in India,” reports Al Jazeera.

U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told lawmakers yesterday that the Postal Service is losing around $10 billion a year and needs urgent reform and legislative action from Congress. DeJoy said he soon intends to release a new 1-year strategic “break-even” plan. David Shephardson for Reuters.

Biden has named two Democrats and a voting rights advocate to serve on the Portal Service’s governing board: “Ron Stroman, the Postal Service’s recently retired deputy postmaster general; Amber McReynolds, the chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute; and Anton Hajjar, the former general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union.” The three picks will require confirmation from the Senate, which, if successful, would create a Democratic advantage on the nine-member board and potentially create enough votes to oust DeJoy, who has been the target of much criticism since the presidential election. Jacob Bogage, Christopher Ingraham and Hannah Denham report for the Washington Post.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker yesterday signed new legislation introducing major criminal justice reforms, including completely abolishing cash bail. “House Bill 3653, which was several years in the making, aims to make sweeping changes to the state’s existing policies on policing and adjudication,” reports Safia Samee Ali for NBC News.

The House will this week vote on the Equality Act bill, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and expand the areas to which such discrimination protections apply. Further details on the bills content and its chances of passing through Congress are explained by Danielle Kurtzleben for NPR.

Biden yesterday ordered a 100-day review of potential vulnerabilities in U.S. supply chains for key items, including computer chips, medical equipment, electric-vehicle batteries and specialized minerals. “The president’s order, which had been anticipated, represents the partial fulfillment of a campaign pledge. But mandating a government study will be the easy part. Extensively modifying U.S. supply lines and reducing the country’s dependence upon foreign suppliers — after decades of globalization — could prove difficult and costly,” reports David J. Lynch for the Washington Post.

Also, Biden said he would seek $37 billion in funding for legislation to boost chip manufacturing in the U.S. due to shortfalls in semiconductors which resulted in automakers and other manufacturers having to cut production. Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose report for Reuters.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Amnesty International has stripped Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny of the “prisoner of conscience” status the human rights group had given him, stating that some of his past comments reached “the threshold of advocacy of hatred,” although the group said in a statement that it would continue to “fight for his freedom.” The group did not specify what comments it considered amounted to hatred, but said: “Amnesty International took an internal decision to stop referring to Navalny as a prisoner of conscience in relation to comments he made in the past. Some of these comments, which Navalny has not publicly denounced, reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred, and this is at odds with Amnesty’s definition of a prisoner of conscience.” Al Jazeera reporting.

As of Tuesday, 696 people had been arrested following Myanmar’s military coup, according to Myanmar-based organization Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) — and experts fear that a new wave of political prisoners could be looming. AP reporting.

Australia has passed legislation aimed at requiring Google and Facebook to pay for news content that appears on their platforms, following fierce talks between Facebook and Australia which saw the social media giant block all news content to viewers in Australia. “Following those talks, the law passed with new amendments which make it possible for Facebook and Google not to be subject to the code … However, both companies have now committed to paying lucrative sums to some big Australian publishers outside of the code. These deals have been widely viewed as a compromise by the tech giants.” BBC News 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)