Friday News Roundup — November 6, 2020

Greetings to you this Friday morning. While the results are being tabulated, it is clear that the American people have spoken. The results reflect a country as politically polarized and divided as ever. As the results are tabulated, it is important to respect the institutions and dedicated individuals working to ensure that the voice of the American people is fairly and accurately heard. In a year of historic turnout, amidst the tumultuous events of 2020, we can all be proud that the American people — peacefully and orderly — exercised the rights for which generations before have fought.

In this week’s roundup, we open with a statement from our President & CEO Glenn Nye on these elections, while Dan looks at some of the political dynamics uncovered by the unfolding 2020 results.

Looking beyond the continuing drama of the election, on Tuesday afternoon, at 3:30 p.m., CSPC will be hosting a one-hour online symposium on protecting U.S. technologies, featuring remarks from Acting Under Secretary of Industry & Security Cordell Hull about protecting advanced technologies in an age of globalized commerce. Please register here to join.

In this week’s book review, Joshua looked at Margaret MacMillian’s sweeping history War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

Closing up the roundup, Ethan gives us a look at how terrorists and extremists have adapted during the pandemic, and we wrap, as always, with news you may have missed.

Statement on the 2020 U.S. Elections

Glenn Nye, CSPC President & CEO

Spc. Lincoln Meverden and Pfc. Napatsawan Sanguanboon, both of the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, Wisconsin National Guard help as poll workers. (Wisconsin National Guard Photo)

As the final votes are tallied across the country, a few lessons from the election are becoming clear. Perhaps most importantly, the election period has proceeded largely without significant logistical problems or violence. The United States has proven that it remains very capable of conducting the bedrock act of our democracy as voters participated by mail or safely in person, despite the additional challenges of a pandemic and a hyper-polarized electoral environment. This is good news and a strong signal to the world about the resilience of the United States’ democratic system. Americans voted in record numbers to determine the presidency and the makeup of the Congress, and the smooth proceedings so far will help bolster faith in the system and the veracity of the outcome. All voters’ voices are being diligently heard.

The counting process has taken longer than usual, as expected due to the public health challenges and high turnout, but it has proceeded in an orderly manner. Despite President Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud and efforts to impede the count process, it has continued calmly and is on track to deliver a clear outcome in the presidential race. We hope the calm will prevail and citizens will avoid any acts of violence or expressions of anger beyond peaceful voicing of opinions. The strong bi-partisan voices in support of a continued orderly count — including some notable voices from the president’s own party, such as Senators Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell — to respect the counting process, show there is a large consensus for a well-functioning, confidence-building electoral system. A large movement to push back against growing disinformation from domestic sources hoping to somehow derail the process will be needed in the immediate term make sure we Count Every Vote. The way the candidate who does not win the presidential race responds to that reality will be a big part of determining how the United States is viewed and how the country can heal from this divisive time.

The next big question will be: can we build good will and achieve a bi-partisan consensus to fix some of the flaws in our election system that continue to incentivize dysfunctional gridlock among elected leaders? We will need to know the outcome of some very close Senate races, which may not be clarified until January, to understand the full picture, but if we are able to build upon amazing joint efforts like the bi-partisan National Council on Election Integrity to extend beyond this election period and push reforms in federal policy, we may be poised to make some progress. There will also continue to be action at the state level to move the needle on reforms and help build momentum for national progress. We remain a deeply divided country but we have great potential for a renewal in our politics, if we are able to start with some sensible agreed changes to take some of the vitriol and partisan rigging out of our process.

We saw some major progress in political system reform including in Virginia, where voters of all stripes overwhelmingly voted to create a bipartisan commission, including citizen representatives, to draw electoral districts, rather than continuing the old politicized trend of having the politicians draw their own districts. This was a multi-year effort in a state requiring legislative and citizen actions and will hopefully provide momentum for many other states to join the trend.

We are looking forward to seeing our elected leaders take up this opportunity to renew our American democracy and live the values of cooperation and statesmanship that our constitution requires for the health of our nation.

Early Observations on 2020

Dan Mahaffee

Voting Counting Continues in Philadelphia — Philadelphia City Commissioners’ YouTube

With the votes still coming in, the various takes on the 2020 election have already started to flow. Via record turnout, the election revealed an America that is split along so many fault lines — geography, race, education, and gender showing some of the sharpest divides. Some lessons are immediately obvious, as many pollsters are googling recipes for crow, but many other analyses reveal authors carrying axes ground long before the votes were cast.

Much of this is seen in the immediate debate within the Democratic caucus about the relatively disappointing results in the House and Senate races. WIth hindsight, we now see that the broader blue wave was met by a rising red tide, but past tensions between centrists and progressives gave way to post-election blame. Given that former Vice President Biden appears ready to win the White House unseating an incumbent with the greatest popular vote total in history — and, more importantly, by possibly flipping up to 73 electoral votes — one might wonder if the Democratic disappointment about the Congressional results play into Republican hopes to dent any momentum for a potential President-elect Biden. Progressives will be challenged to demonstrate how their policies can provide the meaningful improvements in voters’ lives — not just prevail in twitter arguments and sapphire blue primaries. Centrists will have to contend with a young, activist base moving left and beyond ready to disrupt the status quo. All will have to build and message policies beyond a repudiation of the current president.

The Republicans are seemingly buoyed by their results, even as it appears the remaining pathways to a second Trump term are dwindling. The Republican Party is the Trump GOP, and the future of President Trump and the party will be long intertwined, win or lose. His support from the grassroots will limit any attempts by other elected Republicans to distance themselves or make their own moves up the ladder for 2024. That the GOP expanded its coalition in this election is clear, but whether it was inspired by President Trump or a latent American conservative tilt is unclear. On one hand, it could be what helped keep Texas red and kept Lindsay Graham in the Senate, the President did underperform the GOP House candidates throughout Wisconsin by about 49,000 votes. 2016, 2018, and 2020 patterns could portend a more populist Republican Party, but one that is more reliant on low-propensity voters. This could reverse the conventional wisdom of Republicans enjoying an inherent advantage in midterms.

For both parties, there are the broader shifts in the electorate that must be considered. Rather than a clear sense of realignment, this election might suggest that we are amidst one. Florida, after all, having gone for President Trump, also voted resoundingly to support a $15 minimum wage. Illinois, solidly blue, rejected a progressive income tax amendment. California’s electorate pushed back on regulation of ridesharing companies employment policies and the reinstatement of affirmative action. Inequality will continue to be an issue in America, but government isn’t seen as the answer — or at least the answer won’t come from 20th century left-right politics.

Finally, despite the hurdles faced, the turnout from this election and the results demonstrate that high turnout in our election is possible. Where the experts were correct is in how the slow and steady pace of Biden-leaning mail and absentee votes would slowly surpass the Election Day in-person vote, which was Trump-leaning. This heavy turnout helped both candidates in key states, and, if we are angered or concerned by the delays in results, then our anger should be directed at the underinvestment in election infrastructure.

What remains is a broader challenge, to demonstrate that our institutions, in this time of hyperpolarization, can deliver the outcomes the American people need. Near term and long term challenges remain, and neither party has the total grip on power to exercise their agenda without compromise. Politics and campaigning lead to bold promises, but our system of government requires compromise to govern. Compromise, in our knife’s-edge politics, will be the only way either side can deliver their promises.

Terrorism in a Pandemic: Violence ebbs and Disinformation flows

Ethan Brown

Police on the Scene of Vienna’s Attack — Fox News Screenshot

While the world watches the ‘poles’ unfold in dramatic fashion, more sobering news haunts the further reaches of the internet in a tragically all-too-familiar refrain. Monday, in Vienna, Austria, a lone gunman opened fire near the city’s main synagogue, killing four and critically wounding another 17. The assailant, whom Austrian authorities have confirmed had been radicalized online, with a previous arrest due to his attempt to journey into Syria and join the Islamic State, was killed by police after repeatedly firing into random bars and cafes. The shooting occurred one day before the country intended to re-enter a COVID-related lockdown.

As states the world over continue to struggle with new waves of the coronavirus virus in its various forms, and to say nothing of all eyes locked onto the U.S. election, far less attention has been paid to the ever-present reality of violent extremism. While those of us who think in rational terms shake our heads at the number of cases, deaths, and impacts on society due to the impact of the virus, terror organizations have not quietly receded into the history books. Rather, the global pandemic has provided an opportunity to these groups in ways that, frankly, were not wholly possible in the pre-COVID era. The United Nations Security Council’s Counter-Terror Executive Directorate published a white-paper earlier this year to discuss the fertile playground that Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) have to work with.

With the school-year having terminated in the early spring, over a billion students (to say nothing of the rest of society, stricken at home from work) were even more heavily immersed in use of the internet, particularly through the use of video game platforms- a surprisingly frequent haunt of extremist recruiters and propaganda. A captive audience indeed.

Amidst the conspiracy theories touted across the less sultry corners of the internet, the global pandemic is undoubtedly a fertile breeding ground for extremist ideology to foment further discord. Violent extremism is not a uniformed enemy, but an idea, and ideologies are parasitically difficult to defeat (see: Global war on terror). What the pandemic provided extremist propagandists was fuel on their trope-ridden fire, correlating various groups with the blame for the viruses spread. The errant connections made between COVID and Semitism are particularly strong, as well as variety anti-immigrant and racist narratives under the COVID umbrella.

Kujtim Fejzulai, a 20 year old dual citizen of Austria and North Macedonia, was already a risk for radicalization and potential violence before conducting the attack on Monday. Last year, an Austrian court sentenced him to 22 months in prison for his attempts to journey to Syria and join the Islamic State. After serving only seven months, Fejzulai was released due to the country’s laws regarding young adults.

The pandemic has obviously challenged state security and law enforcement organizations, and the tragic reality is that violent extremists have seized the vulnerabilities created. Those stability risks are a result of more law enforcement resources being dedicated towards enforcing lockdowns, social distancing, and domestic security while events like protests exacerbate the challenges faced in such a difficult environment. The case of Fejzulai highlights a heretofore scarcely considered facet of the post-COVID order- with a reduced concentration of public gatherings, terror attacks have indeed become less common over the past year. However, this also means that those rare chances for lone-wolf attacks means greater visibility when attacks do occur. For VEO purposes, this offers a diverse trough of propaganda from which to feed their narratives. The details of the Fejzulai investigation remain guarded, but the Islamic State was quick to claim credit for the attack, per reporting by the open-source intelligence group SITE, who tracks various terrorism and cyber-crime activities globally.

All things analysis return to this unprecedented COVID-era, and violent extremism has been swept up in its wake. The shooting in Austria was a painful and striking concentration, but the reality is much worse than the yet another terror attack that we have become tragically numb to. While radicalization and recruiting lone-wolf operatives is a high-payoff, high-risk endeavor for VEOs, disinformation is a much easier, and potentially far more impactful gambit for extremist groups in our present society. Social group-think unfairly attributes terrorism to foreign groups vying for geographic or political control in far off warzones, but the reality of this threat is much closer to home.

Closer to home, extremist groups (Left AND Right) are jumping into the disinformation arena full tilt. While votes are contested and the outcome remains rife for animosity, groups have taken to the internet to promote violence, cede control from the government, and generally celebrate the unrest in our democracy. Make no mistake, violent extremism remains alive and well on the internet, and the global responses to the pandemic have had a direct influence on these types of operations. Any thoughts that the global virus was limited to social, economic, or political spheres are incomplete, and we have to take into account the national security implications of the pandemic as well.

The COVID lockdowns have gone hand in hand with the rise in thoughts of civil discord, which is an easy path for VEOs and other types of extremist groups to gain an ideological foothold. Amidst the reduction in humanitarian effort abroad as a result of the virus, terror groups in areas of civil and political turmoil and insecurity have an increased probability of asserting control through violence, in places where a normally functioning government once had the resources to deter such threats.

The lone-wolf shooter in Austria serves as merely one facet of an increasingly complex problem in countering violent extremism. The COVID pandemic has changed the means in which this threat manifests in daily life, as it has surely altered a variety of issues facing the liberal world order. As human beings, our first thoughts should and do go to the lives lost in this tragic attack, while professionally, we are best served in carefully monitoring the things we see online, and ensuring we understand and employ safe information and data practices, while promoting the same caution in those around us. Disinformation is assuredly now a tool in the terrorism kit, as surely as it is in Russian, Iranian, or Chinese Communist operatives.

News You May Have Missed

Crossbow Murder in the Sauna

Oscar Bellsolell

On Sunday night, Russian oligarch Vladimir Marugov, dubbed the “Sausage King,” and his wife were enjoying a banya — a traditional Eastern Slavic steam bath — at his country residence near Moscow when two masked intruders broke into the bathhouse and attacked the couple. The assailants tied up both victims and demanded money from the businessman. Marugov’s partner managed to escape through a window and call the police, but the attackers killed the Sausage King with a crossbow.

The victim of this fatal extortion crime was a well-known individual who earned his nickname for his two major meat-processing plants in the region. His murderers fled in a car that was later found by the investigators. While one suspect has already brought into custody, the police continue to investigate this macabre crime.

The U.S. Has Left the Paris Agreement (For Now)

Oscar Bellsolell

As of Wednesday morning, the United States is no longer part of the Paris Agreement. A year after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo filed the request for withdrawal, the process to opt-out of the agreement concluded the day after Election Day. The Paris Agreement is a UN accord that sets out a global framework to avoid a dangerous increase in global warming. Instead of imposing a mandatory cap to national emissions, the Paris accord is a common non-binding pledge to voluntarily and individually limit emissions in every country. However, President Trump argued that the “job-killing” agreement would “punish the American people while enriching foreign polluters.” Now, the United States is the only nation to withdraw from an international agreement to slow climate change, but it is not clear for how long, as Joe Biden has said he intends to rejoin the Agreement as soon as he is inaugurated. The following months will be crucial to the global fight against climate change — if this exit is maintained by the next administration, other countries will likely reduce their commitment to reducing emissions.

Ethiopia Deploys Military to Northern Tigray Region, Fracturing Nation

Thomas Triedman

On Wednesday, the Ethiopian government deployed their military to the northern Tigray region, targeting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that allegedly stole equipment from a military base close to the Ethiopia-Eritrea border. The recent violence is a continuation and amplification of historical friction between the ethnic group and the government. Last year, TPLF refused to join the government’s Prosperity Party, and this September, the TPLF organized regional elections in an apparent subversion of the central government. According to internet access monitor Netblocks, the government responded to TPLF by shutting down the internet and telecommunication services in the Tigray region. The Ethiopian government’s actions mirror those of Nigeria, where the government recently took military action against civilians, and those of Hong Kong and Thailand, where the government interrupted channels of communication.

American Hospitals Targeted in Wave of Ransomware Attacks

Eric Dai

A wave of ransomware attacks has hit dozens of hospitals in the United States in the past few weeks, a new complication that could further strain hospitals already overstretched from the COVID-19 pandemic. The attacks, which use “Ryuk” malware to infect hospital computer systems and lock their data until a ransom is paid, are believed to be the work of Russian hackers, though it remains unclear if their activities are sponsored by the Russian government. Last week, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a report that deemed the rash of cyberattacks an “imminent cybercrime threat.” The agencies also warned hospitals against paying ransom, though that choice may be a difficult one to make, given that such attacks may cripple hospital operations and pose life-or-death consequences for patients.

Poland Delays Implementation of Abortion Restrictions after Nationwide Protests

Eric Dai

After weeks of nationwide protests, the Polish government has delayed the implementation of a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal that would have imposed a near-total national ban on abortion, including in cases of irreversible birth defects or life-threatening illness for the fetus. Even before the ruling, Poland’s abortion laws, bolstered by the political influence of the Catholic Church, were some of the most restrictive in Europe. This latest wave of anti-government demonstrations in Poland comes as part of a larger movement of discontent against the right-wing Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) governance, a five-year tenure that had seen the partisan remaking of the national judiciary, as well as the highly contested re-election of PiS-backed candidate Andrzej Duda for president last summer.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.

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