Washington Insider-- Monday

The Electronic Hack

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

COVID Cases In Meatpacking Counties Were 10 Times Those In Other Rural Counties

During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, rural meatpacking counties had infection rates 10 times higher than rates in other rural counties, USDA said Thursday. And despite improvements, the COVID-19 rate in the 49 U.S. counties that rely on meat plants for jobs remains somewhat higher than in the rest of rural America as the disease surges again. In its annual Rural America at a Glance report.

USDA also said that rural residents, who make up 14% of the U.S. population, accounted for 27% of the COVID-19 deaths nationwide during the final three weeks of October.

The report covered the pandemic and the accompanying recession from mid-March through Nov. 1.

Haaland To Lead Department Of Interior, North Carolina Official To Lead EPA

The Biden administration will pick Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to lead the Department of Interior, the first Native American to lead the agency. The administration will also select Michael Regan to head EPA, currently the head of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will work as a White House advisor on domestic climate policy, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm will be nominated secretary of energy, former Secretary of State John Kerry will serve as a global climate envoy, and lawyer Brenda Mallory will reportedly be named chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.


Washington Insider: The Electronic Hack

Just when you thought things in Washington couldn't get more confused, it appears that a massive hack on the federal government's cyber systems has taken place — and possibly is still going on. Bloomberg is emphasizing that the attack presents President Trump “with the same choice Barack Obama faced in the waning days of his tenure: whether to impose sanctions on Russia, and how severe to make them.” So far, Trump has shown little willingness to impose costs.

For example, on Saturday, the President downplayed the severity of the cyber-attack and suggested China may have been responsible--even as other U.S. officials are convinced Russia was the perpetrator.”

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had earlier claimed that the Russians were behind this attack and that Putin “remains a real risk to those of us who love freedom.”

In 2016, confronted with evidence that Putin's government orchestrated cyberattacks aimed at interfering with the U.S. 2016 election, President Obama levied sanctions against Russia's intelligence services and expelled 35 diplomats.

Now, it's the Trump administration's turn “to decide whether to call out and punish the Kremlin,” Bloomberg said. The alternative is to “go easy on the Russian president and leave it to President-elect Joe Biden to formulate a response.

While some details of the cyber-attack will likely remain classified, “there was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of U.S. Government systems and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world were hit as well,” Pompeo said.

Among the targets hit were the U.S. nuclear weapons agency and at least three states. Other potential victims include the Pentagon and Microsoft Corp., which found code related to the cyber-attack “in our environment, which we isolated and removed,” spokesman Frank Shaw said in a statement Thursday.

Unlike in 2016, the latest attack didn't involve election interference but there's little doubt it was a serious strike. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency called it a “grave risk” to federal, state and local governments, as well as critical infrastructure and the private sector. SolarWinds said 18,000 customers downloaded the tampered software update.

The implications of the attack quickly became highly political. “The one thing you can say is the Trump administration has basically given the Russians a green light by not calling them out,” said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Does the Trump administration take any action even if it's just symbolic? And so far the answer is no.”

In fact, President Obama was criticized for reacting too slowly to the Russian election meddling, although his sanctions eventually sparked one of the most notorious episodes of the Trump era: the decision by that administration's incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to privately urge Russia not to respond to Obama's sanctions.

Trump and many of his top aides have repeatedly tried to shift the spotlight to China as America's biggest national security threat, sometimes downplaying Russian actions in comparison, Bloomberg said, and it argued that “President Trump has never let go of the belief that he could leverage personal ties with President Putin to improve relations with Russia. That likely makes it much harder for his staff to discuss punishment for fear that Trump would reject it out of hand.”

Bloomberg also noted that there are many ways for the Trump administration to respond to the hack, including new sanctions on Russia's intelligence services, for example. Yet one challenge officials face is that such actions, as the current episode proves, clearly have failed to deter Russia in the past.

Another issue that the current and new administrations will have to confront is that no one knows the true extent of the hack or what the hackers will do with the information gleaned. Snooping on an adversary's networks is something countries routinely do and, as brazen as the hack may be, might provoke only a moderate response, in keeping with what past administrations have done.

But if the hackers use the breach for harder attacks — shutting down electrical grids, for example, or wiping out people's bank accounts or exposing sensitive information publicly — that could provoke a more serious response, Bloomberg says.

“Sanctions are probably the most politically expedient option,” said Lauren Zabierek, executive director of the Cyber Project at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Given that Russia is unlikely to be deterred, experts argue that the best result will have to be a fundamental rethinking of cyber issues, something that will require new money and more time than the Trump team has left before Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration.

“We've been talking about this for 25 years, and we're not there,” said Christopher Painter, who was the State Department coordinator for cyber issues before Trump shut down his office in 2017.

“The way you do that is you make this whole area much more of a mainstream national security priority and not treat it as this little boutique-y tech issue, which I think in large part it has been relegated to,” Painter said.

So, we will see. The attack will challenge both the old and the new administrations in the short run, and will also present a severe challenge for the longer term — one producers should watch closely as proposals emerge and are considered, Washington Insider believes.

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