Forensic News Roundup: Russia hacks U.S. government, Trump silent.

December 15, 2020 9:26 am By

Russia

Russian government hackers breached numerous U.S. agencies, including the Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security Departments, in a campaign that began as early as Spring 2020. CISA and the FBI are investigating, but officials say it is “too soon to tell how damaging the attacks were and how much material was lost.”

The global campaign, investigators now believe, involved the hackers inserting their code into periodic updates of software used to manage networks by a company called SolarWinds. Its products are widely used in corporate and federal networks, and the malware was carefully minimized to avoid detection.

Though the initial intrusion occurred earlier this year, Trump has decimated the cybersecurity arm of the federal government and failed to nominate confirmable leaders of Homeland Security. Last month, Trump fired the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Christopher Krebs, for refusing to undermine the election. Around the same time, Assistant Director for Cybersecurity at DHS Bryan Ware and Deputy Director of CISA Matt Travis were also forced out.

  • DHS does not have a Senate-confirmed Secretary, Deputy Secretary, General Counsel, or Undersecretary for Management.
  • Additionally, there is no White House cybersecurity coordinator, no State Dept. cybersecurity coordinator, the National Security Agency Director is leaving on a romantic vacation in Europe, and the NSA general counsel is former Devin Nunes staffer Michael Ellis.

Finally, note that Russia has been behind hacks that knocked major U.S. hospitals offline during the pandemic and targeted vaccine makers across the world. In the lead up to the election last month, Russian hackers focused their attacks on American hospitals, often demanding a ransom to restore their systems. According to Microsoft, Russia and North Korea targeted “seven prominent companies directly involved in researching vaccines and treatments for COVID-19” around the world.
Russia’s FSB toxins team poisoned the opposition activist Alexei Navalny in August, after secretly following him on multiple previous trips. The squad shadowed him to more than 30 destinations on overlapping flights in an operation that began in 2017.

items recovered from Room 239 at the Xander Hotel were taken to Germany on the same medevac plane as Navalny. At least two subsequently tested positive for traces of Novichok, including a water bottle from the hotel room.



Appointees and nominees

The Senate voted on Wednesday to confirm three members to the Federal Election Commission, fully staffing the agency for the first time in nearly four years. It is also the first time the commission has had a voting quorum – enough to conduct business – since July, when it had four members for just 29 days.
The new commissioners are Shana Broussard (D), current FEC attorney and the first Black commissioner; Sean Cooksey (R), general counsel for GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri; and Allen Dickerson (R), legal director of the Institute for Free Speech, which opposes campaign finance restrictions.

  • They join Ellen Weintraub (D) and Steven Walther (I), both appointed by George W. Bush, and James Trainor III (R), appointed by Trump. The FEC is designed to contain three Democrats and three Republicans. No party is permitted to have more than three members.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law: “These are last-minute kind of pushes by the outgoing administration and the Republican Senate majority,” he said, meant to ensure that “the commission [will] not be very effective heading into Biden’s presidency… It does seem like there is likely to be gridlock and the commission is not likely to do very much that’s substantive.”

Michael Pack removed the acting director of Voice of America on Tuesday, installing a controversial ally in his place. Pack, CEO of parent organization U.S. Agency for Global Media, replaced VOA director Elez Biberaj with George W. Bush-era director Robert Reilly. The move immediately garnered criticism as Reilly has an extensive history of homophobic and anti-Islamic writing.

NPR: Reilly’s 2014 book, “Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything,” argues strongly against gay marriage. In public remarks, he said at least a murderer or a consumer of pornography ultimately regrets what he or she does, but asked, “What if you organize your life around something that is wrong?”
NYT: President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is likely to replace Mr. Pack once he assumes office, agency officials said. But Mr. Reilly may be harder to remove if language in the National Defense Authorization Act, a defense spending bill passed by the House, is signed into law that requires the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s chief executive to gain approval from an advisory board before replacing the head of a media network under their purview.

An investigation by the Veterans Affairs inspector general found that Secretary Robert Wilkie worked to discredit a congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital. According to the IG, Wilkie “obtained potentially damaging information about the veteran’s past,” leading his staff to pressure VA police to scrutinize her and try to discredit her in the media. The report (PDF) states Wilkie received this information from Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), a former Navy SEAL, who served in the same unit as the female veteran, Andrea Goldstein. Crenshaw refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Further reading on appointees:

  • State Department acting Inspector General Matthew Klimow found that the majority of trips by Susan Pompeo over a two-year period had taken place without written approval from the State Department, despite the fact that her trips were considered official travel and paid for by US taxpayers.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spent at least $43,000 in taxpayer funds to host a series of intimate dinners called the “Madison Dinners.” The guest lists for about two dozen of the dinners, held between 2018 and 2020, included American business leaders and conservative political officials.
  • On his way out of office, Trump rewards some supporters and like-minded allies with the perks and prestige that come with serving on federal advisory boards and commissions. He has appointed Kellyanne Conway to the board of visitors of the U.S. Air Force Academy; Elaine Chao, Lynn Friess (the wife of Republican megadonor Foster Friess, and Pamella DeVos (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ sister-in-law) as members of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and husband of former White House Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp, to the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board.
  • Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor – a senior adviser at the Pentagon with a history of disparaging refugees and immigrants, spreading conspiracies, and other controversial rhetoric – was nominated by Trump for a spot on West Point’s advisory board.
  • The Pentagon appointedChina-hawk Michael Pillsbury to serve as the Chair of the Defense Policy Board, after purging members. In October, the Financial Times revealed that Pillsbury helped funnel dirt on Hunter Biden from China to the Trump administration.
  • The Office of Special Counsel issued a report finding that White House trade adviser Peter Navarro repeatedly violated the Hatch Act by using his official authority for campaign purposes.


Congress

The Senate approved the $740 billion bill National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with a veto-proof majority, sending it to the president’s desk on Friday. Trump has threatened to veto the bill because it doesn’t include a repeal of Section 230, but there are other rebukes of Trump’s policies including provisions to limit how much money Trump can move around for his border wall and another that would require the military to rename bases that were named after figures from the Confederacy.
Crucially, the NDAA also contains provisions that require anonymous shell companies to disclose their true owners, an aspect that may make it harder for Trump and his associates to move or hide money without scrutiny. The law requires anyone registering a new company to disclose the name, address, and date of birth of the real owners, and an identification number for each owner, such as a driver’s license or passport number. The law also applies to corporations and LLCs that already exist.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has scheduled a hearing on Wednesday to examine alleged election “irregularities.” The meeting, two days after electors cast their votes, will feature former independent counsel Ken Starr and attorneys in key battleground states. Johnson says the hearings will help him decide whether to join House Republicans to challenge the electoral results on the floor in January.

“The election’s not over,” Johnson said when asked if he would run again, referring to the November election that Biden won. Asked when he would make a decision, Johnson said: “Once the election is over.”

At a hearing on the pandemic last week, Sen. Ron Johnson invited a vaccine skeptic, a critic of masks, and two doctors who have promoted hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus. Democrats boycotted the hearing and numerous Republicans opted not to ask questions; only Sens. Johnson, Rand Paul, and Josh Hawley took part.

“The panelists have been selected for their political, not their medical views. And for that reason the composition of the panel creates a false and terribly harmful impression of the scientific and medical consensus,” said ranking Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, in his opening statement before leaving the hearing.

As an example of the unfounded claims presented at the hearing, Dr. Jane Orient said “Maybe instead of putting masks on everybody, we should be putting lids on the toilet or pouring Clorox into it before you flush it.” Dr. Ramin Oskoui told the committee that wearing masks, social distancing, and quarantining do not work.
Further reading on Congress:

  • Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ) voted with Republicans against two resolutions aiming to block the Trump White House’s sale of $23 billion worth of F-35s, Reaper drones, and missiles to the United Arab Emirates.
  • On her way out of Congress, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) joined Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) to introduce an anti-transgender bill. According to the two representatives, the bill – called the “Protect Women’s Sports Act” – seeks to clarify that Title IX protections for female athletes are based on “biological sex as determined at birth by a physician.”
  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) blocked legislation to establish a National Museum of the American Latino and American Women’s History Museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution. Lee asserted the bill, which had bipartisan support, would “further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups” (clip).
  • Self-dealing and stock trades: “While Kelly Loeffler Opposed New COVID Aid, Her Husband’s Firm Sought to Profit Off the Pandemic,” “How Kelly Loeffler’s Firm Facilitated an Enron-Like Scandal,” “Sen. David Perdue Sold His Home to a Finance Industry Official Whose Organization Was Lobbying the Senate,” “Perdue diverted military money to Trump’s wall — while profiting from his own Pentagon bill.”


Miscellaneous

The FBI has subpoenaed Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton after his senior staff reported him for alleged corruption, bribery, and abuse of office. All seven whistleblowers have since been fired by Paxton. Four sued Paxton last month in Travis County District Court, claiming they were fired in retaliation, threatened, intimidated and falsely smeared by Paxton.

  • Some believe that Paxton filed his failed election lawsuit as a way to gain Trump’s favor and obtain a pardon before he leaves office. Remember, Paxton was already under indictment on felony securities fraud charges before the most recent subpoena.

Former CISA Director Christopher Krebs sued the Trump campaign and one of its lawyers, Joseph diGenova, for defamation. “He should be drawn and quartered, taken out at dawn and shot,” diGenova said of Krebs.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit (two Trump appointees and an Obama appointee) denied the appeal of whistleblower Reality Winner, ruling she will remain in federal prison despite having pre-existing medical conditions and contracting Covid-19.
Other court cases: “Supreme Court Says Muslim Men Can Sue FBI Agents In No-Fly List Case,” NPR. “A Michigan judge rules companies don’t have to serve gay customers. The attorney general says she’ll appeal,” CNN. “Abortion medication restrictions remain blocked during pandemic, judge rules,” WaPo.
Two whistle-blowers have accused contractors building Trump’s border wall of smuggling armed Mexican security teams into the United States to guard construction sites. The complaint also states that the company submitted fraudulent invoices to the federal government, including for diesel fuel and overstating their costs.
U.S. border officials have expelled at least 66 unaccompanied migrant children without a court hearing or asylum interview since a federal judge ordered them to stop the practice.
Federal regulators and West Virginia agencies are rewriting environmental rules again to pave the way for construction of a major natural gas pipeline across Appalachia, even after an appeals court blocked the pipeline for the second time.
The Trump administration finalized a rule that could make it more difficult to enact public health protections, by changing the way the Environmental Protection Agency calculates the costs and benefits of new limits on air pollution.
World: “Trump administration helped GOP donors get Syria oil deal” and “The Israel-Morocco peace deal Donald Trump has brokered is risky: His recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara could lead to war.”



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