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Russia’s Alleged Hack Could Be Worst in U.S. History

A sophisticated cyberattack has hit the heart of the U.S. government, affecting the Treasury, Defense, and Energy departments—among others.

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich appears for a news conference at the Department of Justice on Oct. 19, 2020, in Washington.
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich appears for a news conference at the Department of Justice on Oct. 19, 2020, in Washington. Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A cyberattack on the U.S. government appears to be the worst ever, Nigerian schoolchildren released, and Germany plans to begin its vaccination program on Dec. 27 as coronavirus cases climb.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A cyberattack on the U.S. government appears to be the worst ever, Nigerian schoolchildren released, and Germany plans to begin its vaccination program on Dec. 27 as coronavirus cases climb.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Suspected Russian Cyberattack Strikes at Heart of U.S. Government

As more details are revealed about Russia’s alleged hack of the U.S. government, it’s becoming clear that the breach is much worse than previously thought. On Thursday, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that is “poses a grave risk” to federal, state, and local governments as well as private companies and organizations.

Who’s been hacked? There is a growing list of reported victims: the Centers for Disease Control, the Defense Department, State Department, Commerce Department, Department of Homeland Security, Treasury Department, the U.S. Postal Service, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy were all affected. The DOE says the hack poses no threat to its national security operations—including the National Nuclear Security Administration—but did impact its business networks.

How bad is it? “This is, I think, appears to be at this point the most serious cyberattack this country has ever endured,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine said on NPR. Microsoft, which is helping to respond to the hack, noted that “the attack unfortunately represents a broad and successful espionage-based assault on both the confidential information of the U.S. Government and the tech tools used by firms to protect them … ongoing investigations reveal an attack that is remarkable for its scope, sophistication and impact.

Biden issues statement; Trump stays silent. President-elect Joe Biden responded by promising to focus on cyberthreats.“I want to be clear: My administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government—and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office,” he said. President Donald Trump, who recently fired a top government cybersecurity official has not made an official statement. He is taking heat from both sides of the aisle for his silence. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney compared the breach to “Russian bombers … repeatedly flying over our entire country,” and denounced the “inexcusable silence and inaction from the White House.”

As Elisabeth Braw argues in FP, cyberattacks may be declining in number but the damage they cause is greater than ever. With businesses and institutions getting better at cybersecurity, garden-variety cyberattacks are decreasing while sophisticated and targeted intrusion is on the rise, she wrote.

What We’re Following Today

Bobi Wine court hearing. Ugandan opposition figure Bobi Wine is set to appear in court today on charges of violating coronavirus restrictions by holding political rallies. Human Rights Watch has accused Ugandan authorities of weaponizing COVID-19 to suppress dissent ahead of Uganda’s Jan. 14 presidential election, in which Wine is seeking to end the 34-year-reign of President Yoweri Museveni. Earlier this week, the Ugandan government asked Google to take down 14 YouTube channels linked to the opposition; Wine, a pop star, enjoys a large online following.

Nigerian schoolboys released. Suspected Boko Haram militants in Nigeria have released over 300 boys kidnapped last week. It is unclear how the government negotiated their release; authorities claim they did not pay a ransom but Boko Haram group seemed to suggest money was involved by sharing a video showing an abducted boy telling the army not to intervene and saying “You have to send them the money.”

Pence getting vaccine today. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen will receive a coronavirus vaccination today. Pence, who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, plans to televise his inoculation to build “vaccine confidence.” Pence and his team’s approach to the pandemic has been controversial. The United States is seeing record coronavirus caseloads and hospitalizations, and recently surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Keep an Eye On

Germany plans vaccine rollout. In Germany, where the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was developed, pressure is mounting to approve the drug for use. German Health Minister Jens Spahn is expected to announce a vaccination priority list at a press conference today, alongside plans to begin mass vaccinations on Dec. 27. The Pfizer vaccine has not yet been given a green light by EU regulators, though Brussels recently caved to public demands and moved its assessment date up to Dec. 21 from Dec. 29.

Germany is facing record daily case counts of over 30,000, and recently ditched it’s “lockdown-lite” for a full lockdown after the partial closure failed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Jacindas free jabs. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that her government will offer free vaccines to neighboring countries that ask for them—including Tokelau, the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Ardern said in a press conference that “never before has the entire globe sought to vaccinate the entire population at the same time … This will be a sustained rollout over months, not weeks, but our pre-purchase agreements means New Zealand is well positioned to get on with it as soon as it is proven safe to do so.

COVID’s effects on migrants. To coincide with International Migrant’s Day, the World Health Organization will release findings today from a new study on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on refugees and migrants. An earlier OECD study found that the “few data available by origin usually show a significant over-representation of immigrants in the incidence of COVID‑19, noting higher infection rates in Norway, Sweden, Portugal, and Canada compared to native-born populations. The higher rates have been linked to poverty, poor housing and work conditions.

As Shelly Culbertson argues in Foreign Policy, migrants are often “caught in a Catch-22 of not being allowed to work while not receiving enough aid to survive, refugees often work under the table, under minimum wage, and without social protections.”

Tensions grow between Kenya and Somalia. Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Kenya on Tuesday after accusing its neighbor of meddling in an internal election and a day after Kenya’s president hosted the leader of Somaliland, a region within Somalia that declared independence in 1991. The diplomatic spat comes just after Washington announced it would with withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia—leading to fears that the al-Shabab militant group could step up attacks throughout the Horn of Africa.

Odds and Ends

Tearing down Trump’s legacy. The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino was once a fixture in the gambling destination of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although the casino went bankrupt and shut in 2014, it has remained standing—apart from occasional pieces of the crumbling structure that have fallen into surrounding streets. City officials have long urged demolition of the building; now they are auctioning off the right to raze it for charity. Bidding for the privilege of dynamiting the 39-story building began on Thursday.

That’s it for today. 

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