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Early Edition: July 20, 2021 | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack | #cybersecurity | #infosecurity | #hacker



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

AFGHANISTAN

President Biden’s administration plans to evacuate Afghans who helped the U.S. military in Afghanistan and who now face reprisal from the Taliban to Fort Lee, Va., a military base in Virginia, as their visa applications are processed, the State and Defense Departments said yesterday. Nearly 2,500 Afghans interpreters, drivers and others who helped the U.S., as well as their family members will be sent to the base. “This is a group who have completed that step, the security vetting process, the rigorous process that is required before we bring the applicants and their families to the United States,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, told reporters. Eric Schmitt reports for the New York Times.

Rockets have landed near the presidential palace in Kabul, with the Taliban denying responsibility for the attack. The rockets landed outside the palace during the prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and many others calmly continued praying at an outdoor gathering. There were no reports of injuries. Reuters reporting.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has called on the U.S. to meet Turkey’s “conditions,” including financial, logistical and diplomatic support, so that Turkey can run and guard Kabul’s international airport after other foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Turkey has been in talks with the U.S. for several weeks over its offer to deploy troops to the airport. The Taliban have warned Turkey against guarding the airport, however Erdogan has said that Turkey would nonetheless carry out the mission if the U.S. met its requirements. Reuters reporting.

Russia and Uzbekistan are to hold joint military drills near the Afghan border in Uzbekistan from July 30 to Aug. 10, the Interfax news agency has said, citing Russia’s armed forces. In addition, “on Monday, Russia’s armed forces said Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would hold military drills 20 km (12 miles) from the Afghanistan border in Tajikistan from Aug. 5-10,” Reuters reports.

CHINA

The U.S., E.U., NATO, U.K. and other world powers yesterday accused the Chinese government of a broad array of malicious cyber activities, including the attack on Microsoft’s email server software earlier this year and condoning other attacks. China’s “pattern of irresponsible behavior in cyberspace is inconsistent with its stated objective of being seen as a responsible leader in the world,” the White House said in a statement. The joint statements, the largest joint condemnation to date of China’s cyber aggression and the first time Washington and other U.S. allies have assigned blame for the Microsoft Exchange hack, however stopped short of punishing China for its alleged actions. John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima report for the Washington Post.

Chinese authorities have criticized the “groundless” claims that it carried out a major cyber attack against Microsoft. The Chinese embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, said in a statement that “the Chinese government is a staunch defender of cyber security,” and that “making accusations without [proof] is malicious.” “The Chinese embassy in Australia echoed these remarks, describing Washington as ‘the world champion of malicious cyber attacks,’”BBC News reports.

The Justice Department has accused three Chinese state security officials of coordinating a vast hacking campaign to steal sensitive and secret information from government entities, universities and corporations around the world. “In an indictment that had been sealed since May, the Justice Department accused officers in a provincial foreign intelligence bureau, the Hainan Province Ministry of State Security, of creating a sham information security company that they used as a front for a sprawling hacking operation,” Katie Brenner reports for the New York Times.

Biden’s administration is debating internally whether and how to sanction China for ransomware attacks the U.S. and its allies say that China is responsible for, as experts question why the U.S. has not gone further in penalizing China for its alleged hack of the Microsoft Exchange Server earlier this year. Natasha Bertrand, Kevin Liptak and Brian Fung, report for CNN.

President Biden has opened a new cyber fight with China and is putting pressure on China, as the U.S. publicly attributes the Microsoft Exchange Server cyberattack to hackers affiliated with Beijing. “We’ve crossed the line on what can be tolerated anymore. China is more aggressive when it comes to espionage,” James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill. “This is to make sure that the Chinese don’t think we forgot about them and they had an open door.” Maggie Miler and Morgan Chalfant report for The Hill.

The Norwegian government yesterday formally attributed a breach of Norwegian parliament email accounts earlier this year to Chinese hackers involved in the exploitation of vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Exchange Server. “This was a very serious incident affecting our most important democratic institution,” Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide said in a statement. “Following a detailed intelligence assessment, it is our view that the vulnerabilities have been exploited by actors operating out of China.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

US RELATIONS

The U.S. and Russia have agreed to have their first round of nuclear strategic stability talks on July 28 in Geneva, the Russian Kommersant newspaper has reported. President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at the summit in Geneva last month to commence a bilateral dialogue aimed at laying the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures. Reuters reports.

A U.S. drone attack targeted a truck belonging to Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, an Iran-backed militia group in eastern Syria on Sunday, two Iraqi militia officials have said. The drone destroyed the vehicle but did not cause any casualties, having first fired a warning short after which the driver jumped out. The officials refused to say what the truck was carrying. Qassim Abdul-Zahra reports for AP.

The U.S. is considering imposing tighter sanctions on Iranian oil sales to China as a way of encouraging Tehran to agree to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal and to raise the costs of Tehran abandoning the stalled negotiations over the deal, according to U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter. “The new steps would take place if nuclear talks fail, the officials said. The plan would involve the aggressive enforcement of current sanctions already banning dealings with Iran’s oil and shipping industry through new designations or legal actions, the officials said,” Benoit Faucon and Ian Talley report for the Wall Street Journal.  

Three Senators, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (VT) will unveil their “National Security Powers Act” today as part of their campaign to clamp down on foreign weapons sales and pare back military action without congressional approval. “The legislation has three parts – one to increase Congress’ control over the authorization of military actions, another to reform the review of major foreign weapons sales and a third to increase Congress’ control over the declaration of ‘national emergencies,’ which can be used to justify weapons sales or military strikes,” Reuters reports.

Biden met Jordan’s King Abdullah II yesterday at the White House to discuss various issues in relation to the Middle East; a sign that the U.S wants to elevate Jordan back to its traditional role as a regional peacemaker following former President Trump. Biden praised Abdullah as a “loyal and decent friend,” adding that “it’s good to have him back in the White House.” Annie Karni reports for the New York Times.

The U.S’s peace envoy to Afghanistan made a brief visit to Pakistan yesterday as relations between Islamabad and Kabul reached a new low, following Afghanistan’s decision to withdraw its ambassadors from Pakistan after a diplomat’s daughter was kidnapped and brutally attacked last week. “The U.S. envoy met with Pakistan’s powerful army chief of staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa but nothing was immediately known of their discussions,” Kathy Gannon reports for AP.

The U.S. is expected to soon announce initial steps as part of Biden’s administration’s review of the U.S.’s policy towards Cuba and in response to the Cuban government’s crackdown on the biggest street protests in Cuba in decades, State Department officials have said. The officials’ comments also signaled that Biden is not ready to soften the U.S. approach and that “the Biden administration is still seeking ways to ease the humanitarian plight of the Cuban people while keeping pressure on the Communist-led government in Havana,” Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis and Simon Lewis report for Reuters.

The U.S. and Germany are expected to announce a deal resolving their longstanding dispute over Russia’s $11 billion Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline in the coming days, sources said yesterday. Andrea Shalal reports for Reuters.

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has chosen his five Republican nominees for the Democratic party led select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. McCarthy’s choices for the panel are led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), chair of the Republican Study Committee. The other members include Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), and Troy Nehls (R-TX). Olivia Beavers and Heather Caygle report for POLITICO.

The first person to be convicted of a felony for their role in the Jan.6 attack has been sentenced to eight months in prison. “Paul Hodgkins, a 38-year-old Floridian, is now the first Capitol rioter convicted of a felony to be sentenced. He pleaded guilty last month to obstructing congressional proceedings – specifically, the counting of the electoral votes, which he helped delay on January 6. He spent about 15 minutes inside the Senate chamber, wearing a Donald Trump shirt and carrying a Trump flag,” Marshall Cohen reports for CNN.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has issued a memo to federal prosecutors sharply limiting their ability to obtain records of reporters’ contacts when investigating government leaks of sensitive information, subject to certain exceptions. In the memo “Garland said the agency’s prior policies hadn’t properly weighed the national interest in protecting journalists from forced disclosure of their sources, saying they needed such protection ‘to apprise the American people of the workings of their government,’” Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report for the Wall Street Journal.

The White House is considering “all available avenues” to transfer prisoners and close the Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday. “Our goal is to close Guantanamo Bay,” Psaki said. “I don’t have a timeline for you. As you know, there’s a process, there are different layers of the process, but that remains our goal and we are considering all available avenues to responsibly transfer detainees and of course close Guantánamo Bay,” she explained. Morgan Chalfant reports for The Hill.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is declining to prosecute officials from former President Trump’s administration, including former Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross for misrepresentations he made to Congress about the origins of the Trump administration’s failed push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The decision not to prosecute was made in January 2020 by the DOJ under former Attorney General William Barr and was revealed in a letter dated July 15 made public yesterday from the Commerce Department Inspector General, Peggy Gustafson, to Democratic lawmakers. Tierney Sneed reports for CNN.

NSO GROUP – PEGASUS

An influential network of Washington consultants, lawyers, lobbyists and other prominent personalities have earned money from the Israeli surveillance giant NSO Group and companies linked to it, a review of government and company filings have shown. Though, the company’s attempts to secure U.S. contracts appear to have been unsuccessful. Drew Harwell reports for the Washington Post.

The Pegasus surveillance tool sold by NSO Group infiltrated mobile phone belonging to at least seven people in India, and hundreds of Indian phone numbers appeared on a list of potential surveillance suspects for clients of NSO Group. The Indian numbers on the list include those of journalists, activists, opposition politicians, senior officials, business executives, public health experts, Tibetan exiles and foreign diplomats, and include the numbers for Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader and Ashok Lavasa, a key election official considered an obstacle to the ruling party. Joanna Slater and Niha Masih report for the Washington Post.

What is known about some of those on the 50,000 phone numbers of people believed to be targeted by clients of NSO Group and who might have been targeted by users of the spyware software Pegasus, is reported on by BBC News.

The U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said that the apparent widespread use of the Pegasus spy software to illegally undermine including journalists and politicians, is “extremely alarming.” In a statement Bachelet also confirmed that the reports confirmed “some of the worst fears” surrounding the potential misuse of such technology. UN News Centre reports.

Pakistan’s government has said that it is probing whether a mobile phone number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan was part of a surveillance hacking attempt using the Pegasus software, the country’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has said. A number used by Khan was among a list of numbers potentially signaled out as using NSO Group’s Pegasus phone infiltration and surveillance software. AL Jazeera reports.

The Paris prosecutor’s office opened a probe on Tuesday into allegations by investigative news website Mediapart and two of its journalists that they had been spied on by Morocco using the Pegasus spyware at the heart of a global scandal,” Reuters reports.

HAITI

Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner has opened an investigation into Antonio Emmanuel Intriago Valera, the owner of a Miami-based security firm linked to the assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse. Valera, who was accused by the head of Haiti’s National Police last week of visiting Haiti several times to take part in a plot to kill Moïse, “reportedly hired more than 20 ex-soldiers from Colombia who were later killed or detained by Haitian authorities in the aftermath of the assassination,” Andrew Atterbury and David Kihara report for POLITICO.

Haiti’s Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph has agreed to step down and hand power to the designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who had been appointed as the next prime minister a little more than a day before Moïse’s assassination. “The country’s elections minister, Mathias Pierre, said on Monday that Mr. Joseph’s resignation forms part of a broad political agreement encouraged by the U.S. and other powers aimed at bringing stability and presidential elections in about four months,” Juan Montes and Ryan Dube report for the Wall Street Journal.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

At least 35 people have been killed and more than 60 wounded by a suicide bomber in a crowded market in Baghdad yesterday. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Nasheer news agency said on Telegram. Reuters reports.

Two rockets were fired from Lebanon towards northern Israel early this morning, setting off sirens in Israel’s north, the Israeli military have said. One missile was shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system and the other landed in an open area causing no damage. “We remain prepared to defend Israel on all fronts,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a Twitter post on its official account. The New York Times reports.

Israel’s military has said that it sent artillery shells into southern Lebanon early today, after two rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory. “Lebanon’s army said Israel fired 12 artillery shells at the Wadi Hammoul area, causing no damage or casualties. The army said its units there had found three launching pads for Grad rockets,” Ilan Ben Zion reports for AP.

Israel carried out an aerial attack in Syria’s northern Aleppo province late yesterday, a Syrian military official has said. The unidentified military official, quoted by a state news agency, said Syrian air defenses shot down most of the missiles in the attack and that the targets are still being identified. “The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has activists on the ground in Syria, said the Israeli strikes targeted weapons depots that belong to Iranian-backed militia operating in Aleppo’s Safira region,” AP reports.

Pedro Castillo has been confirmed as the winner of Peru’s presidential elections, after the country’s longest electoral count in 40 years. In his first comments as president-elect, he called for national unity. “I ask for effort and sacrifice in the struggle to make this a just and sovereign country,” he said. The Guardian reports.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus has infected over 34.10 million and has now killed over 609,200 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been close to 191.00 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.09 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.



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