Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today’s Headlines and Commentary

By Matt Gluck
Monday, December 21, 2020, 3:21 PM

As the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the country, leaders in Congress reached an agreement Sunday on a stimulus bill that would provide individuals and businesses with economic assistance and deliver funds for vaccine distribution, reports the New York Times. The deal—reportedly worth $900 billion—would send the first significant supply of federal pandemic relief into the economy since April. Under the agreement, adults who earn as much as $75,000 dollars annually are expected to receive $600 payments. And the bill would revive $300 in weekly supplemental federal unemployment benefits for 11 weeks. The agreement would also distribute funds to assist with coronavirus testing and tracing in addition to vaccine administration.

According to Reuters, the agreement also includes the allocation of $1.9 billion to a program that seeks to remove telecom equipment from U.S. networks that the government alleges could threaten national security such as components from Huawei Technologies Co or ZTE Corp.

The Times reports that a new coronavirus variant is spreading in England. In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed the most restrictive lockdown measures since March. Scientists have detected a similar variant in South Africa. British officials claim—based on initial models—that the new version of the virus is up to 70 percent more transmissible, but scientists assert that increased transmissibility may be due to human behavior. Scientists also say vaccines that have been developed will still be effective in preventing the spread of mutated variants of the virus.

The European Medicines Agency, the drug agency for the EU, decided that the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech is safe and effective, writes the Wall Street Journal. This determination allows the EU to move forward this week with its authorization of the vaccine as it tries to prevent the spread of the mutated variant of the virus discovered in Britain.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday authorized an emergency administration of a second coronavirus vaccine, writes the Associated Press. The vaccine, which was jointly developed by Moderna Inc. and the National Institutes of Health, does not require storage at ultra-frozen temperatures—making it far easier to distribute than the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine that individuals in the U.S. started receiving last week. The first injections of Moderna’s vaccine are expected to be administered Monday.

A federal advisory panel recommended Sunday that emergency workers, teachers, grocery store employees and individuals ages 75 and older should be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccines, according to the Washington Post. The guidance will reportedly direct state authorities in determining which groups should have priority for receiving the vaccines.

Attorney General William Barr—who is set to leave office on Wednesday—said at a news conference Monday that he did not see any legitimate reason for the federal government to seize voting machines and that he does not plan to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Trump administration’s claims of voter fraud, reports the Washington Post. Barr also said that he would not appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations against President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. These statements come after Barr said earlier this month that he had not seen evidence of “fraud on a scale that could have” produced a different result in the election—contradicting President Trump.

A Wall Street Journal analysis found that the alleged Russian hackers who gained access to U.S. government agencies also breached prominent U.S. technology and accounting firms, a university and at least one hospital. The 24 organizations the Journal identified—including chip manufacturer Intel Corp., tech conglomerate Cisco systems and Kent State University—installed security software SolarWinds Orion that allowed hackers to access significant amounts of corporate and personal data.

President Trump on Saturday downplayed the significance of the hack and Russia’s role in it, reports the Associated Press. Trump tweeted, “[t]he Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control.” Trump also claimed without apparent basis that China may have been behind the espionage campaign. These comments came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly expressed confidence that Russian actors executed the hack.

According to Reuters, Ron Klain, President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said Sunday that Biden’s response to the suspected Russian hacks would likely be more severe than “just sanctions,” and that Biden would seek to “degrade the capacity of foreign actors to engage in this sort of attack.” The Biden administration is reportedly considering financial penalties and retaliatory hacks against Moscow.

A car bomb that exploded in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday killed at least eight individuals and injured more than 15 others, writes France24. Afghan officials say that “terrorists” conducted the attack and that it targeted Khan Mohammad Wardak, an Afghan lawmaker. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan found that between January and September, upwards of 2,100 civilians had been killed and more than 3,800 had been wounded in the country.

France24 also reports that Hong Kong’s highest court ruled Monday that the city’s law prohibiting individuals from wearing face masks during protests was legal. Face masks reportedly helped demonstrators avoid identification and subsequent prosecution. But ironically, for much of the pandemic, the Hong Kong government has mandated the use of face coverings.

ICYMI: This Weekend on Lawfare

Robert Chesney analyzed President Trump’s recent effort to eliminate the “dual hat arrangement”—in which the director of the National Security Agency also heads the U.S. Cyber Command.

Jonathan Schroden examined the situation in Afghanistan facing the incoming Biden administration and proposed suggestions that could help the administration foster peace in the war-torn country.

Bryce Klehm announced a Lawfare Live event, featuring a discussion of the SolarWinds breach. Chesney and Lawfare executive editor Susan Hennessey will join Lawfare chief operating officer David Priess to answer questions about the domestic and international implications of the hacking operation.

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