Security Brief

Security Brief: Watching for Election Meddling in Midterms; Iran Sanctions Return

Everything you need to know about how influence operations against the election are strangely quiet and how Washington is struggling to implement its pressure campaign against Tehran.

Poll workers help voters at polling station during early voting for the mid-term elections in the Lakeview Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on November 4, 2018. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Poll workers help voters at polling station during early voting for the mid-term elections in the Lakeview Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on November 4, 2018. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

With midterms around the corner, influence operations against the election are strangely quiet. Long-awaited sanctions on Iran are back, but the Trump administration is struggling to fully implement them without harming the global economy and infuriating allies. U.S. troops are headed to the border in a show of force against a caravan of Central American migrants heading north through Mexico, although the Pentagon first resisted the move. And a look inside the CIA’s communications debacle in Iran.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

American voters head to the polls tomorrow for pivotal midterm elections, but if hackers are attempting to meddle in this year’s vote we probably won’t learn about that campaign’s full scope until after the election.

Unlike in the run-up to the 2016 election, this year’s political season has not been marked by the kind of noisy, hack-and-leak campaign that Russia carried out to boost President Donald Trump’s candidacy. Russia’s apparent decision to hold its fire ahead of this year’s vote has created something of a mystery for cybersecurity experts who are wondering whether Moscow is holdings its fire, or whether the campaign merely isn’t being detected.

As one senior DHS official recently told the Washington Post, 2018 may just be “warm-up” for Russians seeking to target 2020.

The relative paucity of data so far doesn’t mean hackers are sitting this one out; what we are seeing may just be the tip of the iceberg. Since Aug. 1, federal officials have logged 160 reports of suspected election meddling, according to documents obtained by the Boston Globe. The targets include voter registration databases and accounts belonging to election officials.

Federal officials say they are closely watching the run-up to the election and are prepared to act against election meddling. DHS officials have said repeatedly that they are not seeing major attacks on the election infrastructure. The federal government has started information-sharing initiatives that officials say quickly will push key intelligence to state and local governments.

But there is less evidence that the federal government and social media companies are prepared to act against a wide-ranging disinformation campaign. The White House has not finalized a strategy to combat disinformation, and it is unclear who in the government would respond in the event of a widespread disinformation campaign, as Politico reported last month.

Meanwhile, social media companies are continuing to play whack-a-mole with influence operations on their platforms. On Friday, Reuters reported that Twitter in late September and October deleted more than 10,000 accounts that posed as Democrats and discouraged people from voting in the election. Late last month, Facebook announced it took down an Iranian-linked disinformation campaign targeting the midterms.

With intense focus on Russian hacking operations against the United States, the American intelligence community and the Pentagon have developed a plan to retaliate against Russia with an offensive cyberattack if Russia electronically interferes with Tuesday’s vote, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.  

Sanctions kick in. Tough new U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil and banks kicked in on the stroke of midnight in Washington, or 8:30 a.m. Monday in Tehran, signaling the end of American involvement in a multinational nuclear accord. But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed that his country would continue to sell its oil and defy the sanctions, as Tehran braced for a new era of political and economic isolation.

Sanctions reality. The Trump administration announced late last week that it will grant waivers to eight countries—Turkey is the latest exception—that will allow them to continue importing Iranian oil despite the imminent return of American sanctions on the country.

The move reflects the difficult reality facing the Trump administration: Washington can’t completely isolate Iran without also spiking the price of crude and hurting the economies of key allies in Asia and Europe.

Sanctions rhetoric. President Donald Trump is teasing the return of American sanctions on Iran as if it were an upcoming TV special. On Friday, he tweeted a stern-looking image of himself with a dramatic caption in a font stolen from HBO’s Game of Thrones: “Sanctions Are Coming.”

Battle of wills. The punishing new sanctions are just the opening salvo of an ambitious strategy by the Trump administration to compel Tehran to pull back from its assertive posture in the Middle East or risk collapse. But senior Iranian officials insist Tehran will neither retrench nor negotiate. Former U.S. officials with long experience say Tehran has cards to play, including trying to ride out the sanctions in the hope that Trump is a one-term president.

Standing up to Trump. When the Trump administration first asked the Pentagon to send troops to the southern border, the administration wanted the troops to take on duties that Department of Defense officials viewed as law enforcement functions, CNN reported Friday. The Pentagon said no.

Call to arms. Active-duty U.S. troops are not the only ones headed south as thousands of Central American migrants advance to the border with Mexico. Gun-carrying civilian groups and border vigilantes have heard a call to arms in President Trump’s warnings about threats to American security posed by the caravans.

Imaginary cyberbattles. Amid widespread fears that a cyberattack could disrupt tomorrow’s midterm elections, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor in the state, accused the Democratic Party of attempting to hack into the state’s voter registration system, Buzzfeed reports.

Kemp’s office said it opened an investigation into the party, but Kemp has a long history of spurious allegations related to voting cybersecurity and has been accused of a wide-ranging voter suppression effort.  

One step forward, two steps back. About 500 United States and South Korean marines began small-scale military drills on Monday, just days before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to hold talks with North Korea on denuclearization and plans for a second summit of their leaders. The exercises follow a warning by North Korea on Friday that it could resume development of its nuclear programme if the United States did not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.

Uneasy peace. Yeonpyeong Island, which has been a flashpoint in the clash between the two Koreas for decades, now embodies hopes of rebuilding trust between the two sides following an agreement to formally end military hostilities along the demilitarized zone. But concern over North Korea and its intentions remains deep-seated.

War games. American and Japanese forces are engaged in the largest-ever naval war games in the history of the two countries’ alliance, Reuters reports. The exercise comes amid a more assertive military posture by China.

Shrinking footprint. Military officials are expressing alarm that a shrinking U.S. military presence in the Middle East has undermined their ability to respond to Iranian threats just as the Trump administration’s imposition of oil sanctions increases the potential for confrontation, The Washington Post reports.

Debacle. The CIA suffered a devastating failure of communications security that resulted in dozens of sources being apprehended in China and Iran, Yahoo News reports.

“From around 2009 to 2013, the U.S. intelligence community experienced crippling intelligence failures related to the secret internet-based communications system, a key means for remote messaging between CIA officers and their sources on the ground worldwide,” Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin write. “The previously unreported global problem originated in Iran and spiderwebbed to other countries, and was left unrepaired — despite warnings about what was happening — until more than two dozen sources died in China in 2011 and 2012 as a result, according to 11 former intelligence and national security officials.

A new Stuxnet? A vague Israeli television report claims that Iran came under attack of a more violent, advanced version of the Stuxnet virus targeting the country’s infrastructure and strategic networks. Stuxnet, of course, was the Israeli and U.S. authored worm that attacked Iranian centrifuge uranium operations beginning in 2009.

The new normal. Brent R. Taylor, father of seven and the mayor of North Ogden, Utah,  serving in Afghanistan was killed and another servicemember was wounded in an apparent insider attack in Kabul on Saturday, two weeks after a Taliban infiltrator shot and wounded an American general in Kandahar.

Inside the attack. Though only a teenager, the assassin who killed one of the most important generals in Afghanistan in the deadly Oct. 18 attack in Kandahar managed to get hired as an elite guard, slipping into government service with a fake ID and no background check.

Our man in Afghanistan. When Gen. Scott Miller took over as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan on Sept. 2, Afghan soldiers were being killed and wounded at near record numbers. In his first interview in the job, Miller details a new aggressive policy of helping the Afghan military track and defeat the Taliban. But he recognizes that the solution in Afghanistan will be political, not military.

Prospects for peace. Speaking of a solution, United States is pushing to jump-start an Afghan peace process, but faces a Taliban that is stronger than any time since an American-led military coalition deposed it 17 years ago. The movement’s battlefield successes and territorial gains give it more sway in talks, in which it is seeking the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces from Afghanistan and to forge an ultraconservative Islamic government.

‘My deployment was not an adventure.’ Zachary Bell, whose service in the Marine Corps took him to an especially violent area of Afghanistan, found himself grappling with the war in a way he didn’t expect: via a children’s book called War in Afghanistan: An Interactive Modern History Adventure.

Living hell. Intensified fighting shook a key rebel-held port city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast on Sunday, leaving dozens dead as the United Nations warned that children in the war-torn country face “a living hell.”

Longread. With an increasing number of violent attacks carried out by sympathizers of far-right, nationalist ideologies, writer Janet Reitman examines the way in which American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have failed to investigate and monitor such groups using their vast powers to combat terrorism.

Double agents. Iran’s ally Hezbollah is paying former U.S.-backed rebels to switch sides and join a growing force in southern Syria, deepening its presence near Israel’s border after appearing to withdraw to avoid Israeli airstrikes, according to activists and a former rebel commander.

Buzzword-watch. National Security Advisor has a new catch-all term for American rivals in Latin America: the “troika of tyranny.” Bolton unveiled the term in a speech Thursday in which he promised a tougher approach toward Cuba, Venezuela, and Latin America.

Spy stories. When American spy hunters finally closed in on Robert Hanssen, the FBI official who turned Soviet spy, it was thanks to a Soviet dossier on Hanssen that was turned over to the bureau by a Russian turncoat. That spy’s identity has long remained a secret, but now it has been revealed. It was the KGB officer Alexandr Shcherbakov, who defected to the United States in 2010, who outed Hanssen.

Another spy story. In the 1970s and 80s, President Donald Trump was “the target of an extensive spying operation conducted by Czechoslovakia’s Státní bezpečnost (StB) intelligence service – together with “friends” from the KGB,” the Guardian reports.

South China Sea. Newly released footage of a near-collision between the USS Decatur and the Chinese destroyer Luyang reveals just how close the two chips came to one another during an incident in the South China Sea. According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese ship warned its American counterpart that it would “suffer consequences” if it did not depart the area.  

Underground. Chinese officials have scrubbed online lists of participants in the country’s flagship science recruitment program, known as the “Thousand Talents Plan,” Nature reports. The move comes amid increased scrutiny of such initiatives by U.S. agencies.

The WALL. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe offered legislation Thursday he says will fund Trump’s border wall, amid the president’s controversial deployment of thousands of troops to the southern border. Though the bill’s text was not immediately made public, Inhofe’s “WALL Act,” would bar undocumented immigrants from accessing government benefits and tax credits to use that savings to “fund the President’s $25 billion border wall.”

‘Arab Shield.’ Ground, air and naval units from five Arab nations are arriving in Egypt to join their Egyptian counterparts for war games, according to the Egyptian military, in the first sign that a military alliance proposed by Washington for its Middle East partners may be gaining traction.

Tipping point. Claims of the complicity of the autocratic Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, has weakened the chief architect of the war in Yemen and opened new space for diplomats.

For now though, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s position as heir to the throne appears secure, as the royal family closes ranks.

Diminished role. U.S. and Israeli officials have expressed concern that the Saudi Crown Prince may have less leeway to pursue the gradual warming of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors amid the political fallout from Khashoggi’s killing.

Coincidence? Coincidentally—or not so much—Saudi Prince Khaled bin Talal, a nephew of King Salman, has now been released after almost a year in detention, according to his relatives.

China on notice. The Justice Department on Thursday unveiled a broad new initiative to combat what it says is mounting criminal economic activity by China, announcing the plan as U.S. officials unsealed charges against several individuals and Chinese and Taiwanese companies for trade-secret theft.

More bad news. An Afghan army helicopter crashed Wednesday in bad weather in the western Farah province, killing all 25 people on board, including the deputy corps commander of the western zone.

Reservists for hire. L3, a major defense contractor, has agreed to pay a total of $1.35 million to up to roughly 250 reservists who have applied for jobs since 2011 but weren’t hired. The case shines a light on two related trends that followed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001: the military’s increased reliance on reservists to meet the rising demand for personnel, and discrimination against those workers by private-sector employers.

Elevator out. The U.S. Navy’s advanced new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, was delivered to the Navy without functioning bomb elevators, which deliver weapons from the belly of the ship to aircraft, Bloomberg reports.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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