What Biden is — and isn’t — doing to help Afghans | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack

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After months of the media ignoring the horrific humanitarian disaster unfolding in Afghanistan, the issue has suddenly stormed back into the news — with some taking aim at President JOE BIDEN for his role in the nation’s collapse.

Roughly 23 million of Afghanistan’s 39 million people are hungry, with most devoid of shelter and heat to survive the country’s brutal winter. A long-sputtering economy, drought, the pandemic’s persistence and the Taliban’s gross mismanagement have plunged the country into more chaos and scarcity than before.

The situation is so dire that the United Nations this week made its largest-ever single-nation appeal for funding, calling on countries to provide $5 billion to those in need. “A full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms. My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan,” UN aid chief MARTIN GRIFFITHS said.

To its credit, the Biden administration hasn’t stood idly by. On Tuesday, the U.S. pledged more than $308 million in aid to Afghanistan, raising its total to $782 million since October.

But prominent reporters, experts and lawmakers argue more — much more — could be done, with some advocating for the president to drastically shift his Afghanistan policy.

On Monday, MSNBC’s CHRIS HAYES listed steps the administration could take now to alleviate the suffering of millions starving during a harsh winter.

“The U.S. government could release the $9.4 billion of Afghan government assets that were frozen last year. They could also ease the sanctions against the Taliban. They could encourage the international community to restart aid,” he said. While providing financial assistance to a Taliban-run government is hard to swallow, Hayes made sure to say, withholding it “produces zero positive geopolitical effect. Instead, it is brutal in terms of human cost.”

Hayes proceeded to call Biden’s policy “cruel, indefensible and horrific.”

The next day, LAUREL MILLER, formerly a top U.S. official on Afghanistan issues, wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing the administration was also to blame for Afghanistan’s meltdown.

“The United States should draw a distinction between the Taliban as former insurgents and the state they now control,” she wrote. “This starts by beginning to lift sanctions on the Taliban as a group (leaving sanctions on some individuals and an arms embargo in place); funding specific state functions in areas such as rural development, agriculture, electricity and local governance; and restoring central-bank operations to reconnect Afghanistan to the global financial system.”

And Wednesday, Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.), a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, openly advocated for a shift in Afghanistan policy. “Congress should authorize more money” to Afghanistan in a way that helps the people but not the Taliban, he said on the Senate floor. “This humanitarian crisis could kill more Afghans than the past 20 years of war.”

We asked a senior administration official why the U.S. couldn’t at least unfreeze the reserves. One reason, the official said, is that “since Afghanistan imports far more than it exports, any foreign reserves that enter the Afghan economy will leave the country again to pay for imports.” What’s more, the status of the funds are “subject of ongoing litigation brought by certain victims of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks who hold judgments against the Taliban.”

As for relaxing sanctions, the official noted how the U.N. adopted a resolution drafted and led by the U.S. to establish a carveout for humanitarian assistance. Plus, the Treasury Department provided groups with broad authorizations to continue aiding and supporting Afghans.

“We are working closely with allies and partners and moving out as fast as possible on all options available to the international community to directly support the people of Afghanistan,” a National Security Council spokesperson told us.

This morning, Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN noted he was “deeply, deeply concerned” about the plight of the Afghan people, describing the situation on the ground as “dire.”

“Even as we are determined to hold the Taliban to commitments it’s made … we also want to make sure we’re doing everything possible to help Afghan people who are in need,” Blinken told MSNBC. He added that the Treasury Department has made it “clear to countries and entities around the world that they can provide that assistance without fear of U.S. sanctions.”

“I want to find ways, if we can, to get some more liquidity into the economy, in ways that don’t go to the Taliban but do go to people, into their pockets, so they can provide for themselves,” Blinken added. “We’re very focused on this with the U.N., with the World Bank, with countries around the world. We want to make sure that, to the best of our ability, the Afghan people don’t suffer.”

‘THE DRUMBEAT OF WAR IS SOUNDING LOUD’: After a week of negotiations across Europe, the talks between America, its allies and Russia have reached a “dead end,” Reuters’ THOMAS ESCRITT and TOM BALMFORTH reported. Oh, and Poland’s foreign minister said the chance of war in Europe is higher than at any time in the last 30 years.

“For several weeks we have been faced with the prospect of a major military escalation in Eastern Europe,” ZBIGNIEW RAU said during Thursday’s meeting at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister SERGEI RYABKOV told RTVI television that now military specialists are providing Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN with options in case the situation in Ukraine deteriorates — not that the Kremlin boss needs an invitation to send thousands of troops over the border. Ryabkov also said if tensions persist, Russia might send troops to Venezuela or Cuba as a way to pressure the U.S. to back down from its Ukraine stance.

After this week, war war may be (slightly) more likely after this week of jaw jaw, as Ryabkov said negotiations proved there was a “dead end or difference of approaches.”

HOW BIDEN ADMIN SEES CRUZ NS2 BILL: Hours ahead of the Senate vote on Sen. TED CRUZ’s (R-Texas) Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline bill, a senior administration official spoke to NatSec Daily at length about why, exactly, the administration so strongly opposes the lawmaker’s measure.

The official said the Cruz bill is risky for two reasons. First, reimposing sanctions on the pipeline’s holding company — Nord Stream AG, a Swiss company with shareholders from Russia and across Europe — would really mean sanctioning America’s European allies, not Russia. The Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom has ways to shirk off the financial penalties, the official asserted, meaning “an argument could be made that Europeans would be hurt a lot more than Russia” by the sanctions.

The second risk is that the previous and current German government have stuck to July’s agreement on the pipeline, the official said. Reimposing sanctions would thereby punish a key American ally for abiding by its commitments. Staying on Germany’s good side is an imperative, the official insisted, and might lead Berlin to make the decision Washington ultimately encourages them to make: Scrap the pipeline altogether.

“They can then cancel the pipeline so they wouldn’t have to sanction their own entities. It’s in their hands,” the official told NatSec Daily.

“The dynamic here is: Do we sanction Russians as well as Europeans and Germans to be able to force that view onto them? Senator Cruz, that is his position. He wants to force that dynamic onto them, albeit through a bill that doesn’t even do that,” the official concluded. What the administration wants is to diplomatically nudge the Germans “to actually address this dynamic on their own because they have a new government that is making all the right signals — private and public — to be able to do this.”

Interestingly, lawmakers used nearly identical language when announcing their opposition to Cruz’s measure. “Sen. Cruz’s bill creates more risk than it solves by alienating key allies & undermining diplomacy,” Sen. JEANE SHAHEEN (D-N.H.) wrote in a tweet previewing her eight-minute remarks on the Senate floor on the issue. In a statement, Sen. MARK WARNER (D-Va.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, said the Cruz bill “takes a shot at our European allies and risks undercutting negotiations.”

Cruz lost the vote as his measure didn’t receive the requisite 60 votes, but more than half of senators did vote in favor of his measure — striking a blow to what might’ve been a top administration talking point.

BIDEN MIGHT KILL TRUMP’S NUKES: Our own BRYAN BENDER reports that while the administration may not significantly alter America’s nuclear declaratory policy, he might change what bombs the U.S. has in its arsenal.

“[N]ational security officials are debating whether to jettison a new nuclear-armed cruise missile now in the research phase, retire a Cold War-era thermonuclear bomb, and possibly even remove a new ‘low-yield’ warhead that the previous administration deployed on submarines,” he wrote. “[H]alting the Trump-era ‘add-ons,’ as they are called, are considered the most likely cuts if Biden wants to reverse the previous administration’s elevation of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, due to resistance from military leaders to big changes as Russia and China build up their arsenals.”

Doing that might appease more progressive advocates who want Biden to reduce the risk of the United States ever using a nuclear weapon.

In response to Bryan’s piece, top GOP lawmakers blasted Biden for potentially downsizing the nukes in America’s stash.

“Reports that the Biden administration is considering abandoning long-overdue and much-needed improvements to our nation’s nuclear deterrent — when China is massively expanding its nuclear arsenal, North Korea is flagrantly violating UN sanctions on its missile program, and Russia is poised to launch the largest invasion in Europe since World War II — are profoundly concerning, and if true, would only invite further aggression,” the lawmakers said.

LEND-LEASE FOR UKRAINE?: A NatSec Daily tipster sent us a fascinating clip of Sen. JOHN CORNYN (R-Texas) on HUGH HEWITT’s radio show today advocating for a “lend-lease program” that would see the U.S. send billions in cost-free weaponry to Ukraine now.

“We should be providing the Ukrainians everything they need in order to defend themselves and deter a Russian aggression,” the lawmaker said about six minutes in. The U.S. should be “that arsenal of democracy as FDR talked about.”

Cornyn said he’s working on a congressional effort to authorize the president to enter into a direct lend-lease agreement with Ukraine, adding that he’s in talks with Democrats about it. But a Cornyn aide told NatSec Daily that, as of now, no Democrats are on board with the push.

One goal of a potential measure would be to streamline the old program, Cornyn told Hewitt, and another would be to send a message to Putin that Congress is determined to oppose him.

The State Department pointed us to a tweet showcasing the White House’s support for Sen. BOB MENENDEZ’s (D-N.J.) new Ukraine bill. A NSC spokesperson wrote to us that “should Russia further invade Ukraine, we will provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians above and beyond that which we are already in the process of providing.” (And yes, the underline was in the email.)

For those who need a lend-lease refresher, check out this backgrounder from the FDR Library.

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Catch Alex on “The World Unpacked” podcast today where he discussed Biden’s foreign policy in 2021 and beyond.

HAVANA SYNDROME HITS GENEVA, PARIS: At least three Americans at the U.S. mission in Geneva are suspected to have been struck with so-called “Havana Syndrome,” and at least one of them was medevaced to the United States for treatment, according to The Wall Street Journal’s VIVIAN SALAMA. In addition, diplomats at the U.S. mission in Paris were informed about another suspected case.

The suspected attacks “were reported internally last summer to officials at those posts and eventually to the State Department in Washington,” per Salama, who notes that as many as 200 other diplomats have suffered from the mysterious illness elsewhere in Europe, as well as in China and South America.

“Due to privacy concerns and for security reasons, we do not discuss specifics or Embassy operations,” State Department spokesperson NED PRICE told Salama. “We take each report we receive extremely seriously and are working to ensure that affected employees get the care and support they need.”

SecState Blinken addressed the Journal report in an MSNBC appearance Thursday morning, insisting that U.S. officials “are working overtime across the entire government to get to the bottom of what happened, who’s responsible, and in the meantime, to make sure that we’re caring for anyone who’s been affected.”

As for the suspicions that Russia could be behind the suspected attacks, Blinken said: “We’ve raised this with the Russians, but we still don’t have a determination of who’s responsible. So we’ve made clear that if they are responsible — or for that matter, anyone who is responsible — [they] will suffer severe consequences.”

SPYWARE STRIKES SALVADORAN REPORTERS: A consortium of digital rights organizations revealed Wednesday that the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware has been discovered on 37 devices belonging to 35 journalists and activists in El Salvador as recently as last November, per Wired’s LILY HAY NEWMAN.

The infected devices are connected to several Salvadoran publications, including El Faro, Gato Encerrado, La Prensa Gráfica, Revista Digital Disruptiva, El Diario de Hoy and El Diario El Mundo. Also targeted were devices belonging to two independent reporters and local nongovernmental organizations, including Cristosal, Fundación Democracia, and Transparencia y Justicia.

As Newman notes, Salvadoran President NAYIB BUKELE and his administration “have been broadly hostile to the media; in early 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures for 34 El Faro journalists thought to be at risk of human rights violations as a result of their work.”

The United States last November placed NSO Group on its “entity list,” citing evidence that the company “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

NAVY SEEKING HYPERSONICS AND LASERS FOR NEW WARSHIP: The DDG(X) next generation warship being developed by the Navy, which is estimated to start construction in 2028, could include hypersonic missile capabilities and the power to fire lasers “that would be ten times more powerful” than the service’s existing laser technology, per USNI News’ SAM LAGRONE.

“Capabilities that we’re going to need for the 21st century to continue combating the threat are increased missile capability sensor growth, directed energy weapons — which actually require a lot of power — increased survivability and increased power availability,” deputy program manager KATHERINE CONNELLY said Wednesday.

In addition, the Navy is “calling for a ship that can travel 50 percent farther and spend 120 times longer time on station,” LaGrone writes. “The plan also calls for a 25 percent reduction in fuel usage compared to the DDG-51 and reduced requirement for the Navy combat logistics fleet. DDG(X) aims to have improved seakeeping and improved Arctic operations.” The Navy’s current fleet of Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, by contrast, “were designed to operate primarily in the tropics.”

REPUBLICANS READY FOR RUSSIA RESET: Congressional Republicans “are hoping for their own Russia reset” after the Senate vote on Cruz’s measure to impose crushing sanctions on Nord Stream 2, per our own ANDREW DESIDERIO, which will give them a chance to squeeze centrist Democrats up for reelection.

But the vote also offers Republicans an opportunity to begin moving past DONALD TRUMP’s era of foreign policy toward Moscow — which saw them “struggling to defend the former president’s periodic coziness with Putin’s government amid Russia’s documented meddling in the 2016 election,” Desiderio writes.

Republicans aren’t likely to walk away with a clean legislative win, as the White House is galvanizing Democrats to block the bill today. Still, Democrats have “just spent an enormous amount of political capital holding all their people together who do not want to be in that position” of opposing the sanctions, said Sen. JIM RISCH (R-Idaho), the Foreign Relations Committee’s top Republican. “I mean, this absolutely doesn’t make sense.”

Heading into the vote, only two Democrats signaled they would vote for the measure, meaning doom for its prospects.

LAWMAKERS BULLISH ON CYBER INCIDENT REPORTING BILL: Leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee are optimistic they will pass cyber incident reporting legislation sometime in 2022, our own ERIC GELLER reports (for Pros!). “With so much momentum on our side, I’m confident that we’ll find a vehicle to move this legislation and get it to the president’s desk this year,” Rep. YVETTE CLARKE (D-N.Y.), who chairs House Homeland’s cyber subcommittee, said Thursday.

Rep. JOHN KATKO (R-N.Y.), the top Republican on House Homeland, was similarly hopeful about the bill’s fate, saying he was “fairly confident” that Congress would approve the legislation this year. The House passed the reporting requirement last year as part of its defense policy bill, but the Senate failed to follow suit after 11th-hour negotiations between the bill’s sponsors and Sen. RICK SCOTT (R-Fla.).

The Biden administration has criticized the bill for not giving a broad enough role to the FBI. But BRYAN VORNDRAN, the assistant director of the bureau’s cyber division, explained Thursday that the FBI isn’t looking to operate the program alongside CISA. Instead, Justice Department and FBI officials want all reports submitted to CISA to simultaneously go to the FBI, as well.

WH SLAMS TRUMP ON IRAN: The White House bashed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal as the reason for its current struggles to get back into the accord.

“None of the things we’re looking at now — Iran’s increased capability and capacity, their aggressive actions that they have taken through proxy wars around the world — would be happening if the former president had not recklessly pulled out of the nuclear deal with no thought as to what might come next,” White House press secretary JEN PSAKI said during Wednesday’s briefing. “The fact that the former president ripped up the nuclear deal meant that Iran’s nuclear program was no longer in a box, it no longer had the most robust inspection regime ever negotiated, no longer had the tight restrictions on nuclear activity.”

Our own NAHAL TOOSI explained in a sharp piece why the administration is on the offensive: “Psaki’s comments come as critics of the original nuclear deal, which was reached in 2015 but abandoned by Trump in 2018, have ramped up their efforts to convince Biden to stop trying to revive the agreement. Some of the deal’s detractors are calling on Biden to prepare to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Many are criticizing his administration for not enforcing the existing sanctions on the regime in Tehran.”

UKRAINE, JAVELINS AND JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: We just wanted an excuse to show you this deeply weird and darkly funny video from Ukraine’s Defense Ministry showing off its Javelin missiles with a Jefferson Airplane remix in the background. We think it’s a “broadside” toward Russia, but you should see for yourself.

— BROOKE BARNARD has joined the Sierra Nevada Corporation as senior director of legislative affairs in the aerospace and national security company’s Washington, D.C. office. Barnard was previously a professional staff member on the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel responsible for Navy and Marine Corps acquisition programs.

— EBENEZER OBADARE joined the Council on Foreign Relations as the Douglas Dillion senior fellow for Africa studies. He was previously a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas — Lawrence.

— MICHAEL SCHUMAN, The Atlantic: “China Wants to Know What Putin Will Get Away With”

— ZIA UR-REHMAN and EMILY SCHMALL, The New York Times: “The Taliban Have Staffing Issues. They Are Looking for Help in Pakistan.”

— BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN and RACHAEL LEVY, POLITICO: “Violent Online Messages Before Capitol Riot Went Unshared by DHS, Emails Show”

— The Atlantic Council, 9 a.m.: “A Conversation With Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine ANDRIY YERMAK — with JOHN E. HERBST

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10 a.m.: “Maritime Security Dialogue: Fifth Fleet Mission and Operations Update — with BRAD COOPER and PETER DALY

— The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 10 a.m.: “Diplomatic Showdown between Putin and the West: What Comes Next? — with MARYANA DRACH, MICHAEL KIMMAGE, MARK KRUTOV and JONATHAN D. KATZ

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

And thanks to our editor, John Yearwood, who quells our uprisings with measured diplomacy, not violence.

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