Today's D Brief: Feds charge two Russians in U.S. election plots; Trump’s electoral disinformation; Afghan peace talks to start Saturday; Western states, afire; And a bit more.

“A sweeping plot to create distrust in the American political process.” That’s how the Associated Press described charges that the Treasury Department handed down Thursday against Andrii Derkach, a 53-year-old Russian national and member of the Ukrainian Parliament. 

Derkach “has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” the Treasury Department says in its sanctions, which note Derkach has “directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.”

You may remember Derkach from his recent attempts to “smear” Joe Biden with the help of Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney. And that’s what makes Thursday’s charges especially awkward. 

  • Worth noting: Trump praised Derkach’s work four days ago, Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted Thursday, tweeting video of Trump’s Sept. 7 remarks

You may also remember Derkach from that One America News network special where OAN’s Chanel Rion traveled with Giuliani to Ukraine for an “exclusive interview” with Derkach back in February. (Fox News reported Thursday that Giuliani “learned little new information” in that Ukraine trip.)

What Treasury says Derkach did: “From at least late 2019 through mid-2020, Derkach waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, spurring corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day.” 

And about that Biden smear job, Treasury adds that “Between May and July 2020, Derkach released edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials, and he levied unsubstantiated allegations against U.S. and international political figures.” More here

The Justice Department announced separate election-meddling charges against another Russian man: Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, a 27-year-old from St. Petersburg, was charged Thursday for managing what the Justice Department calls “Project Lakhta,” a “Russia-based effort…to disrupt the democratic process and spread distrust towards candidates for political office and the political system in general.” 

Lifshits “conspired with others to steal Americans’ identities and use them to open fraudulent bank and cryptocurrency accounts,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in the charges. He then “allegedly used these fraudulently opened accounts to both promote Project Lakhta’s influence operations and for personal enrichment,” DOJ says.

And his team used social media to sow division and distrust among Americans, DOJ says, by spreading messages concerning U.S. cultural flashpoints, including:

  • the Confederate flag; 
  • gun control and the Second Amendment; 
  • race relations;
  • immigration; 
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues; 
  • the Women’s March; 
  • the National Football League national anthem debate;
  • the shootings of church employees in Charleston, S.C., and concert attendees in Las Vegas, Nevada; 
  • the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally; 
  • and police shootings of Black Americans. Review the charges here.

POTUS has been spreading related disinformation about the U.S. election. “More than 100 times this year, President Trump has peddled false claims or imaginary threats about voting by mail,” the Washington Post’s fact checker Salvador Rizzo reported Friday. 

Trump “is sowing confusion as states prepare for the Nov. 3 general election and is falsely accusing state officials of trying to rig the outcome,” Rizzo writes. “Trump also has encouraged people to vote twice, which is illegal.” And his “warnings about vote-by-mail” — despite his decision to mail in his own ballot — “are almost identical to the disinformation Russia is spreading to undermine confidence in the U.S. presidential election.” Read on, here.

By the way: Here’s a running list of ways White House and GOP officials have introduced doubt about the election while downplaying recognized threats to it:

  1. Trump floating a possible delay to the election.
  2. His Sept. 2 advice to vote twice during a campaign stop in Wilmington, N.C..
  3. Trump urging supporters to be “poll watchers” on election day. “Watch all the stealing and robbing they [Democrats] do. This is important,” he said on Sept. 8 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
  4. Decommissioning an unusually large number of Postal Service sorting machines ahead of expected mail-in voting surge due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  5. Trump vowing to put “law enforcement” and “sheriffs” at polling stations this year.
  6. Attorney General Barr sending federal police to swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin in July.
  7. The Kanye West-GOP veteran overlap, and its alleged goals.
  8. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows dismissing election-interference concerns as overblown.
  9. Canceling in-person election security briefings with Congress.
  10. Senior DHS officials allegedly downplaying election-related threats from Russia back in May and June.

From Defense One

19 Years After 9/11, Politicians Need to Stop Overhyping Threats // Joshua A. Geltzer: From China to disinformation, our fear of fear itself is tearing us apart and making us less safe.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Trade show season kicks off, virtually; Air Force’s ICBM award; A ‘clean’ CR and more.

Could Trump Deploy US Cyber Command Against Protestors? // Jason Healey: It’s time to set better limits on the U.S. military’s ability to operate against Americans.

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral // Ed Yong, The Atlantic: As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this morning 19 years ago, stem cells and cloning suddenly took a backseat as top concerns in America when nearly 3,000 people were killed after two hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City shortly before a third slammed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

Trump and Biden are headed to Pennsylvania today for the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The president is due to arrive in the morning, and will head to Shanksville, Pa., to the National Memorial at the crash site of Flight 93.
This is Trump’s third visit to Pennsylvania in three weeks, Bloomberg reports. For Trump’s stopover, USA Today reports The National Park Service “plans a private service this year to minimize the spread of coronavirus. The grounds will be closed until the event is over, but the event will be live streamed.”

  • FWIW: Biden leads Trump "nationally by 7.5 percentage points and in Pennsylvania by 4.3 percentage points," Bloomberg writes, citing RealClearPolitics’ average of polls. And that's something the White House is certainly watching since "Trump’s 2016 victory in Pennsylvania came by fewer than 45,000 votes out of almost 6.2 million cast."

Meanwhile at the Pentagon, here’s the U.S. flag being unfurled this morning, via WJLA’s ABC 7 News.
NATO is commemorating the 9/11 attacks today, too. Reuters has video of that event from Brussels, here. Or watch via NATO, here.

Biden will visit New York City’s 9/11 Memorial & Museum in the morning, before traveling out to Shanksville, Pa., in the afternoon. Reuters has a preview of the NYC swing, here.
BTW: Biden talked about his plans for the Middle East in an interview published Thursday in Stars and Stripes. Select Biden quotes include: 

  • “I think we need special ops capacity [in the Middle East] to coordinate with our allies.” And the topline figure for deployed Mideast troops should be somewhere between “1,500 to 2,000,” Biden said.
  • “I don’t think [budget cuts] are inevitable, but we need priorities in the budget,” which he said should involve "focus[ing] more on unmanned capacity, cyber and IT, in a very modern world that is changing rapidly."
  • NATO allies are “worried as hell about our failure to confront Russia diplomatically or other ways,” Biden said. And that’s why “if elected I’m going to have to get on the phone with the heads of state and say America’s back, you can count on us.” Read the rest, here.

Update: The Pentagon reversed course and decided to save Stars and Stripes from the White House’s FY21 budget request, which called for ceasing funding and publication as early as Sept. 30. Stripes itself can fill you in on that, here.

Historic intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban are now slated to begin on Saturday in Qatar, Afghan officials announced Thursday. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters traveling with him to Qatar today, “[W]e expect Saturday have the Afghans sitting at the table together prepared to have what will be contentious discussions about how to move their country forward. [The occasion is] Truly historic,” he added.
The last hurdle: An aircraft “picked up six prisoners demanded by the Taliban from Kabul on Thursday,” Reuters reports, noting, “Some Western governments had objected to their release, and as a compromise it was agreed that they would be kept under supervision in Qatar.” More here.
The role of women is one of the more sensitive issues to be addressed Saturday, AP reports in a preview. “The Taliban have promised women could attend school, work and participate in politics but stressed that would all be allowed in keeping with Islamic principles — without saying what that might mean. The Taliban have also said they would not support a woman becoming president of Afghanistan and that while they would allow for women to be judges, a woman could not serve as a chief justice.”
So what if the two Afghan sides fail to reach an agreement? No one is really saying too much about that, other than this from Pompeo: “The people of Afghanistan and the international community will be watching closely.”
At least 10 Afghans died in violence across the country today, including eight soldiers, AP reports from Islamabad.
One more thing: The White House just nominated a new ambassador to Afghanistan: William Ruger, a U.S. Navy Reserve officer who is now vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute. Ruger is a big fan of withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, AP reports near the bottom of its Saturday preview. More here.

Fires at home: 500,000 Oregonians have now fled their homes as deadly wildfires continue to sweep across the western U.S. That’s about one in every 10 residents in the state, AP reports from Phoenix, Ore.
California is experiencing its deadliest wildfires of the year, with 10 confirmed dead, AP reports from Gridley, Calif. “More than 2,000 homes and other buildings had burned in the fire, which began several weeks ago as a lightning-sparked collection of blazes northeast of San Francisco. The final toll is expected to be much higher.”
Why are this year’s fires so bad? Strong winds, decades of fire-suppresion policy (perhaps too few “controlled burns”) and climate change, the New York Times reports.

And finally this week: Trump will present the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne in the East Room of the White House. That’s set for about 3 p.m. ET.
Payne is being recognized for his actions almost five years ago when “his task force was given a mission to rescue over 70 Iraqi hostages being held by ISIS in a prison compound in the northern town of Hawija,” according to the U.S. Army’s narrative. During an intensifying gunfight, Payne entered a building containing hostages on three separate occasions, and led them to safety aboard a helicopter. Then “The hostages, Payne’s task force and the partnered forces flew back to Erbil,” the Army writes. “They had just taken part in one of the largest hostage rescues in history, and for his actions that day, then-Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Payne would be recommended for the Medal of Honor.”
One last thing: Payne has deployed 17 times to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. He’s currently stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he lives with his wife and three kids. More to his harrowing story, here.

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!