Biden to host Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on June 28 at White House

Israeli president to visit Biden at White House on June 28

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In this file photo, Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin makes remarks after receiving official election results from Chairman of Israel’s Central Elections Committee Judge Uzi Fogelman in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. Mr. Rivlin will visit President Biden at the White … more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Saturday, June 19, 2021

President Biden will host Israel’s outgoing president Reuven Rivlin at the White House on June 28, the White House announced Saturday.

“President Rivlin’s visit will highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Israel and the deep ties between our governments and our people,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “It will be an opportunity to consult about the many challenges and opportunities facing the region.”

Mr. Rivlin’s seven-year term as president will come to an end next month. He will be succeeded by Isaac Herzog, who was elected to the position by the Knesset in early June.

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U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Mr. Rivlin last month in Jerusalem and extended an invitation to visit the White House before his term ends.

“As President Rivlin approaches the end of his term, this visit will honor the dedication he has shown to strengthening the friendship between the two countries over the course of many years,” Ms. Psaki said.

Mr. Hezog is slated to be sworn in as president on July 9.  He was elected this month in elections that highlighted the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign in Israel.

The change in government was motivated, in part, by fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants.

Julian Assange fiancee says WikiLeaks publisher suffering in prison, asks Biden to intervene

Julian Assange’s fiancee pleads for Biden to intervene: WikiLeaks founder suffering in ‘grim’ prison

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Stella Moris stands with her children Gabriel, four, left, and Max, two, as she speaks to the media, outside Belmarsh Prison, following a visit to her partner and their father Julian Assange in London, Saturday June 19, 2021. Assange is … more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Saturday, June 19, 2021

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is being driven to depression and despair by remaining locked up in the U.K. amid ongoing efforts to put him on trial in the U.S., his fiancée, Stella Moris, said Saturday.

Ms. Moris spoke to reporters outside Belmarsh Prison in London, where Mr. Assange has been jailed for over two years, after she and their two young boys visited Mr. Assange for the first time in months.

He was happy to see the kids, but he‘s suffering in there,” said Ms. Moris. “It’s a grim, horrible place.”

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Mr. Assange, an Australian, was charged during the Trump administration with crimes related to WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling website he ran, including counts of espionage and conspiracy to hack computers.

The U.S. Department of Justice asked for the U.K. to extradite Mr. Assange following his arrest two years ago. That request was denied by a British judge in January but the Biden administration appealed.

Ms. Moris said the Biden administration has showed “signs of wanting to project a commitment to the First Amendment” and that the “only logical step” would be for the president to drop the prosecution.

“Having Julian locked up and facing extradition degrades the U.K. and it is a threat to press freedom in the U.K. And they need to look at this situation afresh and bring it to an end, because it’s gone on for too long and Julian‘s life is at risk. And he may well lose his life. Not because of his depression but because they’re driving him to depression, to deep depression and to despair,” said Ms. Moris.

“It’s not safe for him at all, he should be at home with his family,” Ms. Moris said.

Mr. Assange, 49, founded WikiLeaks in 2006. His site infamously published classified U.S. military and diplomatic material during the Obama administration starting in 2010 for which he was later charged.

Fearing the likelihood of being extradited to the U.S. over the leaks, Mr. Assange sought asylum from Ecuador in 2011 and spent roughly seven years shielded inside its embassy building in London. That residency ended when he was forcefully ejected in April 2019 and the U.S. charges were announced. He has remained imprisoned at Belmarsh ever since.

Ms. Moris, a 38-year-old lawyer, met Mr. Assange while he lived in the embassy and the couple later conceived two children there, currently ages four and two. Their prison visit came nine years to the day since Mr. Assange entered the embassy, she noted, the U.K.’s Press Association reported Saturday. The rest of her remarks were caught on video and shared online by The Independent, another British outlet.

“The situation is utterly intolerable and grotesque, and it can’t go on,” Mr. Moris said about Mr. Assange‘s mental health, the Press Association reported.

Mr. Assange faces the possibility of spending decades in a U.S. prison if extradited and convicted of all charges. He argues he acted as a journalist and is innocent but Washington maintains otherwise.

Previously, a group of two-dozen British parliamentarians wrote to President Biden last week as he visited Europe for the first time in office and asked him to drop his government’s case against Mr. Assange.

The White House did not reply when asked about that request. Press secretary Jen Psaki previously said decisions about the Assange case will be made by the Justice Department, not the White House.

U.S.-Canada border restrictions imposed because of COVID-19 pandemic extended until July 21

U.S.-Canada border restrictions extended until July 21

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill express frustration: 'There's no other way to say it: another month's delay is bulls–t'

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Signs Hang on the entrance way to Canada via the Rainbow Bridge, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Niagara Falls N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Canadian officials announced Friday the border with the U.S. will remain closed to non-essential travel for at least another month until more of their own residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

South of the border, members of Congress with constituents near Canada reacted by calling out the governments in both Washington and Ottawa for failing to find an agreement to lift the travel restrictions.

“There’s no other way to say it: another month’s delay is bulls—t,” Rep. Brian Higgins, New York Democrat, said on social media Friday. Others, including some Republicans, called it “unacceptable.”

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The border restrictions were put in place in March 2020 because of the novel coronavirus, effectively prohibiting most Americans and Canadians from crossing side unless conducting essential business.

Bill Blair, Canada‘s minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, said Friday the countries agreed to extend the restrictions until July 21, 16 months since the ban on non-essential travel began.

Canada plans on providing further details Monday on measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents of the country and others currently permitted to enter, Mr. Blair said in a statement.

“We’re looking forward to getting back to normal as quickly as possible, but we’re not out of this pandemic yet,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a press conference later Friday.

“We’re still seeing cases across the country and we want to get them down,” said Mr. Trudeau. “At the same time, we also know we have to hit our targets of 75% vaccinated with the first dose and at least 20% vaccinated with the second dose before we can start loosening things up because even a fully vaccinated individual can pass on COVID-19 to someone who is not vaccinated.”

Sixty-four percent of the Canadian population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the government there. Different vaccines require one or two doses depending on the type. Sixty-five of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House set a goal of 70% by July 4.

“I get it, it’s frustrating for a whole bunch of people who just want to get back to normal,” said Mr. Trudeau. “But it’s really important that we continue as we have from the very beginning to keep Canadians safe.”

Mr. Higgins and Rep. Bill Huizenga, Michigan Republican, co-chairs of the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group, said in a statement that millions of people on both sides of the border are being denied access to loved ones and property or being unable to conduct business as a result of the ban on non-essential travel. The countries share a land border of more than 5,500 miles in length, the longest in the world.

“While the arrival of vaccines in record time has been a modern marvel, the inability of the U.S. and Canadian governments to reach an agreement on alleviating border restrictions or aligning additional essential traveler classes is simply unacceptable,” the congressmen said in the statement.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the newly elected chairwoman of the Republican House Conference, accused President Biden of “caving” to Mr. Trudeau and his “incessant desire to delay,” meanwhile.

“I’ve called on the Biden Administration to begin taking unilateral steps towards easing restrictions for families and property owners, and the failure to do so is unacceptable for our northern border communities,” she said.

Biden warned Putin of consequences if Russia ‘cannot control’ hackers within its border: White House

Putin warned of consequences if Moscow ‘cannot control’ hackers: White House

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A security officer indicates to the media to step back as U.S. President Joe Biden, second from left, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, second from right, and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, meet … more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Friday, June 18, 2021

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said President Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin there will be consequences if ransomware hackers within his country keep attacking U.S. systems unbridled.

Mr. Sullivan said Thursday that Mr. Biden warned Mr. Putin when they all met this week of repercussions unless he reels in hackers like the ones who recently attacked the Colonial Pipeline Company.

Recalling the meeting on CNN, Mr. Sullivan said Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin the U.S. has “significant” ways of responding “if it turns out that Russia cannot control the criminals operating from its soil.”

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“This was not a threat,” stressed Mr. Sullivan. “This was simply an objective statement of what President Biden is prepared to do to protect America’s interests in these specific areas of critical infrastructure. I won’t go into further detail now, but President Biden did clarify to President Putin our capacities and his full willingness to use them if necessary, depending on how things develop.”

The bilateral meeting Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, marked the first get-together of the U.S. and Russian leaders since Mr. Biden entered office in January. They previously met around a decade earlier.

Colonial, one of the largest suppliers in the U.S. of gasoline, jet fuel and oil, was compromised in early May when it became infected with ransomware made and disrupted by a cybercrime group called DarkSide. The attack disrupted fuel supplies across the U.S. and resulted in the victim paying a ransom to the hackers worth several million dollars. The FBI said most of that was subsequently recovered.

Mr. Biden previously said after the Colonial attack occurred that it was likely Russia in origin, not unlike several other devastating hacks suffered by American victims during the last couple of decades.

DarkSide is not believed to be a state-sponsored actor, however, differentiating the group from the Russian hackers suspected of the SolarWinds attack or breach of Democratic computers in 2016, for example.

Nonetheless, the White House stressed the Kremlin needs to do something about Russian hackers, state-sponsored and otherwise, to curb their attacks targeting critical infrastructure targets in the U.S.

“If criminals from the United States were attacking Russian gas pipelines and President Biden wasn’t doing anything about it, he would expect President Putin to do something, and he was pointing out to President Putin the same thing is true in reverse,” Mr. Sullivan recalled following the summit, which he participated in as the president’s national security adviser.

“So this was not about issuing threats or ultimatums. It was about calmly, clearly and with strength indicating that President Biden is going to take action as necessary to ensure that America’s critical infrastructure and America’s national interests are fully defended and protected,” said Mr. Sullivan.

Washington and Moscow lack any extradition agreement. A cybercriminal in Russia can therefore hack targets in the U.S. without having to worry about being sent there to stand trial, and vice versa.

Mr. Biden said following Wednesday’s meeting that he proposed Mr. Putin agree that several critical infrastructure sector components, such as energy and water systems, be declared “off-limits” to hackers.

Both leaders agreed to task experts from their countries “to work on specific understandings about what’s off-limits,” Mr. Biden said during a solo press conference following Wednesday’s summit in Geneva.

“Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” Mr. Biden told reporters.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly denied Moscow was responsible for cyberattacks suffered by U.S. victims, including as recently as during a solo press conference he gave immediately following Wednesday’s talks.

Addressing reporters after meeting with Mr. Biden, Mr. Putin said Russia faces similar cyberattacks and claimed that many of them are from hackers conducting their operations from the U.S.

“What we need is expert consultations between us,” said Mr. Putin. “We agreed to that in principle, and Russia is prepared for that.”

UK’s Conservatives suffer defeat in ‘blue wall’ seat

UK Conservatives lose safe seat in special-election upset

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Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey during a victory rally at Chesham Youth Centre in Chesham, England, Friday June 18, 2021, after Sarah Green won the Chesham and Amersham by-election. In a surprising result, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was … more >

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By Pan Pylas

Associated Press

Friday, June 18, 2021

LONDON (AP) — In a surprising result, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s Conservative Party has been easily defeated in a special election for a seat that it has held for decades.

The Liberal Democrats, which was in a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015 before seeing its electoral fortunes wane dramatically, won Thursday’s election in Chesham and Amersham, 35 miles (57 kilometers) northwest of London.

Sarah Green, the Liberal Democrat candidate, picked up around 57% of the vote and won a seat the Conservatives have held since it was created in 1974. She added around 30 percentage points to the party’s result from the 2019 general election.

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“This Conservative Party has taken people across the country for granted for far too long,” Green said Friday.

Her party leader, Ed Davey, said the result sent a “shockwave through British politics” by showing that the “blue wall” of Conservative seats in southern England could be vulnerable.

“There are many Conservatives across the country who are now worried,” said Davey, who celebrated by smashing a blue wall made up of cardboard boxes with an orange mallet.

Chesham and Amersham are quiet, leafy, prosperous towns that are synonymous with traditional Conservative territory, in much the same way that the post-industrial towns in northern England have identified with the opposition Labour Party.

The Conservatives have made big inroads into Labour’s “red wall” in recent years, winning a swathe of seats on a combination of factors, notably Johnson’s insistence that he would ensure that Britain leaves the European Union after years of parliamentary haggling. Having secured that, Johnson has managed to capture more support in Labour’s traditional heartland by promising to “level up” Britain through big infrastructure spending and other initiatives.

However, there are concerns among some Conservative supporters that the growing focus on northern seats has alienated the party’s more traditional – and potentially more liberal – southern supporters. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 55% of voters in Chesham and Amersham voted to remain in the EU, in sharp contrast to many of the constituencies the Conservatives have recently turned blue.

Johnson denied that he was neglecting the party’s traditional base and said there were “particular circumstances” at play in Chesham and Amersham.

“We believe in uniting and leveling up within regions and across the country,” he said.

The reasons for the Conservatives’ heavy defeat varied, though national issues such as the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its pro-Brexit stance clearly played a role.

“In remain-voting, middle-class seats in the south of England, the Conservative coalition has been weakened to some degree in the wake of Brexit, and the Liberal Democrats are the party that in many instances are best-placed to profit from that, and that’s what they’ve managed to do in Chesham and Amersham,” polling expert John Curtice told the BBC.

Local issues were also at play. Voters consistently voiced concerns about a high-speed rail line that will cut through the region and link London to the big cities in the north of England, such as Birmingham and Manchester, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. Planning reforms proposed by the government also have sparked fears about more buildings in the countryside.

The defeated candidate, Peter Fleet, acknowledged the Conservatives had to rebuild “trust and understanding” with voters.

Despite the election’s outcome, Johnson can still rely on a big majority of around 80 seats in the the 650-member House of Commons.

Top medical adviser says ‘no fans’ safest for Tokyo Olympics

Top medical adviser says ‘no fans’ safest for Tokyo Olympics

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Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto, left, and President Seiko Hashimoto attend the news conference after receiving a report from a group of infectious disease experts on Friday, June 18, 2021, in Tokyo. The experts including Shigeru Omi, head of a … more >

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By Stephen Wade and Mari Yamaguchi

Associated Press

Friday, June 18, 2021

TOKYO (AP) — The safest way to hold the Tokyo Olympics is without any fans, the top medical adviser to the Japanese government said in a report on Friday.

Dr. Shigeru Omi’s recommendation seems to put him at odds with organizers and the International Olympic Committee with the Olympics opening in just five weeks on July 23.

Fans from abroad were banned several months ago, and organizers are to announce early next week if some local fans should be allowed.

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“We believe the risks of infections inside venues would be lowest by holding the event with no fans,” said the report, which was compiled by a group of 26 experts led by Omi, a former World Health Organization official. It was submitted to the government and Olympic officials

Widely circulated reports say the government wants to allow up to 10,000 people at some sports and cultural events. This policy is expected to be applied to the Olympics with smaller ceilings at smaller venues, and differences for indoor and outdoor venues.

“We believe it would be most desirable not to have fans inside venues,” Omi told a news conference on Friday after submitting the written report. “Regardless of holding the Olympics or not, Japan has continuing risks of a resurgence of the infections that puts pressure on the medical systems.”

Omi said that putting fans in the venues increased the risk – and not only there but afterward as people exit. He said the Olympics easily get more attention from the public than other sporting events and are likely to trigger more movements and more partying.

Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the local organizing committee, said that the final decision on fans was likely to be made Monday in a meeting with organizers, the IOC, the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Japanese government, and the International Paralympic Committee.

Hashimoto said if Tokyo decides to allow fans, the rules will have to be much stricter than for half-filled stadiums in Japan for baseball or soccer. She also said organizers would have to be ready to suddenly ban local fans if conditions change.

“Dr. Omi has indicated that ideally the best way is to hold the games without spectators – that was his recommendation,” Hashimoto said. “But if we are to hold the games with spectators, Dr. Omi also had his recommendations.”

Hashimoto said she had consulted with baseball and soccer officials in Japan, where games with fans have been largely problem free.

“But Dr. Omi has also mentioned that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are very special,” Hashimoto said. “Therefore Dr. Omi has mentioned that we need to be even more stringent than the other sports events. So we need to look at stricter rules. There is this risk of people who come to the games, and after watching they stop by bars and restaurants before going home. So it is recommended that we urge people to go straight home after watching the games.”

Ticket sales were to account for $800 million in income for the organizing committee. Much of it will be lost and government entities will have to make up the shortfall.

Organizers say about 3.6 million-3.7 million tickets are still held by residents of Japan. About 800,000 tickets were returned locally.

The total number of tickets originally announced for the Olympics was about 7.8 million.

The official cost of the Tokyo Olympics is $15.4 billion, although government audits suggest it is much higher. All but $6.7 billion is public money.

The IOC is pushing ahead with Tokyo, partly because it depends on broadcast rights sales for almost 75% of its income. Sponsors supply about 18%,

Emergency measures in Tokyo and other prefectures are being lifted on Sunday, although “quasi-emergency” restrictions will remain in place that may limit bar and restaurant hours.

Japan has attributed just over 14,000 deaths to COVID-19 and has controlled the virus better than many countries, but not as well as many in Asia. Only 15% of Japanese have at least one COVID-19 vaccination, and much of the public has been opposed to holding the Olympics.

Poll answers have shifted depending on how the question is phrased, and the country’s second-most widely circulated newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, has said the games should be called off.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un vows to be ready for confrontation with U.S.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un vows to be ready for confrontation with U.S.

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during a Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, June 17, 2021. Kim ordered his government to be fully prepared for confrontation with the … more >

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By Hyung-jin Kim

Associated Press

Friday, June 18, 2021

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered his government to be prepared for both dialogue and confrontation with the Biden administration — but more for confrontation — state media reported Friday, days after the United States and others urged the North to abandon its nuclear program and return to talks.

Kim‘s statement indicates he‘ll likely push to strengthen his nuclear arsenal and increase pressure on Washington to give up what North Korea considers a hostile policy toward the North, though he‘ll also prepare for talks to resume, some experts say.

During an ongoing ruling party meeting Thursday, Kim analyzed in detail the policy tendencies of the U.S. under President Biden and clarified steps to be taken in relations with Washington, the Korean Central News Agency said. It did not specify the steps.

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Kim “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially to get fully prepared for confrontation in order to protect the dignity of our state” and ensure national security, it said.

In 2018-19, Kim held a series of summits with then-President Trump to discuss North Korea‘s advancing nuclear arsenal. But the negotiations fell apart after Trump rejected Kim‘s calls for extensive sanctions relief in return for a partial surrender of his nuclear capability. 

Biden’s administration has worked to formulate a new approach on North Korea‘s nuclear program that it describes as “calibrated and practical.” Details of his North Korea policy haven’t been publicized, but U.S. officials have suggested Biden will seek a middle ground between Trump’s direct meetings with Kim and former President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” to curb Kim’s nuclear program. 

Earlier this week, leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy nations issued a statement calling for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and “the verifiable and irreversible abandonment” of North Korea‘s nuclear and missile programs. They called on North Korea to engage and resume dialogue. 

Sung Kim, the top U.S. official on North Korea, is to visit Seoul on Saturday for a trilateral meeting with South Korean and Japanese officials. His travel emphasizes the importance of three-way cooperation in working toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the State Department said.

Kim Jong-un has recently threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal and build high-tech weapons targeting the U.S. mainland if Washington refuses to abandon its hostile policy toward North Korea

In March, Kim‘s military performed its first short-range ballistic missile tests in a year. But North Korea is still maintaining a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests in an indication that Kim still wants to keep prospects for diplomacy alive. 

Kwak Gil Sup, head of One Korea Center, a website specializing in North Korea affairs, wrote on Facebook that Kim‘s statement suggested he‘s taking a two-track approach of bolstering military capability and preparing for talks. But he said Kim will more likely focus on boosting military strength and repeating his demand for the U.S. to withdraw its hostile policy, rather than hastily returning to talks.
Kim said last week North Korea‘s military must stay on high alert to defend national security.

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said North Korea will likely return to talks but won’t accept a call for immediate, complete denuclearization. He said North Korea may accede to a proposal to freeze its atomic program and partially reduce its nuclear arsenal in phased steps if the Biden administration relaxes sanctions and suspends its regular military drills with South Korea.

Cha Duck Chul, a deputy spokesman at South Korea‘s Unification Ministry, said it’s closely monitoring the North’s ongoing political meeting and wants to reemphasize the best way to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula is through dialogue.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijiang called for renewed dialogue between North Korea and the U.S., saying that “We believe that the Korean Peninsula situation is facing a new round of tension.”

Kim called the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee meeting taking place this week to review efforts to rebuild the economy, which has been severely crippled by pandemic border closings, mismanagement amid the U.S.-led sanctions, and storm damage to crops and infrastructure last year.

On Tuesday, Kim opened the meeting by warning of potential food shortages, urging officials to find ways to boost agricultural production because the country’s food situation “is now getting tense.” He also urged the country to brace for extended COVID-19 restrictions, suggesting North Korea would extend its border closure and other steps despite the stress on its economy.

___

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

Biden gives Putin a pair of Massachusetts-made aviators

Biden gives Putin a pair of Massachusetts-made aviators

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A pair of Randolph Engineering Concorde teardrop sunglasses, in 23-karat gold finish with polarized American gray lenses, rest on a table at the company where they are made, in Randolph, Mass., Thursday, June 17, 2021. Russian President Vladimir Putin received … more >

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By

Associated Press

Friday, June 18, 2021

RANDOLPH, Mass. (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin took a little of piece of Massachusetts with him after his meeting with President Biden this week.

The U.S. president gave his Russian counterpart a pair of custom aviator sunglasses manufactured by Randolph Engineering, based in Randolph just south of Boston, according to the White House.

The gift was the company’s Concorde teardrop aviators, in 23-karat gold finish with 57mm polarized American gray lenses, the company posted on its blog.

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They’re listed on the company’s website for $299.

Biden has always been a big fan of aviators for his personal style, it was only fitting for him to gift our premium Concorde frames to his guest,” the post said.

The glasses were customized with a Joe Biden signature on the right lens and inside the temple, the company said.

“The White House made an excellent choice as these are one of our most popular styles with some of the best polarized lenses in the world,” the post said.

Iran votes in presidential poll tipped in hard-liner’s favor

Iran votes in presidential poll tipped in hard-liner’s favor

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Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran’s presidential elections, raises his hands as he casts his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 18, 2021. Iran began voting Friday in a presidential election tipped in the favor of … more >

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By Jon Gambrell

Associated Press

Friday, June 18, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran voted Friday in a presidential election tipped in the favor of a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fueling public apathy and sparking calls for a boycott in the Islamic Republic.

State-linked opinion polling and analysts put hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as the dominant front-runner in a field of just four candidates. Former Central Bank chief, Abdolnasser Hemmati, is running as the race’s moderate candidate but hasn’t inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from seeking the office again.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran‘s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

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It also would firmly put hard-liners in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue over trying to save Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers, as it enriches uranium to the closest point yet to weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites and assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time for the vote, which has seen widespread public apathy after a panel under Khamenei barred hundreds of candidates, including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani. Khamenei cast the ceremonial vote from Tehran, where he urged the public to take part.

“Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves,” Khamenei said. “Go ahead, choose and vote.”

But by mid-day, turnout appeared far lower than Iran‘s last presidential election in 2017. State television offered tight shots of polling places, several of which seemed to have only a handful of voters in the election’s early hours. Those passing by several polling places in Tehran said they similarly saw few voters.

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast ballots. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said. 

There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout of just 42%, which would be the lowest ever since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader. As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program.

“This is not acceptable,” said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change its theocracy from inside during his eight years in office. “How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?”

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out Wednesday on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners followed in that thought, bearing the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020.

“If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the U.S. and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran,” the leaflet warned. “Iran will be under shadow of a Syrian-style civil war and the ground will be ready for assassination of scientists and important figures.”

State television also aired footage of a polling station set up by Soleimani’s grave in the city of Kerman. Poll workers also wore gloves and masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, with some wiping down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

“We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us,” Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki said. “We should change our country’s situation by cooperation with each other.” 

Yet the disqualification of candidates seemed aimed at preventing anyone other than Raisi from winning the election, as Khatami did in 1997 by surprisingly beating a hard-liner favored by Khamenei. That’s coupled with public anger for Rouhani, whose signature 2015 nuclear deal collapsed after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018. Iran‘s already-ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

The vote “is set to be the least competitive election in the Islamic Republic’s history,” wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft. “The election is heavily stacked in favor of candidates from the theocratic and hard-line end of Iran‘s political spectrum; there will be little need for the more overt forms of election fraud that characterized the turbulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.”

Rouhani, after casting his vote at the Interior Ministry, urged people to vote as it was important “for the county, the fate of people and the system.”

The decision to limit participation comes as whoever wins likely will serve two four-year terms as nearly every Iranian president has since the revolution. That means they may be at the helm at what could be one of the most-crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei.

Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, as well as Khamenei‘s son, Mojtaba, who is believed to have close ties to Iran‘s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Mark Milley says China lacks ‘capability’ to capture Taiwan

Joint Chiefs head says China lacks ‘capability’ to capture Taiwan

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

China’s military forces have not developed the ability to carry out a military assault against the island of Taiwan, despite a large-scale build-up by Beijing in recent years, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress on Thursday.

Army Gen. Mark Milley made the assessment during a Thursday hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee when asked about China’s announced determination of eventually reuniting the island state with the mainland.

Recently the current and former commanders of the Indo-Pacific Command offered differing assessments on when China could conduct an amphibious assault on Taiwan.

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“I think China has a ways to go to develop the actual no-kidding capability to conduct military operations to seize through military means the entire island of Taiwan if they wanted to do that,” Gen. Milley said.

The four-star general declined to provide details on the basis of his assessment in a public hearing but said the probability of a military attack on Taiwan is low. “There is no reason [for China] to do it militarily. So I think right now it is probably low — in the immediate near-term future,” Gen. Milley said.

Chinese officials say that reclaiming Taiwan, however, remains a “core” national interest.

“The internal politics of China are up to China, as long as whatever is done is done peacefully and doesn’t destabilize the region nor the world,” Gen. Milley added.

Outgoing U.S. Pacific commander Adm. Philip Davidson told Congress in March that China could launch a Taiwan invasion within the next six years.

Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years,” Adm. Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

China has been engaged in a large-scale military buildup for decades that includes the deployment of more than 1,200 missiles within range of Taiwan. Beijing also has been developing amphibious assault and precision-strike bombing capabilities.

Satellite photos made public several years ago revealed mock-ups inside China of Taiwanese political and military sites, in apparent preparation and training for an attack on the island.

The assessment of a Taiwan attack was based on an expansion of Chinese military forces in the region, one that threatens to undermine U.S. defense efforts to deter an attack.

“We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” Adm. Davidson said in March. “I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they’re putting in the field unless … it is an aggressive posture.”

The admiral’s successor, Adm. John Aquilino, testified at his confirmation hearing that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could come sooner than six years. A Chinese assault is “much closer than most think,” said Adm. Aquilino, the current Indo-Pacific commander.

“We have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities like [the Pacific Deterrence Initiative] in place in the near term and with urgency,” Adm. Aquilino said in March.

The initiative is a congressional effort to bolster U.S. forces in the Pacific.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Thursday budget hearing there was “no question” China wants to unite Taiwan with the mainland.

“In terms of what the timeline or time frame for that is, is left to be seen and, of course, there are a number of intelligence estimates that address that issue,” he said. “Our position is that we remain committed to helping the defense of Taiwan in terms of providing the ability for them to defend themselves in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiques and the Six Assurances.”

The communiques and diplomatic exchanges were concluded in the 1970s and 1980s after the U.S.  established formal diplomatic relations with Beijing and de-recognized the Taiwan government.

Mr. Austin said it’s “very likely” the Chinese will seek reunification sometime in the future.

Taiwan is located about 100 miles off the southern coast of China. Nationalist forces fled to the island after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists in the late 1940s.

Over the decades, Taiwan has grown into a vibrant democracy and economic powerhouse. During the Trump administration, relations with Taiwan were strengthened and more than $16 billion in new arms deals were offered.

Taiwan also has recently developed new medium-range missile capabilities that would make China vulnerable to retaliation by missile strikes on cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen in the event of an invasion by Beijing.

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could threaten U.S. homeland within two years, Pentagon warns

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could threaten U.S. homeland within two years, Pentagon warns

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could regenerate and plot terrorist attacks against the American homeland within two years, possibly sooner if the insurgent Taliban overwhelm a fragile U.S.-backed government and take control of the country, top Pentagon officials warned Thursday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the worst-case scenario as President Biden’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan was nearing its end.

All American forces are expected to be out of the country within several months, except for a small contingent of Marines tasked with guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The embassy could become a key symbolic target for Taliban fighters and jihadis.

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With mounting evidence that the Taliban have maintained close ties with al Qaeda, a collapse of the Afghan government and subsequent Taliban takeover could produce a country that is ground zero for global Islamic terrorism — just as it was in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

National security scholars and foreign policy analysts say it appears unlikely that al Qaeda will ever have free rein in Afghanistan the same way it did 20 years ago. Still, U.S. military leaders say the threat must be taken seriously.

Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley were pressed Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, to define whether the likelihood of an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan should be considered small, medium or large.

“I would assess it as medium. I would also say … it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability” to carry out terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan, Mr. Austin told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Gen. Milley gave a similar assessment, though he warned that the time frame could be much shorter if the Afghan government collapses without U.S. and NATO support.

“If certain other things happen, if there was a collapse of the government or the dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that risk would obviously increase,” he said. “But right now, I’d say ‘medium’ and about two years or so.”

The significance of al Qaeda, the Islamic State group or other extremist organizations gaining a new home base in Afghanistan cannot be overstated, specialists say.

Pockets of insurgents and largely independent terrorist cells can wreak havoc locally in the form of mass shootings or suicide bombings, but having physical territory to train and plan takes the threat to an entirely new level, said Nathan Sales, a State Department counterterrorism coordinator in the Trump administration.

“Our fight against terrorists is not going to culminate in a surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri. What victory looks like is denying them the ability to control territory, to control the resources that come with territory,” said Mr. Sales, now a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.

“When terrorist groups control territory, that enables them to plot attacks against the homeland, against Europe, against our allies in the region and around the world,” he said. “Because al Qaeda had safe haven in Afghanistan, we got 9/11. Because ISIS had a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, we got [terrorist attacks in] Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.”

Military leaders said they will use “over the horizon” counterterrorism capabilities such as drone strikes to hit al Qaeda, ISIS and other groups in Afghanistan before they can grow into major fighting forces.

The details of that strategy, however, remain murky. The administration hasn’t announced formal agreements with nearby countries to permanently house American military assets.

‘Direct attacks’

Pressed on Afghanistan’s future, Gen. Milley said a “wide range of outcomes” remain. In one scenario, the government in Kabul collapses during a major Taliban military offensive.

That military offensive is already well underway. In the past six weeks, the Taliban have taken control of another 30 districts across Afghanistan, according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The insurgent group controls 100 districts, compared with 95 under the Afghan government. The two sides are contesting another 203 districts.

A collapse of the Afghan government and ascension of the Taliban would represent a historic foreign policy disaster for the U.S., which invaded the country nearly 20 years ago to topple the Taliban government after the 9/11 attacks and has been battling the group ever since.

President Trump changed course in 2019 and authorized direct talks between U.S. diplomats and Taliban leaders. Those negotiations produced a February 2020 deal known as the Doha Agreement, which laid out the timetable for America’s military withdrawal in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.

Among other things, the Taliban promised a permanent break with groups such as al Qaeda and said Afghanistan would never again become a sanctuary for terrorist organizations.

But a United Nations assessment released on June 1 found that al Qaeda maintains a major presence in Afghanistan and is deeply intertwined with the Taliban.

“Large numbers of al Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda continued to suffer attrition during the period under review, with a number of senior figures killed, often alongside Taliban associates while co-located with them,” the study said.

“Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage,” said the report, produced by the U.N. Security Council. “It is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

Against that backdrop, specialists say, it’s unclear whether the Taliban and al Qaeda are brazen enough to rebuild their pre-9/11 infrastructure and plan attacks against the U.S. or its European allies.

“This is the million-dollar question,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “I might think the Taliban and al Qaeda are more cautious.”

The two groups may say, “We don’t have to poke the United States because a lot of what we want to accomplish can be done without that,” Mr. Byman said. “But that [theory] might be wrong.”

Spy agencies to release secrets in countering China, Russia info threats

Spy agencies to release secrets in countering China, Russia info threats

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Pentagon’s intelligence agencies plan to release classified information to the public and to allies as part of efforts to counter information threats from China and Russia, senior Pentagon and military officials told Congress.

Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said the release is part of a government-wide effort to counter adversaries’ widespread use of disinformation.

“Although classification of information is an essential tool to protect intelligence sources and methods, advancement of U.S. interests through our broad alliances and partnerships may require wider dissemination of classified information,” Mr. Moultrie said in recent prepared testimony for a June 11 hearing. “U.S. interests may also be served by release to the public of certain unclassified information,” he added.

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Both the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, along with other military and civilian spy services, will make the information available to the military’s combatant commands in response to an appeal last year from nine generals and admirals for more intelligence data to fight foreign disinformation claims.

In the so-called “36-star letter,” the group of four-star commanders appealed for secret information to be used as “ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives.”

“We need to make sure that we’re using open source and other available means they get this information out to our combatant commanders. It’s a priority of ours,” Mr. Moultrie said. “…We are moving to declassify what we can declassify and some of that’s been done.”

China beginning last year has promoted false stories regarding the origin of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, asserting the coronavirus began in a U.S. Army laboratory. Russian disinformation in recent years was used to influence U.S. elections and sow social unrest.

NSA Director Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, whose agency collects highly sensitive electronic secrets, said his agency is working to find ways to make intelligence available publicly to ensure “speed and agility against an adversary.”

Many NSA reports are written for eventual release, but the agency is working with military commanders in the field and private-sector contractors to create tools and information that can be rapidly disseminated, Gen. Nakasone said.

NSA is also working with military commanders to use its computer capabilities to sift very large amounts of data very rapidly, the general said.

“The second piece is: How do we take some of our sensitive intelligence and be able to have a discussion with the combatant commands to say, ‘Hey, is there a commercial capability or is there open source that might lead someone there?’” he said.

Gen. Nakasone said the public release program is predicated on being able to protect sensitive sources and collection methods from being compromised.

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said the release of intelligence to support the war of ideas is “really a very, very important activity.”

“The first thing is to double down and emphasize to all of our analysts that we have to write for release,” Gen. Berrier said. “So if you start with a mindset that this product will be released to the max level of audience or consumer, that’s a good start to get the analysts thinking about different ways to do it.”

Additionally, DIA officers will seek to reduce the classification level of information provided by sources, Gen. Berrier said. The agency is working with key partners like the “Five Eyes” nations – the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – to increase intelligence-sharing.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Florida Democrat, emphasized the need for releasing information to the public.

“As Winston Churchill, famously said, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on,” she said. “The best defense against disinformation is accurate information. To the greatest extent possible, we should probably arm our citizens with information about the threats they face and the lies that they confront.”

Mr. Moultrie said the process begins with an internal assessment of the intelligence to be released and then working with other government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, to disseminate the information to the public. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is under the Pentagon, is also working on a congressionally-mandated program to make spy satellite imagery public.

Asked about the various threats facing the United States, Gen. Nakasone and Gen. Berrier agreed that China is the most significant national security threat.

China is the pacing competitor for us,” Gen. Nakasone said. “… This near-peer adversary is not only growing militarily, but it’s informationally, technologically, economically, diplomatically areas that China has that obviously has our focus and certainly the focus of the department.”

China’s decadeslong military buildup is aimed at building “an incredibly lethal force that will almost certainly be able to hold U.S. and allied forces at risk at greater distances from the Chinese mainland,” Gen. Berrier said.

NSA is retooling its electronic spying capability to better address new technology and a telecommunications environment that has grown in complexity for NSA electronic spies. The agency is currently developing new tools that will boost the ability to “to exploit signals associated with advanced weapons in space systems,” Gen. Nakasone said.

The advanced intelligence “will improve warfighter weapons and space readiness and “enable real-time threat data dissemination through the development of automated processes and streaming of the intelligence mission data,” he said.

Gen. Berrier said DIA is targeting China and Russia efforts seeking to limit or exceed U.S. military capabilities.

“Their capabilities include more lethal ballistic and cruise missiles, growing nuclear stockpiles, and grey-zone measures such as ambiguous unconventional forces, foreign proxies, information manipulation, cyberattacks and economic coercion,” he said.

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-U.S. counterintel chief: Russia could halt cyber strikes ‘in one moment’

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-U.S. counterintel chief: Russia could halt cyber strikes ‘in one moment’

Evanina says U.S. must step up offensive game against ransomware, cyber hits

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the “Villa la Grange” in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied Moscow’s involvement in the surge of ransomware attacks targeting the U.S., but a recently retired U.S. spy chief says there’s no question Russian intelligence has influence over the hacking operations.

The reason: The cyberattacks fit in with Mr. Putin’s larger strategy to undermine American democracy and economic power.

“The Russian government could shut this down in one moment if they wanted to,” said William R. Evanina, who tracked Russian and other hostile operations against the U.S. as director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center until early this year and previously as chief of the CIA’s “counterespionage” group.

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While Mr. Evanina generally praised the Biden administration’s attempts to elevate the government’s response to the growing drumbeat of ransomware and other cyberattacks, he told The Washington Times in an interview that U.S. intelligence could engage in dramatically more aggressive cyber operations to counter the Russian hacking.

“We always have a list of targets,” Mr. Evanina said. U.S. intelligence “can reach out and touch anybody, any time we want.”

But he said the offensive cyber operations have been held back by a range of legal and policy concerns — as well as the prospect of triggering a “cascading escalation” with the Russians.

He made the comments as President Biden and Mr. Putin engaged in their high-stakes summit this week, an event that came in the wake of allegations of Russian intelligence involvement in last year’s SolarWinds hack, which was viewed as the worst cyber-espionage breach ever against American government agencies, as well as last month’s Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that nearly crippled gasoline supplies across the U.S. Southeast.

U.S. cyber forensics investigators have pinned both attacks on hackers operating from inside Russia, and Mr. Biden presented Mr. Putin with a list of critical American infrastructure systems that should be off-limits for future ransomware and cyberattacks during Wednesday’s summit, warning that the U.S. has “significant cyber capability” to respond if such attacks were to occur.

In his own press conference, Mr. Putin denied Russian involvement in any cyberattacks, claiming “Russia isn’t on the list” of countries the attacks could have originated from. He told NBC News ahead of this week’s summit that the charges were “farcical.”

Mr. Evanina, who currently runs the Evanina Group, a firm focused on advising CEOs and board of directors on strategic corporate risk in the cybersecurity and other arenas, said in the interview that the recent attacks have been carried out by “a criminal element in Russia [that is] unable to operate without the express or implied protection of the [Russian] intelligence services.”

“They’re being protected by the Russian Federation,” he said, drawing a parallel to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election via the “Internet Research Agency,” a pseudo-private Russian firm that manipulated American social media accounts in coordination with Russian intelligence prior to being neutralized by U.S. counter cyberattacks.

The Internet Research Agency was “an ‘independent contractor’ in Russia, but if anybody thought they were doing that without the instruction of the intelligence services, it would be foolish and naive to say the least,” Mr. Evanina said, adding that the current wave of cyber operations fits under Mr. Putin’s modus operandi of doing “anything he can to destabilize our democracy.”

The Biden administration has scrambled to respond in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline attack, but some are criticizing the White House for not explicitly addressing the threat for what it is: a state-sponsored campaign that will get worse until U.S. leadership confronts it.

Leon E. Panetta, a former CIA director and Obama administration defense secretary, recently told C-SPAN that the U.S. “lacks an effective national strategy” for dealing with cyberattacks.

“We also need to have an offense as well that can make clear to our adversaries — whether it’s Russia, or China or North Korea or Iran or terrorists — that if they’re going to continue these kinds of attacks on the United States, they, too, will have to pay a price,” Mr. Panetta said.

Prior to Wednesday’s summit, Mr. Biden stopped short of directly blaming the Kremlin for authorizing the Colonial Pipeline attack.

“So far, there is no evidence based on, from our intelligence people, that Russia is involved,” the president said in the immediate aftermath of the attack, although he added that “there’s evidence that the actors, ransomware, is in Russia” and that the Russian government has “some responsibility to deal with this.”

Mr. Evanina said one of the primary challenges is the elusive reality of the cyber-realm. “People don’t understand it, they don’t see it, they don’t taste it,” he told The Times. “It’s not like terrorism, where there is kinetic value, where you get to see people hurt. It’s invisible.”

But the sophistication of ransomware attacks has risen dramatically in recent years, he said.

“Two years ago, you had criminals or ransomware threat actors who would lock down your systems and then you would have to pay to have them unlocked. It was a simple formula,” Mr. Evanina said. “Now, ransomware has turned into a data issue. Data is the huge commodity right now. So now there are ransomware actors, criminals, who can steal your data and use your data as a bargaining chip for remuneration.”

Such was the case with Colonial Pipeline. Hackers first locked important proprietary company files, then threatened to make them public if the company didn’t pay up.

“They’ve upped the game and they’ve upped the ante,” Mr. Evanina said.

He cautioned against dismissing the seemingly small ransom demands in recent cases. In the Colonial attack, the hackers sought only $4.4 million from a company with assets of more than $3 billion.

“Four million dollars will fund a lot of stuff in Moscow,” Mr. Evanina said. “…We’re talking about astronomical numbers” when one considers the full slate of ransomware attacks in recent months — a slate that includes incidents not publicized or reported to government agencies.

While he said “we don’t know” how much is really being paid in ransom, Mr. Evanina estimated it’s in the “tens of millions upon hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Colonial CEO Joseph Blount testified to Congress this month that the decision to pay was “the hardest” he’s ever made in 39 years in the energy industry.

The White House itself faced criticism for saying it hadn’t offered advice to Colonial on whether or not to pay the ransom — prompting charges the administration is leaving American companies to fend for themselves against Russian state-sponsored cyberattacks.

‘Dramatic increase’

Mr. Evanina was a career FBI official before being tapped in 2014 to head U.S. counterintelligence under President Obama and then staying on through the Trump administration.

He broadly defended recent cybersecurity policy moves by the Biden administration, including Mr. Biden‘s executive order last month requiring federal agencies to increase their basic cybersecurity protections and setting new security standards for software contractors with the federal government.

Mr. Evanina told The Times the administration has “the right concepts in place” to improve both government and private-sector preparedness. With not only Russia, but China and Iran also “getting more brazen with their cyberattacks,” he said, “we’re going to have to respond accordingly and I think the Biden administration is doing that.”

He stressed, however, that “there needs to be more aggressive intelligence-sharing” between the government and the private sector.

“We have to have the ultimate public-private partnership here, with the government to be able to provide as much information as possible about the networks and the criminal elements — whether or not they are state sponsored — to the sectors and corporations so that CEOs can make value-added business decisions of whether or not they’re going to pay,” Mr. Evanina said.

“There [also] needs to be a concerted effort by industry to take precautions that are necessary to prevent ransomware in the first place and those precautions start with basic cyber-hygiene,” he said, pointing to moves such as increasing employee awareness of potential spear-phishing emails.

The Justice Department said this month it was elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority as terrorism. The move has prompted speculation that future U.S. action against cyber criminals soon could mirror aggressive tactics used against global terror groups over the past two decades.

Mr. Evanina predicted “a dramatic increase” is coming in U.S. cyber operations, both by the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon’s Cyber Command.

Despite the legal and policy implications at play, “I think you’re going to see an opening of the optic so the American people and the world will see that we are going to continue to fight back but we will be more transparent about it.”

• Dave Boyer, Jeff Mordock and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this article.

Top U.S. general ‘shocked’ by report of 1,900 missing military guns

Top U.S. general ‘shocked’ by report of 1,900 missing military guns

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley testify before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Thursday, June 17, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The nation’s top general said Thursday he’s “shocked” by recent reports that the U.S. military lost at least 1,900 weapons over the past decade.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has asked the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to immediately review their internal figures and report back.

The services’ official numbers, Gen. Milley said, differ greatly from those laid out in an Associated Press investigation published this week.

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“I’ve asked each of the service chiefs to go back and let’s get the numbers … to make sure we can level set what’s correct and what’s incorrect,” he said. “I was frankly shocked by the numbers that were in there. The reports I have from the services, as of this morning, are significantly less numbers than are reported in the media.”

Indeed, a key piece of the AP investigation is that official service figures are dramatically different from the actual numbers. The report found that at least 1,900 firearms were lost or stolen from 2010 to 2019. The figures include pistols, machine guns, rifles, and other weapons.

Gen. Milley said Thursday that there are roughly 3 million such weapons circulating in the military.

“We take the security of weapons extraordinarily seriously,” he said.

US locks down embassy in Afghanistan amid COVID-19 surge

US locks down embassy in Afghanistan amid COVID-19 surge

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A man receives the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. In Afghanistan, where a surge threatens to overwhelm a war-battered health system, 700,000 doses donated by China arrived over the weekend, and … more >

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By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Thursday, June 17, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan ordered a near-complete lockdown Thursday because of a massive spike in coronavirus cases among employees.

Already on uncertain footing due to the imminent withdrawal of American forces from the country, the embassy in Kabul ordered remaining staffers into virtual isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has already killed at least one person, sent 114 into quarantine and forced several people to be medically evacuated.

The embassy said in a notice to employees that almost all group activities, including work meetings and recreational gatherings, are banned because intensive care units at military medical facilities in Afghanistan are at full capacity and the number of cases has forced it to establish temporary COVID-19 wards to care for patients requiring oxygen.

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It said the restrictions would remain in place until the chain of transmission is broken. Violators will be removed from the country on the next available flight. The notice said 95% of the cases involved people who have not been vaccinated or fully vaccinated against the virus and urged all staff to take advantage of available vaccines at the embassy.

“We must break the chain of transmission to protect one another and ensure the mission’s ability to carry out the nation’s business,” the acting U.S. ambassador, Ross Wilson, said in the notice. “Restrictions will continue until the chain of transmission is broken.”

“We are all in this together and rely on your cooperation during this difficult time,” he said. “We can only return to normal operations with the cooperation of everyone.”

The announcement was distributed to journalists and others by the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.

The restrictions confine all personnel to their living quarters except to get food alone or to exercise or relax outside by themselves. This requirement bans all sports and means personnel must stay at least 20 feet from others unless they are wearing a mask.

Staffing levels at the embassy have already been significantly reduced pending the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, which President Joe Biden has ordered complete by the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Chinese-crewed spaceship docks with new space station

Chinese-crewed spaceship docks with new space station

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Chinese astronauts wave as they prepare to board for liftoff at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwestern China, Thursday, June 17, 2021. China plans on Thursday to launch three astronauts onboard the Shenzhou-12 spaceship who will be … more >

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By Sam McNeil

Associated Press

Thursday, June 17, 2021

JIUQUAN, China (AP) — A Chinese spaceship carrying a three-person crew docked with China‘s new space station at the start of 3-month mission Thursday, marking a milestone in the country’s ambitious space program. 

The Shenzhou-12 craft connected with the Tianhe space station module about six hours after takeoff from the Jiuquan launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. 

The three astronauts are the first to take up residency in the main living module and will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two laboratory modules next year. 

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The mission brings to 14 the number of astronauts China has launched into space since 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own. 

The astronauts were seen off by space officials, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs. 

The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the cowling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket’s upper section, extended its solar panels and shortly afterward entered orbit. 

About a half-dozen adjustments took place over the following six hours to line up the spaceship for docking with the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, module at about 4 p.m. (0800 GMT). 

The travel time is down from the two days it took to reach China‘s earlier experimental space stations, a result of a “great many breakthroughs and innovations,” the mission’s deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told state broadcaster CCTV. 

“So the astronauts can have a good rest in space which should make them less tired,” Gao said. 

Other improvements include an increase in the number of automated and remote-controlled systems that should “significantly lessen the pressure on the astronauts,” Gao said.

Two astronauts on those past missions were women, and while this first station crew is all male, women are expected to be part of future station crews. 

The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months. 

China is not a participant in the International Space Station, largely as a result of U.S. objections to the Chinese programs secrecy and close military ties. However, China has been stepping up cooperation with Russia and a host of other countries, and its station may continue operating beyond the International Space Station, which is reaching the end of its functional life. 

China landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side and brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space program since the 1970s. 

China and Russia this week also unveiled an ambitious plan for a joint International Lunar Research Station running through 2036. That could compete and possibly conflict with the multinational Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space cooperation that supports NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 and to launch an historic human mission to Mars. 

After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism of the potential safety hazard. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit. 

The rocket used Thursday is of a different type and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency. 

Japan announces easing of coronavirus state of emergency ahead of Olympics

Japan announces easing of coronavirus state of emergency ahead of Olympics

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People walk by posters to promote the Olympic Games planned to start in the summer of 2021, in Tokyo, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara) more >

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By Mari Yamaguchi

Associated Press

Thursday, June 17, 2021

TOKYO (AP) — Japan on Thursday announced the easing of a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas from next week, with new daily cases falling just as the country begins final preparations for the Olympics starting in just over a month.

Japan has been struggling since late March to slow a wave of infections propelled by more contagious variants, with new daily cases soaring above 7,000 at one point and seriously ill patients straining hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolitan areas. 

Daily cases have since subsided significantly, paving the way for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to downgrade the state of emergency when it expires on Sunday to less stringent measures. The new measures will last until July 11 — just 12 days before the Games. 

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Suga said the relaxed measures will focus on early closures of bars and restaurants. 

If another surge occurs and strains hospitals, “we will quickly take action, including strengthening of the measures,” Suga said, addressing concerns by medical experts. 

Holding the Olympics before elections in the fall is also a political gamble for Suga, whose support ratings have tumbled over dissatisfaction with his handling of the pandemic, a slow vaccination drive and a lack of explanation about how he intends to ensure the virus doesn’t spread during the Olympics.

Experts at a virus panel meeting Thursday gave their approval for government plans to downgrade the emergency in Tokyo, Aichi, Hokkaido, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka. 

“We must do everything we can, and provide firm financial support as well,” to minimize risks of a resurgence of infections, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, head of a government COVID-19 panel. 

Japan does not enforce hard lockdowns and the state of emergency allows prefectural leaders to order closures or shorter hours for non-essential businesses. Those that comply are compensated and violators fined. Stay-at-home and other measures for the general population are only requests and are increasingly ignored.

At a parliamentary Health and Labor Committee last week, Omi cautioned that holding the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic is “abnormal” and warned that it would increase the risk of infections. 

A team of experts on Wednesday released a simulation showing a possible jump in cases during the Olympics if the spread of the new variants and people’s movements increase after emergency measures are eased. 

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told reporters the government would not hesitate to issue another emergency declaration even in the middle of the Olympics to protect people’s lives. 

The state of emergency will remain in Okinawa, where hospitals are still overwhelmed, while Hiroshima and Okayama will be taken off the list. 

Ryuji Wakita, the director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who heads a government COVID-19 advisory board, said that infections have decreased in many areas, but the slowing has bottomed out in the Tokyo region. He warned that infections could increase and that signs of a rebound are already seen among younger people. 

Even as more people are getting the jabs and most of the country’s 36 million senior citizens are expected to be fully inoculated by the end of July, younger people are largely unvaccinated and infections among them could quickly burden hospitals, Wakita said. 

“In order to prevent another upsurge, it is crucial to prevent the people from roaming around during the Olympics and summer vacation,” he said. 

Experts say it is crucial to accelerate the vaccine rollout for the Olympics to be safe. 

Suga has opened up mass inoculation centers and started vaccinations at major companies, part of an ambitious target of as many as 1 million doses per day. As of Wednesday, only 6% of Japanese were fully vaccinated.

In hard-hit Osaka in western Japan, hospital capacity has improved and new infections dropped to 108 on Wednesday, down from more than 1,200 a day in late April. 

In Tokyo, new cases are down to around 500 per day from above 1,100 in mid-May. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has said effective virus measures need to be kept in place. 

Donald Trump to Sean Hannity: Biden-Putin summit was ‘good day for Russia’

‘A good day for Russia’: Trump rips Biden-Putin summit in wide-ranging interview with Hannity

Sean Hannity's interview with the former president covers issues from the border to the 2022 midterms and Trump's plans for 2024

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President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference following the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ** FILE ** more >

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By Joseph Clark

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Former President Donald Trump said Wednesday that President Biden paid a heavy cost for his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin but received little in return.

Mr. Trump’s criticism followed the completion of Mr. Biden’s first foreign trip which culminated Wednesday in his first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Putin at what many called a low point in the U.S.-Russia relationship. 

“We gave a very big stage to Russia, and we got nothing,” Mr. Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in a wide-ranging interview. “It was a good day for Russia.”

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The two heads of state agreed to hold separate news conferences following the closed-door talks in a bid which some argue was aimed, in part, at limiting Mr. Putin’s platform following the already high-profile summit. 

But Mr. Putin was still able to land a few jabs in response to the free-for-all questions posed by the press, disparaging the U.S. on gun violence, Guantanamo Bay, and even calling out the U.S. for prosecuting Capitol rioters from Jan. 6 for making “political demands” when asked why he had poisoned and imprisoned his political opponents.  

Mr. Trump was also critical of the Biden administration’s recent decision to lift sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG, which he said allowed for the completion of a Russia-backed natural gas pipeline spanning Europe from Russia to Germany. 

“That pipeline was stopped,” he said. “And it was given back and nothing was gotten for it.”

The Biden administration has argued that the decision to lift the sanctions was made in the interest of preserving the U.S.’s relationship with Germany, who benefited from the pipeline, and that the pipeline was too close to completion to be stopped through sanctions when Mr. Biden took office. 

Mr. Trump told Mr. Hannity that the pipeline was not in the interest of the U.S., despite our close alliance with Germany. 

“We have 52,000 soldiers over there, which is like a major, major city, frankly, they make a fortune with us,” he said speaking of Germany. “And then they go and they pay Russia billions and billions of dollars for energy.” 

Mr. Hannity also spoke with Mr. Trump about the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Trump’s backing of candidates in 2022 and his plans for running for office in 2024. 

Mr. Trump announced Tuesday that he accepted an invitation from Texas Gov. Greg Abbot to join him on an official visit to the U.S.-Mexico border at the end of the month. 

Mr. Trump also recently announced that he will be holding his first rally after leaving office in Wellington, Ohio later this month. The rally is sponsored by Save America, Mr. Trump’s political action committee. 

“I’m working on ’22 getting a lot of good senators and a lot of good congresspeople elected,” he said. “And then we’ll be making a decision on 2024.”

Editors of Hong Kong newspaper arrested under security law

Editors of Hong Kong newspaper arrested under security law

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Ryan Law, second from right, Apple Daily’s chief editor, is arrested by police officers in Hong Kong Thursday, June 17, 2021. Hong Kong police on Thursday morning arrested the chief editor and four other senior executives of Apple Daily under … more >

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By Zen Soo

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police used a sweeping national security law Thursday to arrest five editors and executives of a pro-democracy newspaper on charges of colluding with foreign powers — the first time the legislation has been used against the press in yet another sign of an intensifying crackdown by Chinese authorities in the city long known for its freedoms.

Police said they had evidence that more than 30 articles published by Apple Daily played a “crucial part” in what they called a conspiracy with foreign countries to impose sanctions against China and Hong Kong.

Apple Daily said in a statement that the move left it “speechless” but vowed to continue its reporting. The newspaper has long been one of the most outspoken defenders of Hong Kong’s freedoms and in recent years has often criticized the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for walking back promises that the territory could retain those freedoms for 50 years after the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.

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The newspaper has thus found itself a frequent target. Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence after being convicted of playing a role in unauthorized protests in 2019, when Hongkongers took the streets in massive antigovernment demonstrations in response to a proposed extradition law that would have allowed suspects to stand trial in China. Protests grew to include calls for broader democratic freedoms, but the movement only appeared to harden Beijing’s resolve to limit civil liberties in the territory, including by imposing the national security law used in Thursday’s arrests.

The legislation outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion and has been used to arrest over 100 pro-democracy figures since it was first implemented a year ago, with many others fleeing abroad. The result is that it has virtually silenced opposition voices in the city — and drawn sanctions from the U.S. against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials.

Those arrested Thursday included Apple Daily‘s chief editor Ryan Law; the CEO of its publisher Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung; the publisher’s chief operating officer; and two other top editors, according to the newspaper.

Police also froze 18 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.3 million) in assets belonging to three companies linked to Apple Daily, said Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent at Hong Kong’s National Security Department. 

Trading in shares of Next Digital was halted Thursday morning at the request of the company, according to filings with the Hong Kong stock exchange. 

In an apparent show of force, more than 200 police officers were involved in the search of Apple Daily‘s offices, and the government said a warrant was obtained to look for evidence of a suspected violation of the national security law.

Apple Daily published a letter to its readers, saying that police had confiscated many items during the search, including 38 computers that contained “considerable” journalistic material.

“Today’s Hong Kong feels unfamiliar and leaves us speechless. It feels as though we are powerless to stop the regime from exercising its power as it pleases,” the letter read. “Nevertheless, the staff of Apple Daily is standing firm. We will continue to persist as Hongkongers and live up to the expectations so that we have no regrets to our readers and the times we are in.”

Hong Kong Security Minister John Lee told a news conference that police will investigate those arrested and others to establish if they have assisted in instigating or funding the offenses. 

He alleged that the police action against the Apple Daily editors and executives is not related to “normal journalistic work.”

“The action targeted the use of journalistic work as a tool to endanger national security,” he said.

In a chilling warning, he said that anyone working with the “perpetrators” would “pay a hefty price.” He added: “Distance yourself from them, otherwise all you will be left with are regrets.”

The Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong said in a statement Thursday that it supported police action, noting that while the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees the freedoms of speech and press, those rights cannot undermine the “bottom line of national security.”

“Freedom of the press is not a ‘shield’ for illegal activities,” the liaison office said.

Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairman Chris Yeung criticized the arrests and raid in an online news conference, warning that the national security law was being used as a “weapon to prosecute media executives and journalists for publishing reports and articles that are deemed as a threat to national security.”

He said that the court warrant that allowed police to search the offices of Apple Daily had undermined journalists’ ability to protect their materials, a vital part of upholding press freedom.

“Self-censorship will get worse if journalists are not sure whether they are able to protect their sources of information,” said Yeung. 

Putin outpoints Biden in taking on the global press corps

Putin outpoints Biden in taking on the global press corps

Russian spars with Western journalists; Biden sticks to U.S. reporters

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

In their willingness to face a free press in an unscripted, potentially hostile environment, score one surprising victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin over President Biden in their dueling press conferences following their one-day Geneva summit Wednesday.

Not only did the Russian leader spend far more time taking questions from reporters than did Mr. Biden, but Mr. Putin accepted multiple questions from Western journalists, including correspondents from CNN, ABC News and The Wall Street Journal. Many of the questions — on human rights, the status of Mr. Putin‘s soul and why the Russian leader was “afraid” of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — were extremely pointed.

Mr. Biden, by contrast, took questions exclusively from members of the American press corps in his subsequent briefing — and even apologized to a CNN reporter for being a “wise guy” after scolding her for a question she asked.

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Mr. Putin was even asked Wednesday by a Russian reporter about the disparity in his willingness to talk to foreign press outlets while Mr. Biden has not so far engaged with Russian publications. The Russian president said he has grown used to “omissions and distortions” when he does interview with foreign reporters. “We’ve had to live with this for decades,” he told TV broadcaster Pavel Remnyov.

“As to the interviews,” Mr. Putin added, “what kind of interviews these are and who gives them — it is up to each leader or country in question to decide this, if there is the wish to explain something to the people.”

Mr. Putin, who has become famous for his annual free-for-all press conferences that can stretch out four hours or more, also dispensed with an opening statement in his Geneva press briefing, inviting reporters to just start in with their questions.

Mr. Biden began his shorter briefing with a nearly 11-minute, 1,570-word prologue summarizing his views on the summit, before referring to a list provided by his staff and recognizing a correspondent from the Associated Press.

Biden gifts Putin crystal Buffalo sculpture, Aviator glasses

Biden gifts Putin crystal Buffalo sculpture, Aviator glasses

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

President Biden gifted Russian President Vladimir Putin a crystal sculpture of an American bison and a pair of custom-made Aviator sunglasses Wednesday during their historic summit in Geneva.

The crystal statue was crafted by Steuben Glass of New York. It is symbolic of the U.S., which named bison its national mammal in 2016 when former President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law.

In Russia, over the last 20 years, European bison were reintroduced after their extinction in 1927.

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The statue’s base is made of cherry wood, a tribute to first President George Washington, and included a custom engraved inscription plaque commemorating the historic meeting.

The Aviators were made by Randolph USA, which provides the sunglasses to the U.S. military and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Randolph manufactured the glasses in Massachusetts.

Biden says comparing Jan. 6 to racial justice protests ‘ridiculous’

Biden says comparing Jan. 6 to racial justice protests ‘ridiculous’

Accuses rioters of killing police officer

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President Joe Biden speaks to the news media following a news conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

President Biden said Wednesday it is “ridiculous” to compare the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol to last summer’s racial justice protests that looted American cities.

“It is one thing for literally criminals to break through the cordoned window of the Capitol, kill a police officer and be held unaccountable than it is for people objecting and marching on the Capitol saying you are not allowing me to speak freely, you are not allowing me to do A, B, C, or D,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden’s remarks came in Geneva after a several-hour summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Earlier in the day, Mr. Putin said he is cracking down on political opposition because he wants to spare his country from suffering an attack similar to the Jan. 6 insurrection and protests as destructive as last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Mr. Biden’s accusation that the Capitol rioters killed a police officer has been disputed by the D.C. Medical Examiner.

Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died one day after he confronted rioters during the attack. His death was ruled as natural causes after he suffered two strokes.

No one has been charged in relation to Sicknick’s death, though two men have been accused of assaulting the officer by spraying him with mace.

G-7 leaders back Taiwan for first time

G-7 leaders back Taiwan for first time

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In this undated file photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, a Chinese PLA J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location. China sent a record 28 fighter jets, 14 of them J-16s, towards the self-ruled island of Taiwan … more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A statement of support by the G-7 leaders at their summit this week set off the Chinese government, which responded with stepped-up vitriol and provocative military flights in response to strong language in the group’s final communique.

“We reiterate the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and based on the rule of law,” the summit statement said, adding, “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

The communique reflected the views of the seven industrial democracies, including the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, that also called on Beijing to respect human rights of Uyghurs and other minorities in China, and for China to cooperate with the ongoing World Health Organization investigation of the COVID-19 virus origin.

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It was the first time the G-7 voiced backing for Taiwan, the island-state 100 miles off the southern Chinese coast that Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

A day later at a NATO summit in Belgium, the alliance’s communique also issued a rebuke, stating China poses “systemic challenges” to international order.

“We are concerned by those coercive policies which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty,” the NATO communique said, referring to the alliance’s founding document.

China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems to establish a nuclear triad,” the communique said. “It is opaque in implementing its military modernization and its publicly declared military-civil fusion strategy.”

China‘s first response to the Taiwan language in the G-7 statement involved the largest warplane intrusion so far into Taiwan’s air defense zone on Monday. A total of 28 Chinese aircraft flew into Taiwan’s defense zone, part of stepped-up aerial incursions in a bid to intimidate China‘s island rival.

The PLA in April sent 25 aircraft into Taiwan’s defense zone. The latest incursion included four H-6 bombers, 14 J-16 fighters, six J-11 fighters and two Y-8 electronic warfare and anti-submarine aircraft.

The flights were followed by unusually harsh comments by Chinese state media. Ret. PLA Sen. Col. Bao Ming, an unofficial military spokesman, said China should declare it will attack both the United States and Japan in any conflict over Taiwan.

“It is necessary that China make an explicit statement to the world of the consequences the U.S. and Japan will face in the event their military intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict,” he stated.

Col. Bao said that first China should target all U.S. military bases in the region, including Japan and South Korea, with long-range weapons. Next, Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) bases used for logistics and supplies for the U.S. military would be declared formal targets “and destroyed instantly by the PLA,” he said.

Last, Japanese military forces that support U.S. military forces in the region would be attacked and “destroyed indiscriminately,” Col. Bao said.

Should Japan undertake a full intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict, China “shall declare war on Japan,” he added, and the PLA would expand the cross-strait war to Japan’s four main islands, he said, “until the JSDF is totally wiped out.”

“That is to say, all military units and strategic targets on Japan’s main islands will be strike targets of PLA missiles,” Col. Bao said. “China will even destroy Japan’s war potential at all costs. The Japanese should understand this.”

The G-7 statement also raised concerns about Chinese efforts to control the strategic South China Sea, where some 3,200 acres of new islands were built and military forces deployed since 2018. Beijing‘s pressure on Japan over control over the disputed, uninhabited Senkaku islands was mentioned as well.

“We remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions,” the G-7 said.

Chinese government spokesmen denounced the G-7 statement.

Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, blamed Taipei for heightened tension.

“We will never tolerate attempts to seek independence or wanton intervention in the Taiwan issue by foreign forces, so we need to make a strong response to these acts of collusion,” Mr. Ma said.

Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing: “The content of the statement went far beyond the scope of their bilateral relations, grossly interfered in China‘s internal affairs, wantonly slandered and accused China, and created and spread disinformation.”

Xi, PLA control China‘s nuclear weapons

Recent congressional testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission provides new details about the command and control of China‘s nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines.

Phillip C. Saunders, director of the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, stated in prepared testimony that President Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), has ultimate control over the country’s growing nuclear arsenal. Mr. Xi is president but his ultimate authority rests with his position with the CMC.

The nuclear build-up by China is altering Beijing‘s once small and relatively unsophisticated strategic forces into “a much larger, technologically advanced and diverse nuclear triad that will provide PRC leaders with new strategic options,” Mr. Saunders stated.

Mr. Saunders said in addition to new missiles, bombers and missile submarines, the People’s Liberation Army is improving its nuclear command-and-control system, a system that remains largely secret. The new systems could enable a shift in China‘s no-first-use weapons policy to “a ‘launch-on-warning’ posture or a policy that envisions ‘nuclear warfighting’ rather than just deterrence of an adversary first strike,” he said.

Orders for nuclear strikes in a war would be made by the CCP Politburo, or the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member collective dictatorship headed by Mr. Xi.

“The CCP’s longstanding insistence that ‘the party must control the gun’ continues, as does its emphasis on the primacy of political objectives over military objectives,” Mr. Saunders said.

Nuclear weapons orders are sent to the CMC Joint Operations Command Center located in an underground complex called the Western Hills outside Beijing. The orders are then relayed to PLA Rocket Force headquarters and onto missile bases and launch complexes.

For China‘s ballistic missile submarine force, six Jin-class vessels, communicating launch or alert orders, are “a significant operation challenge” when the submarines are deployed in deep ocean waters.

The PLA has built a super-low frequency transmitter to send orders to submarines and is working on a system of low frequency and satellite communications capable of reaching submarines to depths of 300 feet or more.

Communist Party support campaign backfires

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Marxist-Leninist ruling political party, a recent incident at Fudan University has revealed deep antipathy for the party in some quarters of the country.

Authorities at the university, one of China‘s most prestigious schools, earlier this month tried to organize support for the family of Wang Yongzhen, 49, a high-ranking party secretary at the university who was slain in a knife attack June 7.

Days later, a mathematics professor at the school, Jiang Wenhua, was arrested for the murder. Reports said Mr. Jiang had been a target of political punishment by Mr. Wang and had confessed to the murder on the Shanghai campus.

On June 15, the Fudan University Alumni Association launched the fundraiser to support Mr. Wang’s family, and in a statement praised the party official as a hero who died in the line of duty.

Mr. Wang was a CCP commissar in charge of maintaining ideological purity at the university. He also was responsible for preventing the spread of Western ideas about human rights and free speech. His main role was suppressing any views that would promote disloyalty to the party.

Epoch Times, the newspaper that first reported on the public backlash, said Mr. Wang was unpopular and reportedly led a political campaign of suppressing student dissent. The newspaper said he forced one woman student to go to a mental hospital where she reportedly committed suicide.

In an unexpected turn of events, the fundraiser generated a fierce online discussion on the Chinese social media, with scores of respondents criticizing the murdered party secretary and instead urging that funds be given to the accused murderer, Mr. Jiang.

An unusual list of more than 96 comments supporting Mr. Jiang, rather than the murdered CCP official, was published by the Epoch Times this week.

The flood of negative comments included “Fudan University, please open a donation to Teacher Jiang” and “Is there any contact information for Mathematics Teacher Jiang? I want to donate to Teacher Jiang, it is too difficult for him!” Another said: “Donate to Teacher Jiang. It is estimated that the people all over the country will be willing!”

Still another post said the university should give Mr. Wang a CCP flag because “he is not short of money, and by the way, tell me the method of Mr. Jiang’s payment.” Other comments stated the party official deserved to be killed and that the suspect was a hero.

China analysts said the unusual outpouring of support highlights the deep animosity in China for the CCP.

Chinese censors immediately cracked down on the negative comments and suspended the Weibo social media accounts of several of those behind the posts.

Fudan was the target of human rights demonstrators in Hungary’s capital Budapest last week by people opposed to a recent agreement between China and Hungary to open a branch of the Chinese university in the city. The protesters opposed the deal with Beijing‘s authoritarian leaders.

• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.

Biden gives Putin a list of U.S. infrastructure off-limits to cyberattacks

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President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) more >

Print

By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

President Biden said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that Moscow must abide by international “rules of the road” and gave the Russian leader a list of 16 critical U.S. infrastructure systems that must be off-limits from cyber and ransomware attacks.

Calling their summit in Geneva a “good, positive” discussion, Mr. Biden said he told Mr. Putin that a variety of U.S. sectors must be protected from hackers, from electrical grids to water systems.

“We made it clear we were not going to allow this to go on,” the president said of the attacks that have been blamed on Russia’s foreign intelligence service and criminal hackers in the country.

SEE ALSO: Biden says comparing Jan. 6 to racial justice protests ‘ridiculous’

Mr. Putin denied any involvement, saying at an earlier press conference that the cyberattacks were originating in North and South America.

“I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else. It’s for the American people,” Mr. Biden said.

On ending the ransomware attacks that have disrupted a U.S. gas pipeline and a major meat supplier, Mr. Biden said the test of his talks with Mr. Putin will be whether new attacks occur.

“It’s going to be real easy. Are they going to act? We’ll find out,” Mr. Biden said. “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest, and about verification of self-interest.”

He said he made clear to Mr. Putin “that we have significant cyber capability.”

He knows, he doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it is significant,” the president said. “If, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond.”

“I think the last thing he wants now is a Cold War,” Mr. Biden said.

The two leaders did agree to hold talks aimed at renewing arms-control agreements. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is due to expire in 2026.

“We reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the two leaders said in a joint statement.

“Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust. Through this dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

Putin chides U.S. for jailing of Capitol rioters, killing of Ashli Babbitt, BLM unrest

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By S.A. Miller and Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called out the U.S. for the prosecution of Capitol rioters, the killing of protester Ashli Babbitt and unchecked violence on America’s streets — saying he doesn’t want those problems in his country.

Mr. Putin gave his view of the events in the U.S. as he sidestepped questions about why his political opponents end up dead or imprisoned.

“People went into U.S. Congress with political demands. Four hundred people are not facing criminal charges. They are facing prison terms of up to 20 maybe 25 years. They are called ‘homegrown terrorists,’ They are being accused of many other things,” Mr. Putin said when asked about the treatment of his political opposition.

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He also noted Babbitt, who was shot and killed outside the House chamber by U.S. Capitol Police.

Babbitt, 34, was the only person killed by gunfire that day.

“One of the participants, a woman, was shot dead on the spot. She was not threatening,” Mr. Putin said. “Why am I bringing this up? Many people are facing the same things as we do. I am stressing this: We are sympathizing with the United States but we do not want the same thing repeating here.”

Mr. Putin also pointed to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the ensuing violent protest that swept across the U.S. in 2020.

“America quite recently had to deal with terrible events after the murder of or the killing of the African American and Black Lives Matter ensued,” he said. “We saw mass violations of the law. We do not wish to see this kind of thing could happen on our territory and we will do our utmost to prevent it.”

Putin shames U.S. for gun violence, Guantanamo Bay

Putin shames U.S. for gun violence, Guantanamo Bay

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday condemned the United States’ record on human rights, blasting it for rampant gun violence and continued operation of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Asked about Russia’s record on human rights abuses, Mr. Putin flipped the question and raised concerns about America’s own record.

He called out the U.S. for increasing gun violence in major cities.

SEE ALSO: Biden, Putin agree at summit to return ambassadors to their posts

“Look at the streets of America,” he said. “You don’t have time to open your mouth and you are shot dead.”

He also condemned America’s role in prison torture at the Guantanamo detention facility.

“What about Guantanamo? It is still working and doesn’t come under any kind of law. International, American, nothing. But it still exists,” Mr. Putin said.

SEE ALSO: Putin says there may be ‘compromise’ on U.S. prisoner swap

“CIA prisons, which were opened in a lot of states exercise torture,” Mr. Putin continued. “Is that human rights? I don’t think that protects the rights of man.”

Mr. Putin‘s comments came in Geneva after a several-hour summit with President Biden.

Mr. Biden last week announced plans to close Guantanamo Bay which still holds about 40 prisoners.

Putin says there may be ‘compromise’ on U.S. prisoner swap

Putin says there may be ‘compromise’ on U.S. prisoner swap

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that there may be “a compromise” with the U.S. on a prisoner exchange.

Speaking in Geneva after meeting with President Biden for several hours, Mr. Putin appeared open to the idea of a prisoner swap. He said his U.S. counterpart raised the question and the Russian Foreign Ministry and U.S. State Department will work on the issue.

Mr. Putin revived an offer to swap prisoners ahead of the summit with Mr. Biden, who has come under growing pressure to free Americans from Russian jails.

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Mr. Biden said last week he would raise the issue of jailed Americans when he faces the Russian leader.

The most high-profile U.S. citizens in Russian custody are Paul Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges, and Trevor Reed, who was arrested for a drunken brawl in which he punched two Russian police officers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has sought the return of pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, saying he has health issues that have been ignored by U.S. prison officials.

SEE ALSO: Paul Whelan, Marine vet jailed in Russia, asks Biden to push for his release ahead of Putin summit

Another prominent Russian in U.S. custody is Viktor Bout, an arms dealer arrested in Thailand in 2010 who is serving a 25-year sentence for smuggling weapons to rebels in Colombia.

Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin agree at Geneva summit to return ambassadors to their posts

Biden, Putin agree at summit to return ambassadors to their posts

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U.S President Joe Biden, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk in a hall during their meeting at the “Villa la Grange” in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel/Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Biden agreed Wednesday to return their ambassadors to their posts in each country.

“The two ambassadors, we agreed, should return to their posts,” Mr. Putin said at a news conference in Geneva at the conclusion of their summit.

The Russian leader called the meeting “constructive.” He said they would begin “consultations” on cybersecurity, after a series of cyberattacks on the U.S. government and key sectors of the U.S. economy.

SEE ALSO: Chaos at Biden-Putin summit: Reporters yell, shove, manhandled by Russian bodyguards

Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan had been recalled to their home countries several months ago amid heightened tensions.

Mr. Putin insisted that the cyberattacks are originating in North and South America, and said, “Russia isn’t on the list.”

“All they do is make insinuations,” he said of the U.S. “What we need is expert consultations between us. We agree to that, in principle.”

Mr. Putin described a cordial meeting.

“I think there was no hostility. Quite the contrary,” he said. “I think that both of these sides showed a willingness to understand one another and to find ways to bring our positions closer together. [Mr. Biden] is a very experienced politician.”

The Russian president said they discussed human rights on Mr. Biden‘s initiative. 

But Mr. Putin also pointed to a rise in shootings and other violence in the U.S., saying the country’s leader is ultimately responsible for such actions.

Hillary Clinton: ‘We have people within our own country who are doing Putin’s work’

Hillary Clinton: ‘We have people within our own country who are doing Putin’s work’

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Hillary Clinton participates in the Hulu "Hillary" panel during the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association Press Tour, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that some elected officials in the U.S. are doing the work of Russian President Vladimir Putin by sowing distrust and divisiveness during and after the Trump administration.

“When you take an oath to serve the United States, you take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic,” Mrs. Clinton said on MSNBC. “We never thought we had to worry about domestic enemies. We never thought we had to worry about people who didn’t believe in our democracy, in our Constitution, in our separation of powers, in our institutions. And sadly, what we’ve seen over the last four years, and particularly since our election in 2020, is that we have people within our own country who are doing Putin‘s work.

“Now whether they are, as we say, witting or unwitting, they are doing his work to sow distrust, to sow divisiveness, to give aid and comfort to those within our country who, for whatever reason, are being not only disruptive but very dangerous,” said Mrs. Clinton, who served as U.S. secretary of state for the Obama administration and unsuccessfully ran for president as a Democrat in 2008 and 2016.

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Mrs. Clinton made the remarks on the “Morning Joe” program as President Biden met with Mr. Putin at a bilateral summit taking place in Geneva.

The summit is the first meeting of the U.S. and Russian presidents since Mr. Biden entered the White House in January. They previously met when Mr. Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.

U.S. intelligence officials have previously assessed that the Russian government under Mr. Putin, its leader for over 20 years, interfered in both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

In each case, officials assess Moscow waged operations to denigrate the Democratic nominee – Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden, respectively – and help the Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump.

More recently, Mr. Trump and some of his allies have mounted attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election by raising concerns about how the contest was conducted in light of Mr. Biden winning the race.

“I think President Biden knows he’s got to work on both fronts,” Mrs. Clinton said Wednesday. “We have problems here at home. We’re not well organized. We’re not focused on the future. We’re not making the tough decisions we need to make. We’re letting partisanship, frankly, interfere with patriotism. And we’ve got to lay down some markers for Putin and then follow up with them.”

‘Insane:’ Biden’s push for nuclear deal hit for letting Iran off the hook

‘Insane:’ Biden’s push for nuclear deal hit for letting Iran off the hook

Tehran backing terrorism, targeting Americans left out of talks

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In this file photo from April 1, 2015, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, right, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and U.S. Robert Malley, left, Senior Director for … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Weapons-laden Iranian warships are speeding across the Atlantic Ocean and may be destined for Venezuelan ports. 

In the Red Sea, Iran-backed Houthi forces battling the internationally recognized government this week reportedly planted sea mines in a direct threat to U.S. Navy ships that sail in the strategically vital waterway. 

Last month, Iranian financing helped militants from Palestinian Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group, launched an unprecedented rocket war on Israel.

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Iran-linked militias in Iraq and Syria have repeatedly targeted U.S. personnel in the Middle East, and Iranian speedboats routinely harass American vessels across the region.

None of that seems to be affecting President Biden’s quest to strike a new deal with Iran to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting harsh economic sanctions that President Trump reimposed.

Top Biden administration diplomats, led by special Iran envoy Robert Malley, are in their sixth round of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna. They are motivated to act quickly because of Iranian elections Friday and the growing expectation that an anti-American hard-liner is in line to win.

Other countries involved in the talks — major European allies, Russia and China — have spoken of narrowing differences to bring the U.S. back into the deal, which Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018. State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said Tuesday that the parties have made “meaningful progress” toward a new deal but “outstanding issues” remain.

It looks increasingly unlikely that any new nuclear agreement would address other Iranian behavior. The Biden administration took a tough rhetorical line in its early weeks and signaled that Iran must make concessions before any real talks could begin, but critics say the president and his top deputies now appear to be desperate to bank a major diplomatic breakthrough quickly and save Tehran‘s worrisome activities for another day.

“No matter what Iran does, the policy is to try to ignore it,” said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

“Iranian proxies killed an American in Iraq — no response,” he said. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] says Iran is hiding nuclear sites and materials — no response. The Iranian navy sends ships to Venezuela — no response. And on and on the list goes.

“It’s not just bad Iran policy; it’s bad national security policy, period,” said Mr. Goldberg, who served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction at the White House National Security Council under Mr. Trump. “Everyone is watching this show of American weakness: China, Russia, North Korea. And they’re learning all the wrong lessons about President Biden’s tolerance level for misconduct and extortion. … What kind of insane foreign policy is that?”

Republican criticism of the Biden team’s willingness to engage with Iran is nothing new.

Many of the same Republican figures and hawkish foreign policy analysts in Washington lambasted President Obama’s engagement with Iran, which ultimately led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. That deal freed up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for unprecedented restrictions on Iran‘s nuclear program. It was negotiated by many of the same key players in Mr. Biden’s diplomatic team, including Mr. Malley.

Even though U.N. inspectors said Iran was largely abiding by the deal’s nuclear limits, Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018. He said the accord did not stop Iran‘s support of terrorist groups and other misdeeds in the Middle East.

In the years since, Iran‘s behavior has grown more brazen and destabilizing. Beyond challenging U.S. interests and allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Tehran has used drones and military speedboats to directly confront the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Pentagon and intelligence officials also are keeping a close eye on two Iranian warships believed to be transporting weapons or illegal fuel to the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. 

U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say Iran remains the world’s undisputed leader in direct financial support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and have long warned that Tehran has offered safe haven to key al Qaeda figures.

‘Back in the box’

Citing Mr. Trump’s breach of the deal as justification, Iran has disregarded the limits on uranium enrichment established by the JCPOA, potentially putting Tehran just months away from obtaining weapons-grade material.

The Biden administration says that is exactly why an updated agreement is so important. Much like the arguments made by Mr. Obama years ago, they contend that Iran‘s nuclear program represents such a serious, immediate threat that containing it is a first-priority security imperative for the entire world.

They say that Mr. Trump’s hard line and pressure campaign — including the killing of a top Iranian general in an airstrike in January 2020 — did nothing to curb Iran’s bad behavior and a new approach is needed.

“If this goes on a lot longer, if they continue to gallop ahead … they’re going to have knowledge that’s going to be very hard to reverse,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday, “which I think puts some urgency in seeing if we can put the nuclear problem back in the box that the agreement had put it in that, unfortunately, Iran is now out of as a result of us pulling out of the agreement.”

Mr. Biden and other Group of Seven leaders over the weekend expressed a similar sentiment.  

“We are committed to ensuring that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon,” the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain said in a joint statement. “A restored and fully implemented [JCPOA] could also pave the way to further address regional and security concerns.”

The U.S. and its allies in Europe also speak out consistently against Iran‘s support for terrorism, and it’s not certain whether that issue will be entirely absent from any potential nuclear deal. For its part, the Biden administration has taken some direct action against Iranian proxy groups, including airstrikes in late February against the Syrian base of the militant organization Kait’ib Hezbollah, which previously targeted U.S. personnel stationed in neighboring Iraq.

Meanwhile, Friday’s presidential election in Iran has only put extra pressure on the administration. With hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi widely expected to win, Iran‘s position on nuclear negotiations may change and its appetite to deal with the U.S. could diminish.

“For the Iranians, the challenge is they’ve got the elections. The question is: Can the Biden administration make concessions fast enough to beat the Iranians to their election punch, understanding that after the election things may change?” said Danielle Pletka, senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The administration‘s assessment is that they may be harder pressed to make a deal with the new guys.”

Iranian officials have said the nuclear negotiations are proceeding no matter who wins the presidential vote and that the next president would respect any deal agreed to in Geneva.

“The nuclear file is a national dossier that is being advanced with consensus in the Islamic Republic, is unrelated to domestic developments, and is being pursued by the governing organizations, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiee told reporters in Tehran last week.

Ms. Pletka and other critics argue that the administration‘s willingness to let virtually all other issues slide is driving the U.S. negotiating strategy.

“One of the things the administration has signaled to the Iranians is, … ‘We are never going to co-mingle anything else you do with the nuclear accords,’” she said. “’We don’t care what you do. … We are not going to let that interfere with our desperate desire to get a nuclear deal.’”

On Capitol Hill, Republicans also have taken aim at the administration and its handling of Iran policy. Top GOP lawmakers, for example, have demanded that Congress review — and approve or deny — any nuclear deal reached with Tehran.