Early Edition: July 19, 2021 | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack


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

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

President Biden’s administration has today transferred its first detainee out of Guantánamo Bay. Abdul Latif Nasser is being repatriated to Morocco after he was recommended for discharge from the wartime prison starting in 2016 but nevertheless remained there during former President Trump’s years. Carol Rosenberg and Charlie Savage report for the New York Times.

Military prosecutors have asked to be wiped from the record information gleaned from the torture of a detainee now held at Guantánamo Bay. The request is a reversal of the prosecutors’ earlier position that the information could be used in pretrial proceedings against the man. Carol Rosenberg reports for the New York Times.

A federal judge on Friday denied a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to share grand jury materials from investigations into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack with a contractor who was hired to organize them into a database. The DOJ in a court filing revealed that it planned to pay Deloitte Financial Advisory Services to create a database organizing videos, photos, emails and other evidence federal authorities have acquired in their ongoing probe into the Jan. 6 attack. However, “the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said in a 54-page memorandum opinion that the DOJ was incorrect in arguing that employees of Deloitte contracted to work on the project could be considered ‘government personnel,’ which would grant them access to the grand jury evidence,” Celine Castronuovo reports for The Hill.

A federal office inside the Commerce Department conducted unauthorized surveillance and investigations into the agency’s employees that targeted people of Chinese and Middle Eastern descent for more than a decade, State Investigators have said in a new report. The report, informed by more than two dozen whistle-blowers and released this week by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), “concluded that the Investigations and Threat Management Service functioned for more than a decade as ‘a rogue, unaccountable police force,’ opening thousands of unauthorized investigations into department employees, often for specious reasons,” Catie Edmondson reports for the New York Times.

National Guard troops’ training and maintenance operations continue to be in danger other a continuing stalemate in Congress on Capitol security funding legislation. “The Guard’s deployment to the Capitol in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection left it with a $521 million bill that, absent new funding from Congress, it has had to pay out of its existing budget. Already, processes are in motion that could lead to those events being canceled as lawmakers struggle to find a way forward on legislation that would reimburse the Guard,” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has affirmed President Biden’s administration’s policy of letting unaccompanied children enter the U.S., as an exception to the so-called Title 42 order, which allows border officials to quickly expel migrants crossing the border, including asylum-seekers, on the basis of Covid-19. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

Fifteen diplomatic missions and NATO representatives have issued a joint call urging the Taliban to halt their military offensives. The joint call today followed the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government failing to agree on a ceasefire at the latest peace talks meeting in Doha. “This Eid al-Adha, the Taliban should lay down their weapons for good and show the world their commitment to the peace process,” the statement said, as well as condemning rights violations, such as efforts to shut schools and media outlets in areas recently captured by the Taliban. Reuters reports.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin offered President Biden the use of Russian military bases in Central Asia for information gathering from Afghanistan, the Russian Kommersant newspaper has reported. Putin apparently made the offer that the two countries coordinate on Afghanistan and put Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to “practical use” during the June 16 talks between the two leaders in Geneva. “The newspaper said this could involve the exchange of information obtained using drones but that there had been no concrete response from the U.S. side. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment,” Alexander Marrow reports for Reuters.

The daughter of Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan was abducted in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad on Friday, held for several hours and brutally attacked. There have not yet been any arrests in connect with the assault on Silsila Alikhil, aged 26. The Afghan foreign ministry issued a statement demanding a quick investigation and saying Alikhil was “severely tortured”. Alikhil was released and is now receiving medical care in a hospital. AP reports.

In response to the kidnapping of Alikhil, Afghanistan is withdrawing its senior diplomats from Pakistan, the Afghan foreign ministry announced yesterday. The diplomats will be withdrawn from Afghanistan “until all threats are addressed,” according to the foreign ministry statement. Pakistan’s foreign ministry had initially appeared to confirm the incident against Alikhil in a statement on Saturday, saying that Alikhil had been “assaulted while riding a rented vehicle” and that it was trying to apprehend suspects. However, on Sunday night, Pakistan’s interior minister denied the incident and expressed skepticism toward Alikhil’s account of what happened. Sophia Saifi and Ehsan Popalzai report for CNN.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry has described Afghanistan’s decision to withdraw its diplomats from Pakistan as “unfortunate and regrettable” and has urged Afghanistan to reconsider its decision. In the statement released late yesterday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry also said that the incident was being investigated “at the highest level.” Al Jazeera reports.

Delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban said in a joint statement issued yesterday that they will meet again after two days of inconclusive peace talks in Doha Qatar. The negotiators from both sides said that the two sides remained “committed to continue negotiations at a high level until a settlement is reached,” and that they “will work to provide humanitarian assistance throughout Afghanistan,” as well as planning to expedite peace negotiations. Al Jazeera reports.

The Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada said on Sunday that he “strenuously favors” a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, as the negotiators from the Taliban and Afghan government met in Doha for another round of peace talks over the weekend. “In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan] strenuously favors a political settlement in the country,” Akhunzada said in a message released ahead of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. “Every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security that presents itself will be made use of by the Islamic Emirate,” he added. Al Jazeera reports.

A spokesperson from the Taliban’s political office has disputed claims that the Taliban had offered a three-month ceasefire during the Doha peace talks. Speaking to Al Jazeera TV yesterday, the spokesperson also said “that the meetings with the Afghan government delegation would continue in the future and that the talks were ‘a good opportunity to bring views closer,’” Reuters reports.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said today that the Taliban should “end the occupation of their brothers’ soil.” Speaking to reporters, Erdogan also “played down a warning from the militant group of consequences if Turkish troops remain in Afghanistan to run Kabul airport,” Reuters report.

CYBERSECURITY

Rights activists, journalists and lawyers around the world have been targeted by authoritarian government using phone malware and hacking software called Pegasus, which was sold by an Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, according to an investigation into a massive data leak. A leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers, that is believed to identify people of interest of clients of NSO Group since 2016, though not necessarily whether the device was infiltrated by Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack, was obtained by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit media organization, and Amnesty International who shared access with media partners as part of the Pegasus project, a reporting consortium. “The investigation by the Guardian and 16 other media organizations suggests widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists,” Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Paul Lewis, David Pegg, Sam Cutler, Nina Lakhani and Michael Safi report for the Guardian.

Israel secretly authorized a group of cyber-surveillance firms, including NSO Group, to work for the government of Saudi Arabia despite international condemnation of the kingdom’s abuse of surveillance software and even after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, government officials and others familiar with the contracts said. Following Khashoggi’s murder, “NSO Group, canceled its contracts with Saudi Arabia amid accusations that its hacking tools were being misused to abet heinous crimes. But the Israeli government encouraged NSO and two other companies to continue working with Saudi Arabia, and issued a new license for a fourth to do similar work,” Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti report for the New York Times

The Pegasus spyware has been used in Hungary to monitor journalists and others who may challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government. More than 300 Hungarian phone numbers — connected to journalists, lawyers, business titans and activists, among others — appeared on the leaked list of numbers selected for surveillance by clients of NSO Group. “The records do not indicate how many of those numbers were targeted or successfully compromised. But forensic examination of six Hungarian phones associated with numbers on the list found that three had been infected with Pegasus spyware, a tool marketed to governments by NSO. Two other phones showed signs of attempted targeting with Pegasus,” Michael Birnbaum, Andras Petho and Jean-Baptiste Chastand report for the Washington Post.

The head of NSO Group has pledged to investigate potential spyware abuse and cases of human-rights abuse following the revelations of the Pegasus Project investigation. Shalev Hulio, NSO Group’s chief executive and co-founder, has said that some of reported allegations were “disturbing,” including the surveillance of journalists, however he continued to dispute that a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers accessed during the investigation had any relevance to NSO Group. Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg report for the Washington Post.

Using spyware against journalists would be “completely unacceptable” the head of the E.U. Commission Ursula von der Leyen has said, following reports that NSO Group’s spyware was used to hack the smartphones of journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world. Reuters reports.

US RELATIONS

President Biden is to host Jordan’s King Abdullah II today for a broad array of talks on the Middle East. Abdullah will also have a working breakfast with Vice President Harris and will meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department tomorrow. Steve Holland reports for Reuters.

The head of the United States Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, on Friday met with Abdullah in Tampa. “The leaders discussed shared challenges originating in the Middle East – from combating extremism to improving border security – and agreed to explore creative ways to expand bilateral coordination between the two nations,” the Central Command Statement said.

A spokesperson for the State Department has criticized Iran in response to claims from Iran that the U.S. and the U.K. are linking a humanitarian prisoners’ exchange with talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, in a tweet on Saturday, accused the U.S. and U.K. governments of holding a proposed prisoner swap “hostage” over negotiations for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. However State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the allegations an “outrageous effort to deflect blame for the current impasse on a potential mutual return to compliance with the [2015 nuclear deal],” as well as denying that a deal for a prisoner swap was on the table and saying that the U.S. is willing to continue talks regarding prisoners. Mychael Schnell reports for The Hill.

In response to the State Department’s criticisms of Iran, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson yesterday insisted that a prisoner exchange deal had been agreed with the U.S. “‘Outrageous’ = the U.S. denying simple fact that there IS an agreed deal on the matter of the detainees. Even on how to announce it,” the spokesperson said in a tweet. “Humanitarian swap was agreed with U.S. & U.K. in Vienna-separate from [the 2015 nuclear deal] on release of 10 prisoners on all sides. Iran is ready to proceed TODAY,” he added. Parisa Hafezi reports for Reuters.

There have been about two dozen reports of mysterious health incidents, similar to the “Havana syndrome” reported among U.S. diplomats, among intelligence officials and other government personnel in Vienna since the beginning of this year, according to sources. “A handful of the impacted personnel have had to be medevacked from Vienna and are now receiving medical assistance in the U.S., the sources said,” Kylie Atwood reports for CNN.

The U.S. is investigating the reported cases of “Havana syndrome” in Austria. The State Department announced on Friday that the series of cases among the U.S. embassy community in Vienna will be investigated by multiple U.S. agencies. “In coordination with our partners across the U.S. government, we are vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among the U.S. Embassy Vienna community,” the State Department said in their announcement of the investigation. Lexi Lonas reports for The Hill.

Biden is to host Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House on July 26. “The visit will highlight the strategic partnership between the two countries and advance bilateral cooperation under a 2008 agreement that governed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said,” Reuters report

The head of the U.K. Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston, has said that the U.K. is “very interested” in hosting a U.S. Space Force radar station. Wigston is currently in the U.S. to discuss a U.S. Space Force plan to develop a global monitoring system to track objects up to 22,000 miles from Earth and that could establish radar stations in the U.S, U.K. and Australia. Matta Busby reports for the Guardian.

CHINA

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Friday against seven Chinese officials in relation to Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, in the U.S.’s “latest effort to hold China accountable for what it calls an erosion of rule of law in the former British colony,” Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom report for Reuters.

A Chinese official in Hong Kong has said the latest U.S. sanctions and the updated business advisory warning U.S. companies of the risks of operating in Hong Kong are “extremely rude” and “extremely unreasonable” bullying acts with “despicable intention.” Clare Jim reports for Reuters.

The U.S. will have to work with China, as well as U.S. regional allies of South Korea and Japan, if it wants to make progress on North Korea, a senior State Department official said on Friday. The comments were made ahead of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia this week. Daphne Psaledakis reports for Reuters.

HAITI

A group of international diplomats have urged Haiti’s designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry to form a government, as the political uncertainty in Haiti continues following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The group, composed of ambassadors from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, the United States, France, the European Union and representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, called for the creation of “a consensual and inclusive government” in Haiti and strongly encouraged Henry “to continue the mission entrusted to him to form such a government.” “Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph has been leading the country with the backing of police and the military despite the fact that Moïse had announced his replacement a day before the president was killed. Joseph and his allies argue that the designated successor, Henry, was never sworn in, though he pledged to work with him and with Joseph Lambert, the head of Haiti’s inactive Senate,” Al Jazeera report.

A former Haitian justice ministry official, Joseph Felix Badio, may have ordered Moïse’s assassination, a Colombian police chief said on Friday, citing a preliminary investigation by Haitian and Colombian authorities, alongside Interpol into the assassination. General Jorge Vargas said in an audio message sent to news outlets by the police that the investigation had revealed that Badio appeared to have given an order for the assassination three days before the attack. Reuters reporting.

A group of more than 200 current and former Haitian American elected officials have reached out to President Biden’s administration in a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and have requested an “urgent” meeting to discuss U.S. policy toward Haiti in the wake of the assassination. The group in the letter said they are “weary and frustrated” over the lack of engagement from the Biden administration on the U.S.’s approach to Haiti, amid the country’s political turmoil, ongoing gang violence and struggle against Covid-19. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

At least four top Haitian security officials responsible for presidential protection have been banned from leaving Haiti amid the investigation into the assassination of Moïse, Haitian prosecutor Bed-Ford Claude said on Friday. “In a letter addressed to Joseph Cianciulli, the country’s director of immigration and emigration, Claude issued a ban, affecting officials under investigation, on ‘leaving the national territory by air, sea and land’ due to ‘serious suspicion of assassination of the President of the Republic,’” Widlore Merancourt and Sammy Westfall report for the Washington Post.

OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region have released around 1,000 captured government soldiers, the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Debretsion Gebremichael, has said. “More than 5,000 [soldiers] are still with us, and we will keep the senior officers who will face trial,” Gebremichael added. Giulia Paravicini and George Obulutsa report for Reuters.

Ethiopia’s Tigray forces have mounted attacks in the neighboring region of Afar, a spokesperson for Afar said today. The alleged attacks mark an expansion of the Tigray conflict into a previously untouched area. Dawit Endeshaw reports for Reuters.

Team 29, a Russian rights group linked to Kremlin-critic Alexie Navalny, has closed amid prosecution fears after authorities blocked its website for allegedly publishing content from an “undesirable” organization. “Team 29 – an association of lawyers and journalists specializing in treason and espionage cases and freedom of information issues – said on Sunday that Russian authorities accused it of spreading content from a Czech non-governmental organization that had been declared “undesirable” in Russia,” AP reports.

Algeria has recalled its ambassador to Morocco and has hinted at possible further measures in the latest flare-up in the tensions between the two countries over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The move is linked to comments from the Moroccan envoy to the U.N. who drew Algeria’s Kabylie region into the decades-old row over Western Sahara, by calling for “the right of self-determination for the people living in the Kabylie region.” Reuters reporting.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Friday that calm has been restored to most places in South Africa and the unrest that ripped through the country last week was stabilizing. Ramaphosa added that the destruction caused by the riots and looting would cost the country billions of rand. Olivia Kumwenda-mtambo and Wendell Roelf report for Reuters

Russia has said it has successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, which has previously been praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a new generation of missile systems without equal in the world. “The defense ministry said in a statement that the missile had been fired from the Admiral Gorshkov, a warship located in the White Sea, and travelled at around seven times the speed of sound before hitting a ground target on the coastline of the Barents Sea more than 350 km (217 miles) away,” Reuters report.

Syrian President Bashar Assad was sworn in to begin his fourth seven-year term as head of the country on Saturday. Assad’s most recent election in May has been described by his opposition and Western observers as illegitimate and a sham. Albert Aji reports for the Associated Press.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus has infected over 34.00 million and has now killed over 609,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been close to 190.50 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.08 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The federal government is increasing the pressure on social media companies to crack down on health misinformation, as President Biden makes a push to encourage reluctant Americans to get Covid-19 vaccines, Rebecca Klar 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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