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The Daily 202: Biden finds limits to America’s deterrent powers

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/8/2021 Olivier Knox

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. Via the Associated Press: On this day in 1947, a New Mexico newspaper, the Roswell Daily Record, quoted officials at Roswell Army Air Field as saying they had recovered a “flying saucer” that crashed onto a ranch; officials then said it was actually a weather balloon.

Not quite 170 days into his term, President Biden has come up against limits to his powers to deter foreign actors specifically Iran-backed militias and Russia-based hackers from targeting American interests. 

What he does about both problems in the coming days, weeks and months  whether he escalates the U.S. response or opts to stay the course could reshape relations with a regional power eager to expand its influence and a “great power” rival often looking to undermine Washington. 

Biden’s approach could also affect relations with other players on the world stage, like China and North Korea, which whom the United States has tense relations. 

The president’s public responses military retaliation in Iraq and Syria; warnings to Moscow that it must act to rein in hackers on its territory have not seemed to deter attacks on either front.

Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: President Biden delivers remarks on his proposed American Families Plan legislation at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Ill., on Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters) © Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters President Biden delivers remarks on his proposed American Families Plan legislation at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Ill., on Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

In late February and the waning days of June, Biden ordered air strikes on Iran-backed militias that target American interests in Iraq, each time saying the attacks aimed to deter those groups from future plots against U.S. personnel

“I directed the June 27 strikes in order to protect and defend the safety of our personnel, to degrade and disrupt the ongoing series of attacks against the United States and our partners, and to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iran-backed militia groups from conducting or supporting further attacks on United States personnel and facilities,” Biden said in a June 29 letter to Congress. 

It can be hard to know when and how much deterrence works — you can’t always put a number on the attacks that never take place.

But, as Jeff Schogol of Task and Purpose noted yesterday, “U.S. troops in Iraq have come under attack every day this week.” 

While the Pentagon has yet to attribute Wednesday’s rocket barrage against the Al-Asad base, Iran-backed groups are thought to be behind a spate of incidents over the past weeks and months in which U.S. personnel or facilities were targeted. 

America’s ability to ward off cyber-threats with implicit or explicit warnings about potential retaliation also seems in question.

Biden publicly and privately warned Russian President Vladimir Putin at their mid-June summit in Geneva that he needs to rein in ransomware attacks and other cyber-intrusions or face potential American retaliation. 

“I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability. And he knows it,” Biden told reporters. “And if, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond with cyber. He knows.” 

As I wrote back then: “Later, he described himself conjuring up a hypothetical scenario for the Russian officials, who might justifiably have seen it as … let’s call it ‘threat-adjacent.’” 

What happens if that ransomware outfit were sitting in Florida or Maine and took action, as I said, on their single lifeline to their economy  oil?” he said he asked. “That would be devastating.” 

As for his private message, my colleagues Anne Gearan, Ashley Parker, and John Hudson reported at the time

During the discussion, U.S. officials also submitted a list to Russian counterparts containing 16 U.S. sectors that Washington believes should be ‘out of bounds’ and ‘off-limits’ when it comes to destructive cyberwarfare attacks. 

 The list includes the food and agriculture sector, financial services, communications, the defense industrial base and other industries. ‘This was given as a list to President Putin,’ said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive discussion.” 

While Biden gave his outreach to Putin six months to a year to bear fruit, the cyber threat of ransomware — remotely taking computers hostage for ransom — has only become more urgent over the past week.

As my colleague Ellen Nakashima reported yesterday

While intelligence officials have not publicly attributed blame for the latest attack, a group known as REvil, which U.S. officials say privately operates largely from Russia, has taken responsibility for striking up to 1,500 companies in the United States, Europe and Asia. It was, experts say, the single largest such cyberattack to date. … 

Some policy experts are urging the White House to put more pressure on the Kremlin now. 

Before such devastating ransomware attacks become a routine occurrence, President Biden must deliver a quiet but forceful demand: Russian President Vladimir Putin must put an immediate stop to this activity or Washington will tighten the squeeze of sanctions on the Russian economy,’ Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, and Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Post on Tuesday.” 

As Ellen noted, top officials from the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security and the intelligence community briefed Biden yesterday, and another round of high-level talks with Russian officials is expected next week. 

“What they did discuss is the fact that the president reserves the right to respond against any ransomware networks and those that harbor them. That continues to be his policy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. 

And, Psaki said, “the president has a range of options should he determine to take action.”

What’s happening now

A new study on the delta variant reveals the importance of receiving both vaccine shots and highlights challenges posed by mutations. “A peer-reviewed report from scientists in France, published Thursday in the journal Nature, found that the delta variant has mutations that allow it to evade some of the neutralizing antibodies produced by vaccines or by a natural infection. A single shot of a two-dose vaccine ‘barely’ offers any protection,” Joel Achenbach reports. “But the experiments found that fully vaccinated people — with the recommended regimen of two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccine — should retain significant protection against the delta variant. That echoes another report authored by a collaboration of scientists in the United States and published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

Multiple states agreed to a $4.5B deal with the Sackler family in the Purdue Pharma opioid lawsuit. “OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma’s plan to reorganize into a new entity that helps combat the U.S. opioid epidemic got a big boost as 15 states that had previously opposed the new business model now support it,” the AP reports. “The new settlement terms call for Purdue to make tens of millions of internal documents public, a step several attorneys general, including those for Massachusetts and New York, had demanded as a way to hold the company accountable. ... North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein noted Thursday that the deal includes about $1.5 billion more than it initially did. ... Still, nine states and the District of Columbia did not sign on.”

Tokyo Olympic venues won’t be open to spectators. “Earlier today, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshide Suga confirmed the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics will take place under a coronavirus state of emergency. The announcement was made following a meeting of five Olympic and Japanese government groups responsible for the Games,” CNN reports

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Undermining Florida’s condo laws: Politics, turf wars and human nature,” by Kim Bellware: “Florida’s condominium laws will undergo a top-to-bottom review by a task force established by the Florida Bar Association after the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside. Members of the task force who confirmed its existence to The Post on Tuesday said their goal is to review state laws and regulations that govern condo developments, board operations and maintenance rules, and recommend potential changes to the governor and the state legislature. ... Despite the detailed, extensive condo laws in Florida, several real estate experts said the rules are often easy to manipulate or have toothless enforcement. ... Tightening regulations in the name of building safety is likely to face resistance. Experts agreed the current rules that give condo owners significant leeway to defer costly maintenance can lead to a worst-case scenario.”
  • Stop calling food ‘exotic,’” by G. Daniela Galarza: “After I wrote about a seven-minute, seven-ingredient ramen in early March, I received the first of several emails from readers complaining or gently chiding me for including ‘exotic’ spices or condiments in my ‘Eat Voraciously’ newsletter. “Your offerings tend to be exotic foreign cuisine that we wouldn’t even order in a restaurant and certainly aren’t interested in cooking at home,’ one reader wrote. ... Reading the word hit me like a slap ... The first problem with the word is that, probably within the past two decades, it has lost its essential meaning. The second, more crucial problem is that its use, particularly as applied to food, indirectly lengthens the metaphysical distance between one group of humans and another, and, in so doing, reinforces xenophobia and racism.”

… and beyond

  • Here’s what to know about the debate over ‘Wit & Wisdom’ curriculum in Williamson schools,” by the Tennessean’s Anika Exum: “Arguments against the curriculum fall into two buckets. The first being the belief that ‘Wit & Wisdom’ content isn't appropriate for younger students, and the second being that the curriculum teaches concepts of critical race theory. ... The head of the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty, Robin Steenman, brought several books included in the curriculum ... One of the books she specifically referred to was ‘Ruby Bridges Goes to School,’ written by Ruby Bridges herself. Bridges, when she was age 6, was one of the first African American students to integrate New Orleans' all-white public school system. Steenman said that the mention of a ‘large crowd of angry white people who didn't want Black children in a white school’ too harshly delineated between Black and white people, and that the book didn't offer ‘redemption’ at its end. ... [Steenman] said she disapproves of guidance for teachers to teach words like ‘injustice,’ ‘unequal,’ ‘inequality,’ ‘protest,’ ‘marching’ and ‘segregation’ in grammar lessons.”
  • “ ‘Surge response team’ arrives in Missouri amid COVID spike caused by Delta variant,” by the Missouri Independent’s Tessa Weinberg: “As federal officials land in Missouri at the request of the state to assist with combatting a wave of new COVID cases spurred by the Delta variant, Gov. Mike Parson publicly rebuffed outreach strategies President Joe Biden touted. On Tuesday, a member of the newly-created federal surge response team arrived in the Springfield area to provide epidemiological support ... Parson has repeatedly stressed the availability of vaccines across the state and noted he and his wife have both received them. But he has often touted a mantra of personal responsibility when it comes to whether residents should take a shot.”
  • QAnon's new 'plan'? Run for school board,” by NBC News’s Ben Collins: “Many people who spout QAnon’s false claims have hatched a new plan: run for school board or local office, spread the gospel of Q, but don’t call it QAnon. ... In California and Pennsylvania, people who previously espoused QAnon have run for school board positions, sometimes melding conspiracy theories with anti-CRT sentiment. ... [Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn has] been telling his followers to take over school boards for months ... ‘We cannot allow school boards to dictate what is happening in our schools,’ Flynn told the crowd. ‘We dictate that.’ ”

The Biden agenda

Biden, in pitching his American Families Plan, is emphasizing Democratic priorities.

  • “Biden said Wednesday that his focus remains on his administration’s expansive efforts to invest in programs that touch many facets of American life, not just the bipartisan infrastructure agreement that has spent weeks in the spotlight,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports. While visiting McHenry County College in Illinois, “Biden lauded the work of the legislative group that had forged a framework for a compromise on infrastructure. But the president spent the bulk of the half-hour speech stressing that much more needs to be done.”
  • “White House officials signaled that Biden’s trip was an effort to allay concerns that the administration was too focused on the bipartisan agreement instead of the transformational changes he and other Democrats vowed to enact if given control of the White House and Congress.”
  • “In Illinois, Biden and the White House stressed that all that high-minded talk of unity did not mean they were abandoning the ambitious policy goals Biden has proposed. During a meeting with reporters on the Air Force One ride to Illinois, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s focus was on benefits that are on ‘generational investments in infrastructure … that aren’t included in the bipartisan framework.’ ”

Conservative groups are mounting opposition to an increase in the IRS budget, threatening the White House infrastructure plan.

  • “Congressional Democrats and Republicans have agreed to increase funding for the Internal Revenue Service so that the agency can bring in more tax revenue, hoping the money can help pay down some of the infrastructure package’s expected price tag. The early contours of the infrastructure blueprint have won the White House’s support, but the IRS provision in particular is drawing opposition from well-funded conservative groups, which are strongly opposed to expanding the reach of a tax-collection agency that they long have alleged is politically motivated,” Jeff Stein, Tony Romm and Yeganeh Torbati report
  • “Among the conservative groups spearheading the opposition are the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Conservative Action Project, and the Leadership Institute. They are preparing a letter that warns Republicans should not negotiate with the White House unless they agree to ‘no additional funding for the Internal Revenue Service.’ ”
  • “The letter, obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its release, is expected to gain support from at least a dozen other conservative groups this week, with plans to send it soon to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate GOP leaders.”

The White House is grappling with the ethics of Hunter Biden’s pricey paintings.

  • “White House officials have helped craft an agreement under which purchases of Hunter Biden’s artwork — which could be listed at prices as high as $500,000 — will be kept confidential from even the artist himself, in an attempt to avoid ethical issues that could arise as a presidential family member tries to sell a product with a highly subjective value,” Matt Viser reports
  • “Under an arrangement negotiated in recent months, a New York gallery owner is planning to set prices for the art and will withhold all records, including potential bidders and final buyers. The owner, Georges Bergès, has also agreed to reject any offer that he deems suspicious or that comes in over the asking price, according to people familiar with the agreement.”

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete “for all intents and purposes.”

  • “ ‘The withdrawal is over, for all intents and purposes,’ said one of the officials with direct knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive planning. ‘It's done,’ ” Politico’s Lara Seligman reports. “The U.S. currently has roughly 600 troops in Afghanistan, most of whom are Marine Corps and Army personnel providing security at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the person said.”
  • “The rest of the 600 will be based at the Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, said another U.S. official with direct knowledge of the discussions. All of those troops are expected to remain after the pullout is officially complete, The Associated Press first reported last month.”

Millions of Syrian civilians are at grave risk if the U.S. and Russia fail to strike a resolution on U.N. aid deliveries.

  • “The resolution, which allows the United Nations to coordinate aid shipments to Syria through only one border crossing, is set to expire Saturday. Millions of Syrians dependent on the U.N.-led relief effort would immediately be put at risk if it lapses, aid workers say,” Kareem Fahim and Karen DeYoung report
  • “Russia has promised for nearly a year to veto any resolution allowing cross-border aid to continue, viewing its distribution to areas held by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Moscow, as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty. The Biden administration favors expanding cross-border aid to Syria, and the debate over the resolution has emerged as a high-profile test of whether the United States and Russia, at a moment of escalating tensions, can identify issues on which to forge common ground.” 

Biden’s new cold war with China could result in a climate collapse, progressives warned.

  • “Over 40 progressive groups sent a letter to Biden and lawmakers on Wednesday urging them to prioritize cooperation with China on climate change and curb its confrontational approach over issues like Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and forced detention of Uyghur Muslims,” Politico’s Alexander Ward reports. “It's the latest salvo in the months-long drama between progressive Democrats who say cooperation on climate change should take precedence over competition with China, and moderates who think the administration can do both things at once.”

Quote of the day

"Mitch McConnell loves our programs," Biden said yesterday when asked about the Senate minority leader's vow to block provisions in the president’s infrastructure plan. Biden noted that McConnell has acknowledged that, although he didn’t support the president’s coronavirus relief package, its funding is helping his constituents. "Have you seen what Mitch McConnell said? He told me he wasn't going to get a single vote in order to allow me to get, with the help of everybody here, that $1.9 trillion ... program for economic growth. Look it up, man. He's bragging about it in Kentucky."

Trump, post-presidency

Trump charged the Secret Service nearly $10,200 in May for agents’ rooms in his Bedminster, N.J. club.

  • “The records — released by the Secret Service in response to a public-records request — show that the ex-president has continued a habit he began in the first days of his presidency: charging rent to the agency that protects his life,” David Fahrenthold reports. “Since Trump left office in January, U.S. taxpayers have paid Trump’s businesses more than $50,000 for rooms used by Secret Service agents, records show.” 
  • “The agency redacted the nightly rate, but the dollar amount itself offered a clue: The bill was an exact multiple of what Trump Bedminster charged the Secret Service while Trump was still in office: $566.64 per night for a four-bedroom ‘cottage’ on the property.”

Trump filed class action lawsuits targeting Facebook, Twitter and YouTube over “censorship” of conservatives.

  • “Legal experts and business associations immediately criticized the claims, predicting they had little chance of succeeding in court. But the lawsuits, filed in federal district court in Miami, raised a series of legal claims that will find favor among Trump’s most fervent supporters who have long argued that the social media companies treat conservative voices unfairly,” Cat Zakrzewski and Rachel Lerman report. “Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School in California, said dozens of similar lawsuits have failed in court.”

The D.C. Court of Appeals has temporarily barred Rudy Giuliani from practicing law, following a similar decision in New York.

  • “A committee of judges in New York determined last month that Giuliani was unfit to keep practicing law after he ‘communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large’ while representing Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election,” Rachel Weiner reports. “A day after the ruling, disciplinary counsel in D.C. recommended suspending Giuliani’s license in D.C. until the New York case is resolved. On Wednesday the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed.”

Hot on the left

Texas is the hardest state to vote in. It could soon get much harder, writes Mother Jones’s Ari Berman. “On Thursday, the GOP-controlled legislature is beginning a special legislative session that will revive a sweeping voter suppression bill that was blocked at the 11th hour in May when Texas House Democrats staged a dramatic walkout before a midnight deadline, denying Republicans the quorum needed to pass it. ... The legislature’s Democratic minority can only stall the voting bill for so long. So [Beto] O’Rourke and other Democrats are engaged in a desperate two-pronged effort to prevent their constituents from disenfranchisement: a tedious, tortuous registration effort and a lobbying push to get Democrats in Washington to pass legislation protecting voting rights before new restrictions can take effect.”

Hot on the right

An Ohio school forcefully rejected claims that it teaches critical race theory. “Cue Columbus Academy, a prestigious non-religious private school on a huge campus just outside Columbus, Ohio. Tuition for pre-K ranges between $13,000 and $21,000 a year. For high schoolers, the tuition is over $30,000. ... In other words, the parents who send their kids to this school are Columbus’s elite — and when critical race theory supposedly came around, some of the parents objected and basically decided to try and take over the school,” the Bulwark’s Jim Swift reports. “Here’s the story: Two parents, Andrea Gross (who had two children at Columbus Academy) and Amy Gonzalez (who had one), grew concerned about various goings on at the school, both in and out of the classroom, especially relating to what kids were learning about race. Gross and Gonzalez reportedly spent months launching an organization, dubbed the Pro CA Coalition, to pressure the school into reforming. ... What Gross and Gonzalez are recommending is akin to two tables at a Chili’s dissatisfied with their service and proposing that the entirety of the restaurant’s patrons get to choose the menu, the management, and the sourcing of ingredients. Life doesn’t work that way.”

The school’s response? “Columbus Academy does not comment on the circumstances of any student or family. However, any parent who waged a public campaign of false and misleading statements and inflammatory attacks harmful to the employees, the reputation, or the financial stability of Columbus Academy would be in clear violation of the Enrollment Agreement and would be denied re-enrollment for the following school year.”

Biden’s infrastructure priorities, visualized

Among core infrastructure projects, electric vehicle funding took the biggest hit from $157 billion to $15 billion. Significant cuts were made to other items such as water infrastructure and broadband investment as well.

chart, bar chart © The Washington Post

Today in Washington

Biden will deliver remarks on the U.S.’s drawdown efforts in Afghanistan today at 1:45 p.m. At 3:30, he and Vice President Harris will meet with leaders of top civil rights organizations. 

Harris will deliver remarks on voting rights at Howard University today at 1:10 p.m. 

In closing

Some children's brands' attempts to promote vaccination against coronavirus have been creative. Others have gotten… weird:

Some in the Twitterverse greeted this development with a raised digital eyebrow, pointing out some issues:

  1. “Assuming this is cannon, it confirms that Teletubbies takes place on Earth during the current time period (huge, very disturbing and worrying revelation),” a user noted
  2. Laa-Laa apparently received two shots of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. 
  3. They share a nonexistent birthday (2/20/03?), which means they can legally be drafted into a war, another user noted
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