US military given ‘continuity of government’ standby orders for COVID-19 pandemic

PentagonFor the first time in the modern history of the United States, the Department of Defense has been given standby orders to ensure the “continuity of government”, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These extraordinary measures, which include evacuating White House officials to remote quarantined locations, and devolving the nation’s leadership to “second-tier officials”, were originally meant for the aftermath of a nuclear war.

However, according to Newsweek, “Above-Top Secret” contingency plans are now in place, in case the nation’s Constitutional power successors are incapacitated by the pandemic. Standby orders have been issued for a series of plans under the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks as a homeland defense military authority.

These operations are codenamed OCTAGON, FREEJACK and ZODIAC, said Newsweek, and include CONPLAN 3400 (homeland defense if the US itself is the battlefield), CONPLAN 3500 (defending civil authorities in an emergency), and CONPLAN 3600 (defending the National Capital Region from an attack). Newsweek added that the Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, has authorized NORTHCOM to “prepare to deploy” in support of these “potential extraordinary missions”. These include “the possibility of some form of martial law”, where military commanders would be given executive powers across the US until a new civilian leadership would emerge.

An added complication to these plans is that the military itself is vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, which makes for “extraordinary circumstances”, said Newsweek. In recognition of this vulnerability, the Department of Defense has instituted unprecedented restrictions for off-base activities of military personnel. Having first banned overseas travel, the Pentagon is now keeping all uniformed personnel on or nearby military bases across the country and the world. Newsweek added that several other national security agencies are following the Pentagon’s contingency plans, and that continuity personnel at the White House are “readying [for an] evacuation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 March 2020 | Permalink

US Department of Health computers targeted by hackers amidst COVID-19 crisis

Health and Human ServicesA cyberattack, coupled with a disinformation campaign, targeted the computer systems of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in what officials believe was an effort to undermine America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cyberattack reportedly took place on Sunday night, when online administrators at HHS noticed an abnormal spike in requests to the department’s servers. The number of requests grew to several million within a few hours, according to Bloomberg News, which first reported the incident. A few hours later, a campaign of disinformation was launched against the HHS, along with text messages warning that martial law would be declared across the nation and a two-week curfew would be imposed by the Armed Forces.

The disinformation campaign prompted a tweet by the US National Security Council on Sunday. The tweet warned against “fake” text messages spreading unsubstantiated rumors. There was no elaboration about the content of these text messages. On Monday, the HHS acknowledged that its computer systems had come under attack the previous evening. However, it said that the hackers behind the attack had failed to compromise the integrity of the Department’s computer systems, and that no data had been stolen.

Later on Monday, the HHS said that it was still investigating what it described as “a significant increase in activity” on its computer infrastructure. But it added that its systems remained “fully operational” and that the functionality of its networks had suffered “no degradation”. An HHS spokesman said the Department had augmented its cybersecurity protections in light of the COVID-19 emergency. Consequently, it had suffered no loss of operational capacity or data as a result of the cyberattack.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that the source of the cyberattack was under investigation and refused to speculate as to the identity of the culprit or culprits. However, Bloomberg said that some US government officials suspect that the attack “may have been the work of a foreign actor”. On March 13, the US news network NBC cited experts from several cybersecurity firms who warned that spy agencies around the world were sending out coronavirus information in an attempt to “hack and spy on their targets”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 March 2020 | Research credit: M.S. | Permalink

New York governor asks Trump to mobilize army to prevent COVID-19 meltdown

Andrew CuomoThe governor of New York has asked United States President Donald Trump to mobilize the Army in order to avoid a healthcare meltdown that will be “worse […] than what we are seeing in Italy”. In an open letter published in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that hospitals in the state of New York will soon reach the point of medical no-return if the federal government does not step in.

Governor Cuomo said that intensive care units in hospitals throughout the state of New York —one of America’s most populous, with 20 million residents— were already at an 80 percent capacity as of yesterday. He added that if a few hundred more New Yorkers were to require hospitalization from acute COVID-19 illness, the state’s healthcare system would lack the capacity to treat them. As things stood yesterday, said Governor Cuomo, New York was short of “thousands of ICU beds [and] thousands of ventilators”. This scarcity pointed to “a greater failing and a worse situation than what we are seeing in Italy, where lives ‎are being lost because the country doesn’t have the health care capacity” to accommodate the wave of patients caused by the pandemic, said the governor.

To address the problem, Governor Cuomo urged President Trump to take an unprecedented step, namely to mobilize the US Army Corps of Engineers in order to retrofit public buildings throughout the state into medical facilities. These would include schools, gyms and college dorms, said Cuomo, adding that the state lacked “the physical capacity” to construct new medical facilities or retrofit existing buildings into medical units on its own.

The New York governor went on to add that the new medical facilities would have to be ready to use within a matter of weeks, if the state’s healthcare system was to avoid the very real possibility of a full-blown medical disaster. As of last night it was not clear whether the White House would respond to Governor Cuomo’s request.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 March 2020 | Permalink

Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’ as COVID-19 stirs Gulf tensions

Tehran IranA senior Bahraini cabinet minister on Thursday accused the Iranian government of ‘biological aggression’ for spreading COVID-19 to several other countries in the Gulf, a claim that Iran promptly rejected. The allegation refers to Iran’s customary practice of not stamping the passport of visitors from some Sunni-majority nations.

The practice aims to shield visitors from perceived discrimination upon their return to their Sunni-majority home countries. Several Sunni Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, have either criminalized or openly discourage trips to Iran by their Shi’a citizens. The latter are often viewed as suspicious or disloyal by their own governments. However, many of them continue to travel regularly to Iran in order to visit some of Shi’a Islam’s most revered pilgrimage sites.

Thousands of Shi’a pilgrims from predominantly Sunni nations have been repatriated to their home countries following the outbreak of COVID-19, which is also known as coronavirus. Earlier this week, Bahrain announced that at least 77 of its citizens, who were recently repatriated from Iran on government-supplied airplanes, tested positive for the disease. However, many others returned home from Iran on their own and are hesitant to tell local authorities that they have traveled to Iran, fearing discrimination or —in some cases— imprisonment. Since the passports of these individuals are not stamped with Iranian entry visas, local authorities have no way of telling whether they have recently traveled to Iran.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, condemned Iran on Twitter for its “behavior, [which] has allowed the disease to travel abroad and put in danger our safety and health and that of others”. General al-Khalifa added that Iran’s behavior constituted “a form of biological aggression that is criminalized under international law”. But Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by rejecting the claim that the practice of not stamping passports was related to an intention by Tehran to spread the coronavirus to the Gulf region.

Bahrain’s accusation came less than a week after Saudi Arabia publicly chastised its citizens who have traveled to Iran and issued a reminder that traveling to Iran is considered a criminal act.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 March 2020 | Permalink

US agencies in turf battle over classification level of COVID-19 meetings

Department of Health & Human ServicesA number of United States government officials have expressed dismay about the White House’s treatment of top-level meetings about the coronavirus (COVID-19) as classified, a move described by some as “not normal”. On Wednesday the Reuters news agency cited “four Trump administration officials” in claiming that several dozen meetings to discuss COVID-19 were held in top-secret settings. This, they say, was unnecessary and posed barriers to coming up with an effective response to the contagion. Other sources, however, claim that the meetings had to be classified because they included secret information on China.

The meetings in point have been held since mid-January at a high-security conference room located at the headquarters of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in Washington, DC. The HHS is largely in charge of the US government’s response to COVID-19, as it oversees several relevant agencies including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From the very beginning, the National Security Council —a White House decision-making body chaired by the president— ordered that the meetings be treated as classified. This meant that participants had to have top-secret security clearances in order to attend.

This decision allegedly excluded several government officials from these meetings, including leading US government biosurveillance and biosecurity experts who should have had a place at those meetings. “We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go”, one source said. Reuters quotes an unnamed “high level former official […] in the George W. Bush administration” who describes the decision to limit access to these discussions “about a response to a public health crisis” as “not normal”. But another government source told Reuters that the meetings were classified because they “had to do with China”. Yet another source said that the small number of participants was necessary to prevent potentially damaging leaks to the media.

Meanwhile, Time magazine alleged on Wednesday that a timely report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which includes a section on pandemics, has been delayed. In previous years, the report, entitled Worldwide Threat Assessment, has warned that the world is not prepared for new strains of influenza that could prompt a pandemic. The report was scheduled to be released to Congress on February 12, but it remains unaccounted for. Members of the intelligence committees in Congress told Time that they did not expect the report to be released any time soon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 March 2020 | Permalink

Militaries around the world scramble to contain impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 ChinaMilitary forces around the world are scrambling to contain the impact of COVID-19 on military readiness, as the virus continues to infect troops and commanders at an alarming rate. On Tuesday, the Polish government announced that General Jaroslaw Mika, who serves as general commander of Branches of the Armed Forces, had tested positive for the coronavirus. General Mika is believed to have contracted the virus during a military conference that took place in the German city of Wiesbaden, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders gathered to plan an American-led military exercise.

Also on Tuesday, the United States Department of Defense said that the commander of the US Army in Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, participated at the Wiesbaden conference, along with several other US Army staff members. They are currently being tested for exposure to COVID-19. Meanwhile the Reuters news agency reported that the US Pentagon acknowledged that “the US military’s official tally of servicemembers and related personnel who have been infected by the coronavirus likely undercounts the actual total”. Sources told the news agency that the low age and good health of American troops was “a mixed blessing of sorts”, since it allows US servicemembers to survive the virus but at the same time reduces their symptoms that would normally trigger testing for COVID-19.

The government of Taiwan said on Tuesday that over 400 members of its armed forces had entered self-imposed quarantine in order to prevent a possible COVID-19 outbreak among military personnel. This brings the total number of Taiwanese servicemembers who are currently in quarantine to over 2,000, which includes two generals. The country’s Minister of Defense, Yen De-fa, insisted on Tuesday that the virus had not impacted Taiwan’s military readiness.

Chinese officials have not provided information about the effect of the coronavirus on the country’s military. The Chinese-language website of The Epoch Times said last week that, according to unnamed insiders, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had “forcibly isolated” tens of thousands of servicemembers this month. There are no reports of specific numbers in the Chinese media or non-Chinese news outlets.

Finally, according to Daily NK, a South Korean website that specializes on news from North Korea, approximately 180 North Korean soldiers have died as a result of contracting COVID-19 in the past month. The website cited “a source inside the North Korean military”, who said that Pyongyang had forcibly quarantined at around 3,700 soldiers of all ranks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s military.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 March 2020 | Permalink

Google removes Iranian government’s COVID-19 app amidst claims of espionage

Iran Ministry of Health and Medical EducationAn Android application developed by the Iranian government to assist in coordinating the country’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been removed by Google amidst accusations that it may be used to track Iranian dissidents. The application, named AC19, was released several days ago by Iran’s Ministry of Health and Medical Education. Its release was announced through a text message sent by the Iranian government to every mobile telephone subscriber in the country. The text message urged citizens to download the application through a dedicated website or third-party app stores, including the Google Play Store. Millions have since done so.

The purpose of AC19 is to help coordinate the nationwide response to COVID-19, known as coronavirus, in a country that is experiencing one of the world’s most prolific outbreaks of the disease. App users can register using their unique phone number and determine whether their flu-like symptoms resemble those of COVID-19. The app’s developers argue that it can help keep people from flooding local hospitals throughout the country, which are already overwhelmed.

But some users have raised concerns that the app also requests access to the real-time geolocation data of users, which it then stores in remote databases. As technology news website ZDNet reports, some have accused the government in Tehran of using the AC19 app in order to track the movements of citizens. An expert consulted by ZDNet to examine the app’s technical details said that it did not appear to contain unusually intrusive features or functions.

However, the company used to develop the app, called Smart Land Strategy, has previously built apps that, according to ZDNet, were used by the Iranian intelligence services and were subsequently removed from the Google Play Store. Some Iranians claim that, given the connection between AC19 and Smart Land Strategy, it is possible that the new app may be used in the future by the Iranian government to spy on citizens, despite the fact that it may be presently useful in efforts to contain the COVID-19 epidemic.

The app continues to be available through Iranian government websites and app sites other than Google’s.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 March 2020 | Permalink