Overnight Defense: Biden team voices concern about ‘abrupt halt’ in Pentagon cooperation | Defense chief pushes back | Lawmakers question whether major cyberattack an act of war
Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team expressed concern Friday about what it described as an “abrupt halt” in cooperation with the Defense Department.
The Pentagon had said it was rescheduling meetings with the transition team originally planned for Friday until after the new year, but insisted the change was part of a “mutually agreed” pause for the holiday season.
“Our agency review teams continue making progress on a shortened timeline, and we’ve benefited from constructive cooperation within many departments and agencies, but we have met isolated resistance in some corners, including from political appointees within the Department of Defense,” Biden transition executive director Yohannes Abraham said in a briefing Friday.
“We were concerned to learn this week about an abrupt halt in the already limited cooperation there, and as indicated by DOD earlier today, we expect that decision will be reversed,” Abraham continued.
Disagreement: “Let me be clear: there was no mutually agreed upon holiday break,” Abraham added later. “In fact, we think it’s important that briefings and other engagements continue during this period, as there’s no time to spare.”
Transition team members were notified Thursday about canceled meetings and “immediately and appropriately escalated” the issue, Abraham said.
Earlier…:Earlier Friday, Axios reported that acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller ordered a halt to cooperation with Biden’s transition amid frustration within the Trump administration at Biden’s team.
The Pentagon responded to the report by acknowledging that about 20 meetings with 40 officials were being rescheduled until after Jan. 1, but insisted cooperation was continuing, saying that documents would be given to Biden’s team during the pause.
“After the mutually agreed upon holiday pause, which begins tomorrow, we will continue with the transition and rescheduled meetings from today,” Miller said in a statement Friday. “Again, I remain committed to a full and transparent transition — this is what our nation expects and the DoD will deliver AS IT ALWAYS HAS.”
Pushing back: Miller insisted that “at no time has the Department canceled or declined any interview” with the Biden transition team, touting that 139 interview with 265 officials have already been conducted.
“Our key focus in the next two weeks is supporting essential requests for information on [Operation Warp Speed] and COVID-19 information to guarantee a flawless transition,” Miller said, referring to the Trump administration’s
A second time: Friday is the second time in recent weeks the Pentagon has pushed back on reports that it was stymieing the transition process.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported the Trump administration was blocking meetings between transition officials and intelligence agencies that fall under the Pentagon’s purview, including the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Pentagon quickly shot back that Biden’s team had not been denied access to the intelligence agencies and that meetings were scheduled to start in days.
LAWMAKERS ASK WHETHER MASSIVE HACK AMOUNTED TO ACT OF WAR: Lawmakers are raising questions about whether the attack on the federal government widely attributed to Russia constitutes an act of war.
The hacking may represent the biggest cyberattack in U.S history, and officials are scrambling to respond.
The response is further complicated by the presidential transition — President Trump has yet to comment publicly on the attack — and the fact that the U.S. has no clear cyber warfare strategy.
Lawmakers speak out: “We can’t be buddies with Vladimir Putin and have him at the same time making this kind of cyberattack on America,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the attack during an interview Wednesday on CNN. “This is virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States and we should take that seriously.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Thursday compared the incident to Russian bombers “flying undetected over the entire country,” and harshly criticized Trump for not doing enough to counter the attack.
“Our national security is extraordinarily vulnerable,” Romney said on SiriusXM’s “The Big Picture with Olivier Knox.” “In this setting, not to have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”
The background: Hackers believed to be part of a nation state have had access to federal networks since March after exploiting a vulnerability in updates to IT group SolarWinds’s Orion software. The hack has compromised the Treasury, State and Homeland Security departments and branches of the Pentagon, though it is expected to get worse. SolarWinds counts many more federal agencies as customers, along with the majority of U.S. Fortune 500 companies.
On Thursday, Politico reported that the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, was also compromised, further raising the stakes.
Congress wants a response: Lawmakers say the scope of the attack, widely presumed to be by Russia, which has denied responsibility, demands some kind of response.
“No response is not appropriate, and that’s been our national policy by and large for the past 10 or 15 years,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), the co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC), said during an event hosted by Defense One on Thursday. “I want somebody in the Kremlin, sitting around that table to say, ‘wait a minute boss, if we do this we are liable to get whacked in some way,’ and right now they are not making that calculus.”
Not the first time: It’s not the first time the U.S. has been hit by a nation state.
The Office of Personnel Management was breached by Chinese hackers in 2015, when the records of more than 22 million people were compromised.
North Korean hackers in 2014 breached Sony Pictures, while Kremlin-backed hackers were credited with launching a sweeping and sophisticated attack on the 2016 presidential election.
Mark Montgomery, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, blamed those attacks on the fact that all those countries felt they could do so without incurring a U.S. response.
He compared the state of U.S. cyber defenses to the unprepared state of U.S. health care systems at the beginning of 2020, and advocated for both Congress and the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to immediately take steps to respond to the latest attack.
NORTH KOREA PLANT MAY BE BUILDING NUCLEAR COMPONENTS, REPORT FINDS: A North Korean plant originally suspected as a site for uranium enrichment may actually be producing components for nuclear weapons, according to an independent research report released Friday.
The report, published by the 38 North project based at the nonpartisan international security think tank the Stimson Center, found that satellite imagery recently taken of a cluster of buildings at Kangson, located just southwest of Pyongyang, indicated that the facility is making components for centrifuges, the spinners used to enrich uranium, rather than enriching the uranium itself.
“The characteristics of the site are more consistent with a plant that could manufacture components for centrifuges,” former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official Olli Heinonen wrote in the report, which was also reviewed by Reuters before its release Friday.
Available evidence: “The available evidence suggests that Kangson is not a uranium enrichment plant, although it is likely still tied to North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, just in a different role,” he continued. “Its characteristics are consistent with a large-scale machine tool workshop suitable for the production and testing of centrifuge components.”
Context: This comes as North Korea has repeatedly denied having secret nuclear sites, which contributed to the failure of talks at a 2019 Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“If the issue of undeclared facilities is going to be a factor in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, as it was in Hanoi, the more we can learn about these suspected facilities, the better we can assess their role and value to North Korea’s overall nuclear weapons development,” Jenny Town, deputy director of 38 North, told Reuters.
However, Heinonen added in the report that the “true function of the Kangson complex can only be established by an on-site inspection,” something inhibited by the North Korean government’s secrecy and tight control over its internal affairs.
Other concerns: Last month, a South Korean official told Reuters that North Korea was building two new submarines, one of which was capable of carrying ballistic missiles.
North Korean state media showed Kim inspecting a new submarine as early as June of last year, according to Reuters. Information on the vessel’s weapons system was not shared, but analysts said the size of it indicated it was meant to carry missiles.
ON TAP FOR MONDAY
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies will hold a virtual Space Power Forum with Brig. Gen. Brook Leonard, chief of staff of U.S. Space Command; and retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies at 11 a.m.
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