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Early Edition: June 4, 2021


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

 

CYBERSECURITY

The Justice Department will be elevating investigations into ransomware attacks to a similar level of priority as terrorist attacks. The announcement comes in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline hack and mounting damage caused by cyber criminals. John Carlin, the acting deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, has said that the federal government will prioritize ransomware cases through a new process, “to ensure we track all ransomware cases regardless of where it may be referred in this country, so you can make the connections between actors and work your way up to disrupt the whole chain.” Christopher Bing reports for Reuters.

President Biden’s administration is moving toward using intelligence agencies to spy on foreign criminals and contemplating offensive cyber operations against hackers inside Russia, as part of the move to treat ransomware attacks as a national security threat. Using the military to take action against foreign hackers would be controversial and any action against targets in Russia would risk retaliation. Ken Dilanian reports for NBC News.

The White House has sent out a memo to the private sector recommending how they should protect themselves from cyber intrusions. Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger sounded the alarm as to the risks posed by cyberattacks, stating that “all organizations must recognize that no company is safe from being targeted by ransomware, regardless of size or location,” and describing the threats as “serious” and “increasing.” Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

The Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of the main cybercrime law, which civil liberties advocates have said has been abused by federal prosecutors seeking prison time for minor computer misdeeds. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act can no longer be used to charge people who misuse databases they are otherwise entitled to access. Eric Geller and Josh Gerstein report for Politico.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has grilled Colonial Pipeline and insurance group CAN Financial Corporation for their decision to pay a ransom to cyber hackers to regain access to their networks following ransomware attacks. Maloney wrote to the leaders of both companies requesting further documents on the payments and saying that she is “extremely concerned that the decision to pay international criminal actors sets a dangerous precedent that will put an even bigger target on the back of critical infrastructure going forward.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

U.S. RELATIONS

President Biden has signed an executive order banning U.S. entities from investing in dozens of Chinese companies with alleged ties to defense or surveillance technology sectors. The new list of about 59 companies, which replaces an earlier list from the Department of Defense and will be updated on a “rolling basis” by the Treasury Department, prevents buying or selling publicly traded securities in the target companies. Michael Martina and Karen Freifeld report for Reuters.

China has strongly condemned Biden’s investment ban in Chinese defense and tech firms, urging the U.S. “to respect market law and principle and withdraw the investment ban list,” Reuters reports.

Biden’s first overseas trip will begin next week, including a meeting with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and an audience with U.K. Queen Elizabeth, according to a White House announcement. During his trip to Europe, Biden plans to participate in summits of the G7, NATO and the E.U., concluding the trip with a face-to-face meeting with Russia President Vladimir Putin. “This trip will highlight America’s commitment to restoring our alliances, revitalizing the Transatlantic relationship, and working in close cooperation with our allies and multilateral partners to address global challenges and better secure America’s interests,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. Al Jazeera reports.

The State Department has approved the potential sale of 29 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to Australia, along with other military equipment and weapons, in a deal valued at up to $3.5 billion. The sale is part of several purchases of military equipment — including drones, tanks, heavy armored combat vehicles and cargo helicopters — by Australia in April. Mike Stone reports for Reuters.

Corruption in Guatemala is under increased focus as Vice President Kamala Harris prepares for her first foreign trip to the country. The corruption in the region has been highlighted by a recent controversy where the country’s Congress confirmed judges who are under investigation to the Constitutional Court, with President Alejando Giammattei criticizing members of the country’s special prosecutor who oversees corruption cases. Marina E. Franco reports for Axios.

Several human rights groups are concerned that Harris’s upcoming trip to Mexico and Guatemala will focus too much on immigration to the detriment of other issues such as the rule of law and government corruption. A joint statement by several NGOs raised concerns that Harris’s trip could bolster the worst instincts of leadership in the two Latin American countries. Rafael Bernal reports for The Hill.

Egypt used its brokerage of the latest Israel-Hamas ceasefire to “improve its standing in Washington,” analysts have said. “The Egyptian regime wishes to illustrate to the Biden administration that they can still handle the ‘Palestinian file,’ and that they are willing to follow the US guidance in this regard,” an analyst told Al Jazeera. Farah Najjar reports for Al Jazeera.

IRAN

The U.S. expects to have a sixth round of indirect talks on reviving compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear talks and probably more, State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said. Price said hurdles remained after the fifth round of talks concluded on Wednesday, including that the talks are indirect and the issue is complex. However, “there is no lack of distrust between and among Iran and the other partners and allies with whom we’re working on this,” he added. Reuters reports.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are continuing to closely track two Iranian ships that Tehran claims are bound for Venezuela. Officials have “said that at the moment the ships’ passage is not a concern, but they are being monitored and the intelligence community is working to assess what Iran’s intentions are,” Oren Liebermann, Barbara Starr, Nicole Gaouette and Paul P. Murphy report for CNN.

The U.N. has suspended the voting rights of Iran and four other small countries for not having paid their dues for two years. “The move provoked a furious reaction from Iran, which called it ‘astonishingly absurd’ and blamed the country’s arrears on U.S. sanctions that had frozen Iranian funds in banks worldwide,” Rick Gladstone and Farnaz Fassihi report for the New York Times.

The decision to remove candidates from running in the upcoming election in Iran is to be reviewed. The reviewal was announced by Iran’s Guardian Council following an intervention from the country’s Supreme Leader. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL

Netanyahu’s is trying to convince some right-wing lawmakers to abandon the prospective opposition coalition, which for the first time in Israel’s history includes an independent Arab party. “Bennett sold the Negev to Ra’am,” Netanyahu tweeted, raising the highly sensitive and often divisive issue of unsanctioned housebuilding by Muslim Arabs in the Negev Desert which is opposed by many in the right-wing camp. In response, Bennett’s Yamina party said they had agreed to far less with Ra’am than Netanyahu did. Netanyahu also met with leaders of West Bank settlements and heads of right-wing parties still aligned with him to expand the campaign. “There is great pressure being exerted against Yamina lawmakers, on social media, through private phone calls and protests by their homes—it is crossing lines,” said Yamina lawmaker Matan Kahana to a news agency. Dov Lieber reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Netanyahu claimed that Bennett would not stand up to President Biden if the U.S. demanded a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. The statements were made during a meeting with right-wing parties still aligned with Netanyahu and leaders of settlements in the West Bank. Meanwhile “in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, Bennett stressed the importance of good relations with the Biden administration but said he would not agree to a settlement freeze and would stand firm when it comes to Israel’s security,” Barak Ravid reports for Axios.

Netanyahu’s opponents are pushing for a quick Parliamentary vote to end Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. However, Netanyuhu is expected to push the vote off as long as possible to try and pressure coalition members ideologically aligned with him to quit the group; “should last-minute defections scupper the ‘change’ alliance, Israel would likely have to hold yet another election, the fifth in just over two years,” Al Jazeera reports.

Analysis on the events in Israel is provided by Ishaan Tharoor for the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

The fight between Afghan government troops and the Taliban is entering a more brutal phase as U.S. troops begin the withdrawal from the region. The resulting reduction in airstrikes against the militants “has largely shifted combat to ground engagements, many on the edges of densely populated urban areas after some recent Taliban advances,” Susannah George reports for the Washington Post.

Four people have been killed in Kabul following a bomb in a mostly Shiite neighborhood of the Afghan capital, according to a police spokesperson. No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack however the Islamic State group has carried out similar bombings in the area. AP reports.

A celebrated Afghan fighter pilot, who was trained by the U.S. military and hid from the Taliban with his wife and daughter for months following death threats, has arrived in the U.S. Last year Washington reversed its initial decision to help Maj. Naiem Asadi and his family leave Afghanistan and live in the U.S. However, the family was able to leave Kabul earlier this week after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted them temporary protection status. Sune Engel Rasmussen reports for the Wall Street Journal.

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

Former Trump White House Counsel Don McGahn is testifying today before the House Judiciary Committee about former President Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation. The closed door interview “is poised to have McGahn put on record with Congress about some of the most pivotal moments of the Trump presidency, such as when Trump directed McGahn to fire then-special counsel Robert Mueller and McGahn refused,” Jeremy Herb, Katelyn Polantz and Annie Grayer report for CNN.

The FBI is investigating Postmaster General DeJoy in connection with past campaign fundraising activity involving his former business. FBI agents have been interviewing current and former employees of DeJoy and the business over recent weeks. A spokesperson for DeJoy confirmed the investigation into “campaign contributions made by employees who worked for him when he was in the private sector,” but insisted that DeJoy “has always been scrupulous in his adherence to the campaign contribution laws and has never knowingly violated them.” Matt Zapotosky and Jacob Bogage report for the Washington Post.

Facebook plans to end its hands-off approach to politicians’ posts on the social network. It is expected that Facebook will announce the end to a policy that keeps posts by politicians up on its site by default if their speech breaks its rules. The change from Facebook’s policy introduced less than two years ago, where the company said that speech from politicians was newsworthy as a reason for not removing it, follows increased criticism from lawmakers, civil rights activists, journalists and its own employees for allowing politicians to use the platform to spread misinformation. Mike Isaac reports for the New York Times.

The Justice Department is investigating a consulting firm linked to President Biden’s son for potentially illegal lobbying. Blue Stars Strategies took on the Ukrainian energy company Burisma as a client. However Republican operatives’ efforts to investigate Burisma and the alleged corruption that surrounded the company were central to the first Trump impeachment. Hunter Biden was serving on the board of Blue Stars Strategies at the time, but there is no indication that he is a target of the investigation. Betsy Woodruff Swan and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO.

A former senior Treasury Department official has been sentenced to six months in prison for Robert Mueller-related leaks. Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards’s disclosures of thousands of confidential reports on suspect financial transactions “fueled reports in BuzzFeed on issues related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as a series by news organizations across the globe last September examining why banks around the world continued to do business with clients who regularly engaged in suspicious activity,” Josh Gerstein reports for Politico.

JAN. 6 CAPITOL ATTACK

President Biden has decided to oppose the appointment of a presidential commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack, instead he will increase pressure on Congress to establish a committee. The decision signals Biden’s preference for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take the lead, rather than follow a suggestion from some House Democratic party members that he create a presidential commission after Senate Republicans blocked the establishment of a bipartisan, independent commission. Hans Nichols reports for Axios.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has said that former President Trump and he may never “see eye to eye” on the events of Jan. 6. In a speech in Hillsborough County, N.H. Pence made his most extensive comments to date on the Jan. 6 attack calling it a “dark” and “tragic” day but accusing the Democratic party of using the events to divide the country. Brett Samuels reports for The Hill.

No participants in the Jan. 6 attack have yet been charged with seditious conspiracy, despite an earlier threat by prosecutors. Prosecutors have historically faced difficulty in securing such charges against far-right activists. The more than 440 people charged in relation to the Jan. 6 attack have instead “been charged with crimes ranging from entering a restricted building to criminal conspiracy,” Mark Hosenball reports for Reuters.

The Jan. 6 attack caused at least $1.5 million worth of damage to the Capitol, prosecutor Mona Sedky said during court proceedings against Paul Hodgkins who pled guilty on Wednesday to one felony count of storming the Capitol. It is the first time that prosecutors have given a public cost estimate of the attack. The Ivana Saric reports for Axios.

AFRICA

France has suspended its joint military operations with Malian troops. The announcement is part of an effort to pressure the military junta there to restore a civilian-led government, following what French President Emmanuel Macron has called an “unacceptable coup d’état,” Reuters reports.

The multinational effort to prevent an encroaching takeover by Islamist extremist in the Sahel region in West Africa is facing severe challenges. Mali has had its second coup in nine months, President Macron has threatened to pull all 5,100 troops if the coup leaders carry out their suggestion to reach a deal with the same Islamist insurgents that the troops are fighting, and Spain has pulled out of U.S.-led multinational war games over a dispute with Morocco. Frank Gardner reports for BBC News.

A military drone that attacked militia fighters during a battle in Libya’s civil war last year may have done so without human control, according to a recent report commissioned by the U.N. The report described the drone as “a lethal autonomous weapons systems,” which was “programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect a true ‘fire, forget and find’ capability.” The drone was used by forces backed by the government based in Tripoli. Maria Cramer reports for the New York Times.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has extended martial law in the restive east of the country for a further 15 days as violent attacks continue to occur in the region. The extension comes a month after the DRC’s government replaced civilian authorities with military administrations in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Detained journalist Raman Pratasevich has appeared on Belarusian state television confessing to his role in anti-government protests, a confession which the opposition said was made under duress. The journalist’s father said that the video, where Pratasevich admitted to plotting to topple President Alexander Lukashenko by organising “riots” and recanted earlier criticism of the veteran leader, was the result of “abuse, torture and threats.” The Guardian reporting.

The E.U. has adopted a plan to ban Belarus carriers from flying over E.U. territory or landing in E.U. airports. The decision, which is due to take effect at midnight Central European Time subject to any last-minute objections by E.U. member states, is part of the planned punitive measures against Belarus in response to the diversion of a Ryanair flight carrying opposition journalist Roman Pratasevich. Robin Emmott and Joanna Plucinska report for Reuters.

Armed low-cost drones are reshaping warfare and geopolitics. The drones, many of which are built in Turkey and China, are inexpensive and are being deployed by smaller militaries around the world. James Marson and Brett Forrest report for the Wall Street Journal.

Police in Moscow have freed prominent Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov but have kept him as a suspect in a criminal case, according to his lawyers. The Kremlin critic was detained earlier this week on the basis that he was suspected of failing to pay a debt on a rented property dating from 2015-17. The arrest came amid a crackdown on the Kremlin’s political opponents prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections in September. Reuters reports.

Officials have banned the annual June 4 vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which is normally held in Victoria Park in Hong Kong. Ostensibly, as with the ban last year, the ban is due to Covid-19, however the city has not recorded a local case in at least two weeks, and the move is seen as reflecting China’s desire repress “dissent and free expression.” In place pro-democracy residents sought new ways to sustain the memory of the of the Chinese military’s bloody crackdown in 1989. Vivian Wang reports for the New York Times.

Hong Kong police have arrested a prominent barrister for allegedly promoting an unauthorised assembly on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chow Hang Tung, vice-chairwoman of the group which organises annual vigils for victims of the massacre, was arrested along with a 20-year-old male. “Their online remarks involved advertising and calling on others to participate or attend banned public activities,” senior superintendent Law Kwok-hoi told reporters. Helen Davidson and Vincent Ni reports for the Guardian.

Taiwan will never forget China’s Tiananmen crackdown and will stick with their faith in democracy, President Tsai Ing-wen has said. Reuters reports.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus has infected over 33.32 million and now killed close to 596,430 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 172.17 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 3.702 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN. 

The White House has outlined plans to send 25 million doses of the vaccine abroad. The vaccine doses would be send this month across a “wide range of countries” in Latin America and the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, as well as the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The plans come as the World Health Organization warned that a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in many parts of Africa could amount to a continental third wave. Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for the New York Times.

30 Democratic representatives have pressed President Biden to share additional doses of the U.S.’s Covid-19 vaccine supply with countries in need. In a letter sent to Biden, the representatives urged the president “to pursue additional steps to advance a bold, comprehensive strategy to vaccinate the world as quickly as possible.” Sarah Polus reports for The Hill.

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.



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