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A curated weekday guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
An armed drone strike against a U.S. military base in southern Syria last month was conducted by Iran as retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria, according to various U.S. and Israeli officials. Iran itself has not acknowledged the attack, which would be the first such retaliatory strike against the U.S. in response to an Israeli attack. Eric Schmitt and Ronen Bergman report for the New York Times.
The U.S. has indicted two Iranian nationals for interfering in the 2020 presidential elections, and has sanctioned six Iranian officials for their role in the alleged plot. According to the Treasury Department, state-sponsored Iranian cyber actors conducted wide-ranging disinformation operations in an attempt to influence American voters and undermine voter confidence in the electoral process. The two Iranians charged by the Department of Justice are still at large and presumed to be based in Iran. Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch report for Reuters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration “will hold state-sponsored actors accountable for attempting to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions.”
Federal agencies in the U.S., U.K. and Australia have warned in a joint advisory that hackers linked to the Iranian government are behind an ongoing campaign targeting critical infrastructure, including hospitals. The agencies described the actors as “Iranian government-sponsored,” and noted that the hackers had targeted “a broad range of victims across multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors,” since at least March of this year, often through exploiting vulnerabilities in devices from cybersecurity group Fortinet and Microsoft Exchange ProxyShell. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned Iran not to come to the next round of talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with a “sham” negotiating position. Le Drian’s statement comes a day after Paris urged the board of the U.N. atomic watchdog to send Iran a tough message, with Iran responding that the watchdog must be “free of any political conduct.” John Irish reports for Reuters.
E.U.-BELARUS BORDER CRISIS
Belarusian officials yesterday cleared encampments near the country’s border with Poland, temporarily reducing tension between the two countries. Thousands of migrants, who had previously been living in these camps in “frigid and increasingly squalid conditions,” are now being housed in a giant warehouse. Western leaders remain concerned about the situation, particularly if Belarus experiences a new wave of migrants. Andrew Higgins reports for the New York Times.
Poland has accused Belarus today of trucking hundreds of migrants back to its border with Poland and pushing them to attempt to cross illegally, only hours after clearing camps at the frontier. Despite Belarus clearing the main camps yesterday and hundreds of Iraqis being sent home on repatriation flights, a Polish Border Guard spokesperson said that by yesterday evening Belarusian authorities were already trucking hundreds of migrants back and forcing them to try to cross in darkness. Reuters reports.
Thousands of migrants in Belarus face an uncertain future as Belarusian authorities have not yet said where those unable to enter the E.U. would go. There has been little sign that those in Belarus would volunteer to leave, with many expressing hope that they could still find a way into the European Union. Some have also said that “they would simply stay in Belarus, which would present an unexpected challenge for President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus,” Andrew Higgins and Marc Santora report for the New York Times.
NATO stands ready to support its allies affected by the Belarus migrant crisis, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “Lukashenko’s regime’s use of vulnerable people as a means to put pressure on other countries is cynical and inhumane. NATO stands in full solidarity with all affected allies,” Stoltenberg told reporters. Reuters reports.
Ukraine should set aside money to build a fence on its borders with Belarus and Russia to prevent a possible influx of illegal migrants, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said today. Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets report for Reuters.
The Kremlin has denounced as “absurd” a resolution proposed by U.S. lawmakers to stop recognising Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president if he stays in power after 2024, and described it as U.S. meddling in Russian affairs. “Putin’s term as president is due to end in 2024 and he can seek two more terms under constitutional amendments made during his presidency…The resolution introduced by two U.S. congressmen says the amendments were illegal and any attempt by Putin to remain in office after May 2024 ‘shall warrant nonrecognition on the part of the United States,’” Tom Balmforth reports for Reuters.
Preparations are underway for a virtual meeting between President Biden and Putin, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has confirmed to reporters. No date has been set yet for the meeting, Peskov said. Amy Mackinnon reports for Foreign Policy.
Two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers made a scheduled, 10-hour flight over neutral waters near Alaska, the Russian Defense Ministry has said. The flights come a day after Putin complained of Western military flights near Russian airspace, saying that Western strategic bombers carrying “very serious weapons” were flying within 20 km (12.5 miles) of Russia’s borders and that the West was taking Russia’s warnings not to cross its “red lines” too lightly. Reuters reports.
The North American Leaders’ Summit involving President Biden, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau focused on presenting a unified front rather than grappling with more controversial issues such as trade disputes or migrant policy. The leaders agreed to form a working group on regional supply chain issues and also agreed to limited vaccine sharing. Katie Rogers and Natalie Kitroeff report for the New York Times.
The Senate has confirmed Julianne Smith to be Biden’s ambassador to NATO after Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) agreed to lift a “hold” on Smith’s nomination. There was no objection to Smith’s confirmation by voice vote. Hawley said he lifted the hold on Smith’s nomination after receiving confirmation that Smith would push NATO allies to increase their defense spending. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.
Three senators have made a bipartisan push to block a proposed $650 million weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a joint resolution against the proposed arms sale in light of Riyadh’s role in Yemen’s civil war. “By participating in this sale, we would not only be rewarding reprehensible behavior, but also exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I urge Congress and the Biden Administration to consider the possible consequences of this sale that could accelerate an arms race in the Middle East and jeopardize the security of our military technologies,” Paul said in a statement. Caroline Vakil reports for The Hill.
A leading Israeli politician’s campaign lobbying against the reopening of a U.S. consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem has been amplified on Facebook by a network of fake accounts, according to research by the Israeli disinformation research company FakeReporter. Olivia Solon reports for NBC News.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday and discussed domestic and regional security, including the handling of anti-police brutality protests last year. Blinken’s meeting with Buhari came days after a leaked report found that the Nigerian army had fired live rounds at peaceful protesters in October 2020. During a joint news conference, Blinken said that, depending on the conclusions of the report, authorities should “hold accountable any of those responsible for human rights abuses, and to do that again in full transparency.” Felix Onuah reports for Reuters.
The Biden administration is considering sending some of the Afghan evacuees at a U.S. military base in Kosovo back to Afghanistan, if they cannot clear the intense vetting process to go to the U.S., officials familiar with the matter have said. A group of Afghan evacuees whose cases need more extensive vetting were transferred to a military base in eastern Kosovo, following their evacuation from Afghanistan in August. The number of evacuees at the base is roughly 200 individuals, including family members, and the administration has an agreement with the government of Kosovo to house them there for up to a year. Many evacuees who were sent to the base have moved on to the United States, “however, there is concern among some U.S. officials and lawmakers that if any evacuees are ultimately not cleared to come to the U.S., there are few suitable options for them, and that they could end up waiting on the U.S. base long-term,” Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.
CHINA, HONG KONG AND TAIWAN
President Biden indicated yesterday that he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in response to gross human rights abuses committed by China, particularly against the Uyghur community and citizens in Hong Kong. The imposition of a boycott would mean that government officials would stay home from the Olympics, but U.S. athletes would still be permitted to compete. Even as questions have been raised as to how effective such policy will be, bipartisan support for some kind of boycott has increased. Zolan Kanno-Youngs reports for the New York Times.
The Biden administration added more U.S. troops to Taiwan over the past few months, according to newly published Defense Department data. There are now nearly 40 troops on the island, making the U.S. footprint on the island nearly twice as big as last year. The U.S. troops are there to train Tawainese troops and protect the de facto U.S. embassy on the island. However, the small but steadily growing U.S. footprint on Taiwan “could represent increased concern in the White House and Pentagon over the island’s fate,” Jack Detsch reports for Foreign Policy.
China has warned Lithuania that it would take “all necessary measures” to safeguard national sovereignty, after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy. “Lithuania only has itself to blame, it will have to pay for what it did,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told a daily press briefing today. Reuters reports.
The U.S. rejects attempts by “other countries” to interfere in Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan, U.S. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya told a news conference in Vilnius today, in an apparent response to China’s stance towards Lithuania opening a de facto embassy for Taiwan.Reuters reports.
Taiwan has unveiled its new upgraded F-16 fighter jets that it says would be at the heart of the island’s defense in the event of an air attack from China. Eric Cheung and Will Ripley report for CNN.
Four people were killed by Indian security forces in Kashmir following a raid on a shopping complex on Monday. The Indian police described the four people as being “terrorist supporters.” The deaths have fueled outraged protests and rising tensions, with fears that violence could continue to escalate in the region. Sameer Yasir reports for the New York Times.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced the repeal of three controversial farm laws after a year of protests. Farmers have been saying that the laws would allow the entry of private players in farming and that will hurt their income. Modi’s announcement marks a major change in the stance of the Indian government, who had been steadfastly insisting that the laws were good for farmers and that there was no question of reversing them. BBC News reports.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
The Turkish lira plummeted against the dollar yesterday, reaching a record low. The currency crisis is roiling the Turkish economy and threatening the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for nearly twenty years. Jared Malsin and Anna Hirtenstein report for the Wall Street Journal.
The U.K. is set to designate the Palestinian militant group Hamas as a terrorist organization, bringing the U.K.’s position on Hamas in line with the U.S. and E.U.. Stephen Farrell reports for Reuters.
JAN. 6 ATTACK
A new report from the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General has raised questions about the account that William Walker, the now-retired commander of the D.C. National Guard, gave about deploying troops to the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack. The report found that Walker was told twice that he was allowed to deploy troops to the Capitol after the building was breached, which appears to contradict the retired general’s assertion that he would have deployed troops more quickly had former President Trump’s administration given him the green light. The report found that overall, Pentagon officials “did not improperly delay or obstruct the [Department of Defense’s] response” to the Jan. 6 attack. Jordan Williams reports for The Hill.
Walker has demanded that the Inspector General report be retracted, claiming that the allegations that he was twice told by the Army leaders to send troops into the Capitol on Jan. 6 are false. Dan Lamothe and Paul Sonne report for the Washington Post.
Lawyers for former White House strategist Stephen Bannon made clear at a court hearing yesterday that they intend to slow down the criminal case against Bannon for failing to testify to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. Bannon’s lawyers cited “complex constitutional issues at play, including former President Trump’s own lawsuit over records from his White House, while
Prosecutors from the Justice Department countered that the case is simple and said that they want to move quickly. Katelyn Polantz reports for CNN.
OTHER DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
Mobilewalla, a company that collects and sells consumer information extracted from cell phones, has announced that it has provided some of this advertising data to the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. Byron Tau reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the death penalty sentence of Julius Jones just hours before he was to die by lethal injection. The decision by Stitt, who supports the death penalty, followed an extensive campaign for clemency involving celebrities, conservatives and Christian leaders. Michael Levenson, Maria Cramer and Simon Romero report for the New York Times.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has warned Democratic party members that their censure of Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) for showing a video depicting him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) could allow Republicans to apply a “new standard” toward Democrats if Republicans regain control. Aaron Blake reports for the Washington Post.
Closing arguments have concluded in a federal civil trial accusing the white supremacists and hate groups who organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville of conspiring to commit racially motivated violence. One counterprotester was killed during the deadly August 2017 rally and dozens more were injured. The plaintiffs are seeking millions of dollars in damage for physical harm and emotional distress. Ellie Silverman reports for the Washington Post.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) pursued a contract with a technology company that would enable the police to use fake social media accounts to surveil civilians and use algorithms to identify people who may commit crimes in the future. Internal LAPD documents obtained through public records requests by the Brennan Center for Justice have revealed that LAPD in 2019 trialed social media surveillance software from the analytics company Voyager Labs. The trial ended in November 2019 and LAPD is currently not using Voyager, according to a police spokesperson. Sam Levin and Johana Bhuiyan report for the Guardian.
Facebook has written to the LAPD demanding that it stop setting up fake profiles to conduct surveillance on users. “Not only do LAPD instructional documents use Facebook as an explicit example in advising officers to set up fake social media accounts, but documents also indicate that LAPD policies simply allow officers to create fake accounts for online investigative activity,’” wrote Facebook’s Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for civil rights Roy Austin. “While the legitimacy of such policies may be up to the LAPD, officers must abide by Facebook’s policies when creating accounts on our services. The Police Department should cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts, impersonation of others, and collection of data for surveillance purposes,” Austin wrote. Marry-Ann Russon reports for BBC News.
Bipartisan senators are considering using the annual defense bill as a vehicle to implement further cybersecurity measures. Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.
A man seen carrying an AR-15 rifle outside the courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a jury is deliberating in the double homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, has identified himself as a former police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Jesse Kline said that he had traveled to Kenosha from Arizona, where he lives, to “exercise my constitutional rights.” Tim Stelloh reports for NBC News.
Soldiers who refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and have not requested an exemption will no longer be allowed to re-enlist or be promoted, according to a memo from U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. The memo applies to active-duty troops as well as reservists and National Guardsmen, including those serving in states whose governors do not require the vaccine. The memo states that troops’ service records will be “flagged” if they continue to refuse to be vaccinated, without an exemption. This flag will bar them from being promoted, reenlisting, continuing to receive enlistment bonuses, attending service-related schools, or receiving tuition assistance. The memo also authorizes “commanders to impose bars to continued service…for all soldiers who refuse the mandatory vaccine order without an approved exemption or pending exemption request.” Tara Copp reports for Defense One.
The American Medical Association and more than sixty other health care associations released a joint statement calling for the voluntary implementation of President Biden’s vaccine mandate. Calling Biden’s requirements “reasonable and essential,” the statement presented evidence showing that Covid-19 outbreaks have been largely driven by viral spread in various business settings, including at offices themselves. Dan Diamond reports for the Washington Post.
Austria has announced a full national Covid-19 lockdown starting on Monday, as Covid-19 cases surge in Europe. Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said the lockdown would last a maximum of 20 days and there would be a legal requirement to get vaccinated from Feb. 1 2022. BBC News responds.
Covid-19 has infected over 47.53 million people and has now killed over 768,700 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 256.23 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 5.13 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
A map and analysis of the vaccine roll out across the U.S. is available at the New York Times.
A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.
U.S. 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.