Security Brief

Russia Ramps Up Disinformation Machine Ahead of 2020

The U.S. State Department discloses that Russian websites are already sowing confusion about the coronavirus.

A police officer patrols in front of the Kremlin's Spasskaya tower and St. Basil's Cathedral on the background in central Moscow, Russia on June 29, 2020.
A police officer patrols in front of the Kremlin's Spasskaya tower and St. Basil's Cathedral on the background in central Moscow, Russia on June 29, 2020. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Russia targets the United States with coronavirus disinformation, Lebanon is reeling from the deadly blast in Beirut, and big shake-ups rock the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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Welcome to the Disinformation Machine

It’s not just China trying to scramble the Trump administration’s flagging efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, the State Department disclosed that Russian disinformation networks were sowing confusion about COVID-19, as deaths from the disease have surged by 26 percent in the United States over the last two weeks.

Among the conspiracies peddled on the websites, some of which describe themselves as “alternative” English-language news sources, are claims that the virus is a bioweapon created in U.S. government-run laboratories, and that the Microsoft founder Bill Gates is using the pandemic to mass-implant microchips “in the whole of humanity.” The sites have tried to distance themselves from the Kremlin.

The news comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would provide up to $10 million for information on foreign agents working to interfere with the November election. President Donald Trump has repeatedly denied that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, contradicting the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and a slew of well-documented indictments by former special counsel Robert Mueller.


What We’re Watching

Beirut blast. Lebanon is still reeling from a massive explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured thousands more. The explosion, which likely occurred after a warehouse full of abandoned ammonium nitrate ignited, has laid bare the government corruption and incompetence that has pushed the economy to the brink and spurred nationwide protests last year.

In Washington, the blast has exposed more rifts between the White House and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Trump said that generals told him the explosion could have been an attack, though initial evidence indicates it was an accident. When Esper said it was an accident, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows defended the president.

The Islamic State lives on. The Islamic State is using Turkey as a regional transit hub for smuggling fighters, supplies, and funds, according to a new U.S. inspector general report for the military’s counter-ISIS mission. While Turkey has pledged to step up efforts against the terror group within its own borders, the report serves as a reminder that ISIS is still active in the region. The Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that the group is likely only capable of carrying out small-scale attacks in Syria and Iraq.


Movers and Shakers

State Department watchdog resigns. Tumult reigns in the State Department’s watchdog office after the acting head of the office, Stephen Akard, abruptly resigned after less than three months. Akard, a political appointee, was placed into the role of State Department Inspector General in May after Steve Linick was ousted from the job. Republicans accused Linick of politically biased investigations and leaks to the media, which he denied.

Congressional Democrats opened an investigation into Linick’s firing amid probes into Pompeo’s misuse of State Department resources and expedited arms sales to Saudi Arabia over congressional objections.

Goldfein retires. Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein, passed over by Trump to be chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has stepped down from his post and retired from the U.S. military. Goldfein was a highly respected commander who oversaw U.S. air operations against the Islamic State and helped establish the Space Force. He was also the first service chief to speak out about racism in the military in the wake of the protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

Controversial USAID hire ousted. A controversial Trump appointee who espoused anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant views and referred to women’s empowerment as a “civilizational calamity” was removed from her post as deputy White House liaison at USAID just months into the job. Merritt Corrigan’s ouster from USAID is a strange—even by Trump-era standards—involving accusations of stalking, racism, and falsified social media posts. The Daily Beast has the story.

Pentagon staffing push. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing for four more Pentagon nominees on Thursday, including Lou Bremer, a former Navy SEAL in line to be Trump’s top civilian overseer for special forces and the White House’s pick to be the Pentagon’s top watchdog. Bremer found himself in hot water with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who raised issue with social media posts involving disgraced British far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.

The powerful Senate panel already held hearings for four other top Pentagon nominees this week after the White House abandoned its nomination of Anthony Tata to lead the Defense Department’s policy shop. It instead appointed Tata, who came under fire for Islamophobic comments, to an acting role in a move that skirted congressional oversight.

London’s new U.N. envoy. Senior British diplomat Barbara Woodward has been appointed as the U.K.’s new ambassador to the United Nations, leaving her post as ambassador to China.


Foreign Policy Recommends

What the military can learn from narco-traffickers. Three junior U.S. military officers co-authored a piece in War on the Rocks about what the Pentagon could learn from South American cocaine traffickers to keep U.S. troops in the far reaches of the Pacific supplied and supported in the event of a conflict with China.


The Week Ahead

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

The 90-day reprieve from U.S. sanctions for companies dealing with Huawei is set to expire on Thursday, Aug. 13.


That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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