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By ALEXANDER WARD and QUINT FORGEY
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Mark Lenzi speaks at a news conference Friday, May 10, 2019, in Boston. | Rodrique Ngowi/AP Photo
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The top theory among U.S. investigators into the so-called Havana Syndrome plaguing American officials is that an adversary is using some kind of directed energy weapon. But the State Department had that as their leading theory over two years ago — and didn’t tell Congress about it.
Per documents obtained by POLITICO’s ANDREW DESIDERIO and LARA SELIGMAN, the State Department was administering its own internal medical tests as early as mid-2018, specifically designed to evaluate patients who experienced “directed energy exposure” on foreign soil, according to two victims’ disclosure forms for the examinations. Both of their test results led to their immediate return to the U.S.
One of those victims, current State Department official MARK LENZI, sustained traumatic brain injuries while on assignment in Guangzhou, China, in late 2017, when he was working as a security engineering officer in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. It wasn’t until June 2018 that Lenzi was evaluated for directed energy exposure, more than six months after first informing his superiors about his symptoms. Days after failing the medical test, he and his family were medically evacuated from Guangzhou.
Lenzi has accused the State Department of covering up the source of his and other diplomats’ ailments and withholding information from Congress. Lawmakers were not briefed on the department’s medical tests for directed-energy exposure until early 2021, POLITICO previously reported, even though State was administering those exams to diplomats as early as 2018.
Lenzi provided documents to POLITICO that detail his claims that State’s leadership has retaliated against him for speaking out publicly and for working with the members of Congress who have been investigating the matter.
The documents, which have not been previously reported, shed new light on the government’s handling of the unexplained health incidents that have afflicted more than 200 American personnel — diplomats and intelligence officers alike — in foreign countries and on U.S. soil since 2016. It comes as victims such as Lenzi have grown frustrated with what they say is the department’s slow and inconsistent response to the incidents over the years, spanning three presidential administrations.
This is a bad look for the State Department as a whole, especially during the Trump years. But it increases pressure on Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN, who promised when he got the job to protect his staff and not retaliate against whistleblowers. He’s failed, Lenzi said.
“[U]nder his tenure, retaliation against me by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau for my whistleblowing activities with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and with Congress has actually increased,” he told Desiderio and Seligman.
Read the full story.
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SUDAN COUP: Sudan’s military forcibly took power in an overnight coup by arresting the acting prime minister and top officials — imperiling the country’s fragile democratic transition.
Lt. Gen. ABDEL FATTAH AL-BURHAN, who led the interim joint civilian-military council governing the country until 2022 elections, dissolved that body and said his new government would remain in charge until a new July 2022 vote. Thousands immediately took to the streets in protest, shouting slogans like “retreat is not an option!” At least 12 demonstrators have been injured, per reports.
It’s unclear where Prime Minister ABDALLA HAMDOK was taken after refusing to endorse the coup.
U.S. officials have come out in droves to condemn the coup. “We reject the actions by the military and call for the immediate release of the prime minister,” deputy White House press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE told reporters today.
The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa JEFFREY FELTMAN, who was just in Sudan, said the administration is “deeply alarmed” by the coup, which could put “at risk U.S. assistance.”
Sen. CHRIS COONS (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate panel responsible for foreign aid, tweeted “assistance will end if the authority of PM Hamdok & the full transitional government is not restored.”
Sudan is a party to the “Abraham Accords,” where Arab nations normalize their relations with Israel in exchange for some benefit from the U.S. A State Department spokesperson wouldn’t say if the coup changes Sudan’s status in the accords because “we are firmly focused on the developing situation.”
FACEBOOK FUELED GLOBAL CRISES: Facebook has done very little to moderate violent language around the world, fueling crises in many of the world’s conflict zones, per internal documents shared by whistleblower FRANCES HAUGEN with POLITICO and 16 other news organizations.
Just before New Year’s Eve 2020, Facebook researchers wrote in a 59-page memo that “only six percent of Arabic-language hate content was detected on Instagram before it made its way onto the photo-sharing platform owned by Facebook,” POLITICO’s MARK SCOTT reported. “That compared to a 40 percent takedown rate on Facebook.”
“Ads attacking women and the LGBTQ community were rarely flagged for removal in the Middle East. In a related survey, Egyptian users told the company they were scared of posting political views on the platform out of fear of being arrested or attacked online,” Scott wrote. “In Iraq, where violent clashes between Sunni and Shia militias were quickly worsening an already politically fragile country, so-called ‘cyber armies’ battled it out by posting profane and outlawed material, including child nudity, on each other’s Facebook pages in efforts to remove rivals from the global platform.”
The documents also show how terrorist groups have learned to avoid Facebook’s already wanting content moderation. “In one post reviewed by POLITICO, Islamic State fighters heralded the killing of 13 Iraqi soldiers via a Facebook update that used an image of Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, to mask the propaganda from the platform’s automated content policing tools,” Scott noted.
Read the rest of POLITICO’s “The Facebook Papers” content.
IRON DOME’S USELESS GUAM DEPLOYMENT: Your host has been obsessed with why the Army placed the Iron Dome missile defense system in Guam this month, even though it doesn’t protect against the kinds of missiles from China and North Korea threatening the island. Like, is there some secret Hezbollah-Guam cell we don’t know about?
Turns out it’s pretty much a useless deployment done solely to satisfy a congressional measure. “The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act required the deployment of the Iron Dome system to an operational theater no later than the end of 2021,” the Army reported on Oct. 7 when announcing the move. Multiple congressional sources confirmed that was the only reason why the system was placed there — and not actually to defend against any serious threat.
Simply put, Iron Dome mainly stops crude rockets, not cruise missiles or other weapons adversaries would use to destroy American bases on Guam.
IT’S MONDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.
While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi, @woodruffbets, @politicoryan, @PhelimKine, @BryanDBender, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmccleary, @leehudson, @AndrewDesiderio and @JonnyCustodio.
SAUDI OFFICIAL EXPOSES MBS: A former top Saudi intelligence official went on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last night to accuse Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN of plotting to kill King Abdullah back in 2014.
SAAD ALJABRI, who MBS forced out of his job as the number two in Saudi intelligence, said the royal bragged about using a “poisoned ring” from Russia to murder the now-deceased monarch. “It’s enough for me just to shake hands with him and he will be done,” Aljabri claims the crown prince said.
Aljabri, who lives in exile in Canada, has long been a critic of MBS, so it’s worth taking his comments with many grains of salt. And it seems that this interview was his latest effort to pressure Riyadh into releasing his son and daughter, who he claims were imprisoned to force Aljabri back to Saudi Arabia.
But U.S. intelligence also assessed the crown prince authorized the murder of Saudi dissident and U.S.-based journalist JAMAL KHASHOGGI, so such behavior isn’t completely out of the question.
RUSSIAN HACKERS PREPARING FOR ANOTHER SOLARWINDS: A Russian hacker group part of the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR behind the large-scale SolarWinds hack in 2020 is on to a new target: “resellers and other technology service providers that customize, deploy and manage cloud services and other technologies on behalf of their customers.”
That’s from a Sunday blog post by Microsoft’s TOM BURT, the company’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust. Burt wrote that Nobelium, the group’s name, “ultimately hopes to piggyback on any direct access that resellers may have to their customers’ IT systems and more easily impersonate an organization’s trusted technology partner to gain access to their downstream customers.” That means multinational corporations, government agencies, think tanks, media agencies and more who use those systems could be at risk if they don’t protect themselves.
Nobelium was preparing for a SolarWinds-like attack, Burt told NatSec Daily in a brief interview, but this time he said “we caught them earlier.”
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Some experts have met the news with a collective shrug. “If anyone is surprised that SVR is still engaging in espionage, they should check the mission statement of intelligence agencies,” tweeted DMITRI ALPEROVITCH, the co-founder and former CTO of CrowdStrike. Operations like SolarWinds were “a tactical direction shift, not a one-off operation.”
Burt rejects that notion. “Is this espionage as usual? Yes, but you could say the same thing about SolarWinds,” he told us. “What’s new here is the corruption of the supply chain and the disruption of trust among customers in the digital ecosystem.”
Burt also said the Biden administration’s elevation of this issue in talks with Russia, and attribution of the SolarWinds hack to Moscow, is an important step in stopping the large-scale espionage efforts.
In the blog post, Burt wrote that Microsoft informed 609 customers that they were the victims of 22,868 Nobelium cyberattacks between July 1 and October 19 — including those related to this specific effort. That’s more than the 20,500 total cyberattacks in the three years prior to July 1 by the group.
QUARTERLY REPORTS-PALOOZA: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) note that tons of Pentagon contractors will report their third-quarter earnings this week, providing a peek into their business during a time of pandemic and supply chain woes.
First up: On Tuesday we’ll hear from Raytheon Technologies, which is expected to see a boost and offer an update on its integration of United Technologies, which it acquired last year.
Lockheed Martin also releases its results on Tuesday, and executives will likely get questions from Wall Street analysts about the company’s proposed acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, which still faces regulatory hurdles.
Another thing to watch: “Performance issues faced by a few programs might have hurt its earnings growth in the third quarter,” according to Zacks Equity Research.
The others: On Wednesday, earnings calls are scheduled for General Dynamics, which some analysts are bullish about as the aerospace sector rebounds, and Boeing, which is likely to get questions about whether it’s taking another hit for the continuing delays on the Starliner space capsule it’s designing in partnership with NASA.
And Northrop Grumman, which is riding a high-flying stock price, will report its third-quarter earnings on Thursday.
LAWMAKERS WORRY ABOUT DELAYED CHINA BILL: A $250 billion bill providing research grants and boosting funds for semiconductor production is languishing in the House, angering a bipartisan set of senators who say the measure will help the U.S. compete against China.
The Senate passed the bill in June with 68 votes, but the House so far hasn’t moved it forward, mainly because of disagreements between conservatives and progressives on how tough the language toward China should be.
As a result, the Senate may move to pass key parts of the bill on their own. “Lawmakers have weighed taking out the CHIPS Act, which would provide $52 billion in semiconductor manufacturing incentives, and adding it to the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense policy bill that should pass before the end of the year,” POLITICO’s Desiderio and GAVIN BADE reported.
Some Senators, however, fear such moves will imperil the entire legislation. “I don’t object to [CHIPS] moving on a faster track, so long as it doesn’t jeopardize the chances of the overall package,” Sen. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.) told Desiderio and Bade.
FORMER ISRAEL AMB TO U.S.: CUT OFF AMERICANS’ WATER: If the Biden administration reopens the U.S. consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, then former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. MICHAEL OREN suggests Israel cut off the diplomats’ water supply.
"Theoretically, one could stop providing electricity and water to the building. And it is possible to do other things that we shouldn’t talk about right now," he told Israel Hayom’s NADAV SHRAGAI. "One has to take into account that there will be a price to pay; perhaps condemnations and perhaps sanctions. Therefore, we have to weigh carefully whether we can bear those costs. It is a strategic question, but, if, God forbid, the Americans decide to break all the rules, the battle at one level or the other will have to continue."
SecState Blinken said this month that the U.S. will reopen that consulate closed by the Trump administration. Clearly the new Israeli government and its allies don’t want that and are trying to intimidate President JOE BIDEN’s team from making such an announcement.
"I believe that I have good reason to think this will not happen," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister IDAN ROLL told Israel’s Ynet TV yesterday.
— DIMITAR BECHEV has joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Europe office, the think tank announced today. Bechev focuses on central, southeastern and eastern Europe and has written two books on Russia’s foreign policy.
BECOME A GLOBAL INSIDER: The world is more connected than ever. It has never been more essential to identify, unpack and analyze important news, trends and decisions shaping our future — and we’ve got you covered! Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Global Insider author Ryan Heath navigates the global news maze and connects you to power players and events changing our world. Don’t miss out on this influential global community. Subscribe now.
— DECLAN WALSH, ERIC SCHMITT and JULIAN E. BARNES, The New York Times: “A C.I.A. Fighter, a Somali Bomb Maker, and a Faltering Shadow War”
— ODETTE YOUSEF, NPR: “Hate on trial in Virginia, four years after deadly extremist rally”
— EMMA ASHFORD, POLITICO Magazine: “Opinion: Even Colin Powell Ignored the Powell Doctrine. Now, America Is Starting to Listen.”
— Biden will participate virtually in the annual U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit: “The President will discuss the United States’ enduring commitment to ASEAN centrality and new initiatives that will strengthen our strategic partnership with ASEAN as we work together to end the COVID-19 pandemic, address the climate crisis, promote economic growth, and address a range of other regional challenges and opportunities,” per the White House.
— The Atlantic Council, 9 a.m.: “Raising Climate Ambition on the Road to COP26: Perspectives From the United Arab Emirates — with MARIAM ALMHEIRI, RANDY BELL and LANA NUSSEIBEH”
— The Heritage Foundation, 9 a.m.: “How to Better Understand the Chinese Defense Budget — with FREDERICO BARTELS, LUCIE BÉRAUD-SUDREAU and PETER ROBERTSON”
— The U.S. Travel Association, 9 a.m.: “The Future of Travel Mobility — with PETE BUTTIGIEG, SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO, DEBBIE DINGELL, JOHN KATKO and ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS”
— The Middle East Institute, 9:30 a.m.: “Syria: Reflecting on the Past and What the Future Might Hold — with CHARLES LISTER, DAVID MCCLOSKEY, MARC POLYMEROPOULOS and CLARISSA WARD”
— Senate Armed Services Committee, 9:30 a.m.: “Full Committee Hearing: Testimony on Security in Afghanistan and in the Regions of South and Central Asia — with COLIN KAHL and JAMES MINGUS”
— The Wilson Center, 9:30 a.m.: “China’s Painful Transition to a Clean Energy Future — with CECILIA HAN SPRINGER, JENNIFER L. TURNER, XI WANG and ZHOU XIZHOU”
— House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: “A Whole of Government Approach in Support of Servicewomen”
— The Institute for Gulf Affairs, 10 a.m.: “Behind the Headlines: Iranian-Saudi Relations — with FOUAD IBRAHIM, NEGAR MORTAZAVI, ANNELLE SHELINE, BARBARA SLAVIN and ALEX VATANKA”
— The Middle East Institute, 10 a.m.: “Book Launch: Oil and the Political Economy in the Middle East — with AMR ADLY, MARTIN BECK, MATTHEW GRAY, THOMAS RICHTER and KAREN YOUNG”
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10 a.m.: “Full Committee Hearing: Nominations — with RASHAD HUSSAIN, ADRIANA DEBORA KUGLER, MARC R. STANLEY, RAMIN TOLOUI and CHANTALE YOKMIN WONG”
— The Atlantic Council, 12 p.m.: “China’s Surveillance Colony in Xinjiang: A Conversation With DARREN BYLER — with RAYHAN ASAT”
— The Wilson Center, 1 p.m.: “Furthering North American Collaboration — with ROBERTO VELASCO ÁLVAREZ, MICHAEL GRANT, RACHEL M. POYNTER, ANDREW I. RUDMAN and CHRISTOPHER SANDS”
— The Atlantic Council, 2 p.m.: “Europe’s Energy Crisis and the Path Forward — with SARAH EMERSON, HENNING GLOYSTEIN, RICHARD L. MORNINGSTAR, DANIEL NUSSBAUM and BRENDA SHAFFER”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 p.m.: “Ensuring a More Competitive North America — with ROBERT BLAIR, MEREDITH BROADBENT, ERNESTO FLORES, TREVOR KENNEDY and DANIEL F. RUNDE”
— House Appropriations Committee, 2 p.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: Workforce Development and the Department of Defense”
— House Homeland Security Committee, 2 p.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: Transportation Cybersecurity: Protecting Planes, Trains, and Pipelines From Cyber Threats — with PATTY COGSWELL, SCOTT DICKERSON, SUZANNE SPAULDING and JEFFREY TROY”
— House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 2 p.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: Next Steps: Examining Plans for the Continuation of the Department of Veterans Affairs Electronic Health Record Modernization Program”
— The Israel Policy Forum, 2 p.m.: “Unpacking the Consulate Controversy — with SHIRA EFRON and MICHAEL KOPLOW”
— Senate Intelligence Committee, 2:30 p.m.: “Closed Briefing: Intelligence Matters”
— The Stimson Center, 10 p.m.: “Launch Event for the Paris Peace Agreements Report — with PICH CHARADINE, BRIAN EYLER, BRADLEY J. MURG, POU SOTHIRAK, COURTNEY WEATHERBY and WILLIAM WISE”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
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