Overnight Defense & National Security — White House raises new alarm over Russia
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President Biden sparked confusion and intense criticism over suggestions that Russia would face lesser consequences for launching a “minor” attack against Ukraine, prompting the White House to quickly try to clean up the remarks.
More on that, plus details on the president’s move to ramp up protection of sensitive national security systems, the declassified video that showed the U.S. drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians, and the more on the deadly Marine vehicle accident in North Carolina.
For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write me with tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s get to it.
Biden sparks confusion with Russia remarks
The White House quickly moved to clarify Biden’s remarks that suggested Russia would face lesser consequences for launching a “minor” attack against Ukraine.
The remarks: “It depends on what he does as to what extent we’re going to be able to get total unity on the NATO front,” the president said during a press conference at the White House, referring to the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do,” Biden said.
The clarification: The White House quickly sought to clarify Biden’s position and tamp down concerns among allies and Ukrainian officials amid warnings Russia could take action imminently.
“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement right after the press conference’s conclusion.
“President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response,” Psaki added.
Further cleanup attempts: Psaki’s statement came shortly after Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, issued a tweet emphasizing Biden was distinguishing between military and nonmilitary actions, such as cyberattacks that would be met with a reciprocal response.
Biden himself had attempted to clean up his remarks when given the chance during his nearly two-hour press conference when a reporter followed up to ask if he meant to effectively give Putin a green light to take offensive action by saying a “minor incursion” may not be as big of a deal.
“The serious imposition of sanctions relative to dollar transactions and other things are things that are going to have a negative impact on the United States and a negative impact on the economies of Europe as well,” Biden said. “So I’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page as we move along.”
The criticism: Still, the remarks prompted confusion and criticism among experts and pushback from Republicans. The confusion came at an inopportune time for the Biden administration, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken preparing to meet with his Russian counterpart in Geneva later this week.
“I am very concerned by the weak, incoherent message we just heard from [President Biden] on Ukraine,” tweeted Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and who briefed the president earlier Wednesday on his bipartisan congressional delegation to Ukraine over the weekend.
“This administration must be clear that ANY Putin move into Ukraine is unacceptable, and we should do more to impose costs on him.”
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the president’s rhetoric “will make Putin believe he can get away with more aggression and embolden our adversaries like the [Chinese Communist Party] to follow suit.”
More coverage of the situation:
- Biden warns of ‘disaster for Russia’ if it further invades Ukraine
- Biden huddles with group of senators on Ukraine-Russia tensions
- US providing Ukraine with additional $200M in military aid amid tensions with Russia
- Russia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable
- Blinken: Russian attack on Ukraine could be launched with ‘very short notice’
Biden to boost security systems protection
President Biden signed a national security memorandum on Wednesday that sets new cybersecurity requirements for sensitive national security systems run by the Pentagon, intelligence community and other federal agencies.
Details on the memo: The memorandum lays out how Biden’s May executive order on federal government cybersecurity applies to national security systems controlled by government agencies, stating that national security systems should at minimum have the same security protection as federal civilian networks under that order.
The memorandum requires these agencies to prioritize resources to adopt and use cloud technology. It also directs agencies to implement multifactor authentication and encryption for most national security systems within 180 days of its signing.
Other requirements: It also requires affected agencies to report suspected breaches of national security systems to the National Security Agency (NSA) and requires the NSA in coordination with DNI and CIA to establish plans for reporting such suspected compromises.
The memo empowers NSA to issue binding directives to agencies to take action to mitigate a potential cyber threat or vulnerability.
Additionally, it orders the NSA, CIA, FBI, Defense Department branches and the intelligence community to develop a framework to better coordinate on cybersecurity and incident response efforts on national security cloud technologies.
Some context: The new memorandum is a product of Biden’s May 12 executive order, which mandates the federal government to adopt requirements for national security systems within 60 days.
Biden signed the sweeping executive order last year following major cyberattacks, including the SolarWinds hack in which Russian state-sponsored hackers gained access to nine federal agencies and dozens of private sector organizations. The SolarWinds breach occurred under the Trump administration.
Videos show deadly US drone strike
U.S. Central Command (Centcom) released declassified footage on Wednesday showing the moments before, during and after the Kabul drone strike conducted by the United States in late August that killed 10 Afghan civilians.
The newspaper said that the footage had been misinterpreted by officials who initiated the Aug. 29 drone strike, noting that the images are times difficult to make out.
What the video shows: One color video provided by Centcom, which showed slightly better details than a second black and white one, showed children outside and a person opening a white car’s right door. Footage also showed water being poured on the fire after drone strike.
The black and white video, which appeared to be less focused, shows the white car that longtime aide worker Zemerai Ahmadi, whom U.S. officials incorrectly believed was an operative of ISIS-K who had explosives, drove moving through a few streets and making its way toward a courtyard. The car can be seen backing in as the footage shows several minutes of people milling around the area’s courtyard.
The video later shows the explosion that resulted from the strike.
Confirmation: “I can confirm that the videos obtained by the New York Times via litigation related to the Freedom of Information Act are, in fact, videos of the strike in Kabul on August 29, 2021,” Capt. Bill Urban, the spokesman for Centcom, said in a statement.
“While the strike was intended for what was believed to be an imminent threat to our troops at Hamad Karzai International Airport, none of the family members killed are now believed to have been connected to ISIS-K or threats to our troops. We deeply regret the loss of life that resulted from this strike.”
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‘MULTIPLE CASUALTIES’ IN MARINE VEHICLE CRASH
The Marines reported ‘multiple casualties’ on Wednesday after a military vehicle crashed near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Earlier in the day, the 2nd Marine Logistics Group said it was aware of a vehicle rollover involving service members.
“We are aware of a vehicle rollover in Jacksonville, North Carolina, involving service members with 2nd MLG. We are working closely with @camp_lejeune and Onslow County officials to gather details regarding this incident,” read a tweet from the unit from 2:24 p.m.
The accident: About an hour later, the unit confirmed “multiple casualties as a result of this incident,” and said it would share more information on Twitter as it became available.
The incident occurred at around 1 p.m., local NBC affiliate WITN reported. According to the outlet, a seven-ton Marine truck with 19 service members on board lost control on a highway while making a right turn.
Marines were thrown from the truck as a result.
In a news conference, North Carolina State Highway Patrol confirmed that two Marines died as a result of the crash, and two other Marines were taken to a local hospital, according to local news station WNCT.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a discussion on “Holding Malicious Cyber Actors Accountable,” at 9 a.m.
- Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will speak on transatlantic partnership for a virtual event hosted by The German Marshall Fund of the United States, at 9:30 a.m.
- The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a roundtable on “Bolstering Democracy in the Age of Rising Authoritarianism,” at 9:30 a.m.
- The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association will host a virtual discussion on “DISA Restructuring to Move at the Velocity of Action,” at 11 a.m.
- Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, head of Space Operations Command, will speak as part of the Space Force Association’s “Space Warfighter Talks,” at 2 p.m.
- The Center for Security and Emerging Technology will host a discussion on “Strengthening the Technical Foundations of U.S. Security,” at 4 p.m.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Ukraine: Russia’s military deployment near border ‘almost completed’
- Finland PM pledges ‘extremely tough’ sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine
- Acting Afghan officials call for governments to recognize Taliban administration
- Kazakhstan defense chief fired in wake of protests
- Oath Keepers stockpiled 30 days of supplies, rifles ahead of Jan. 6
- Unanswered questions in the Ukrainian crisis
- The Washington Post: Power struggle among Biden appointees gets personal over race
- Military Times: The National Guard’s sexual assault investigation office has limited power to get justice
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