The Morning Jolt

National Security & Defense

China Hacks the U.S. (Again)

Hacker breaking into corporate data (gorodenkoff/Getty Images)

On the menu today: As Republicans and Democrats continue to wrangle over the bipartisan infrastructure bill, its prospects look bleak; the Biden administration officially blames Chinese hackers for a consequential breach of Microsoft Exchange; and a new report confirms that polling in 2020 ended up being even more inaccurate than usual.

Is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Doomed?

It’s been only a day since Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer announced that he’d schedule the first procedural vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package for Wednesday — i.e., tomorrow. Republicans in the bipartisan working group negotiating the package did not take kindly to this news, and so far, it appears that Schumer’s big gamble isn’t going to pay off.

Evidently, Schumer hoped that scheduling the first vote would force the hands of Republicans still haggling over numerous provisions and/or continuing to reject key Democratic priorities. But his attempt to call their bluff seems to have had the opposite effect. Unfortunately for Schumer, it’s tough to call a bluff when the people on the other side aren’t bluffing: GOP senators seem to actually want an infrastructure deal and yet actually also want more time to hammer out the specifics.

According to Politico, the bipartisan group of about a dozen senators met until the wee hours last night, forced by Schumer’s announcement to continue trying to work through its list of remaining unresolved items. Ohio Republican Rob Portman told the news outlet that the “unresolved” list contained about two dozen issues that still hadn’t been fully dealt with.

“We were told definitively that there was no chance they would be finished by Wednesday, when Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has scheduled a cloture vote,” Politico Playbook reported this morning. “The Republicans in the group insist they won’t vote yes on that procedural motion. . . .”

The fundamental divide between Schumer and the Republicans working on the bill appears to be over the question of whether senators can — or should — proceed to debate over a bill whose details have yet to be decided.

Schumer has repeatedly offered this idea as a justification for scheduling the cloture vote, saying on the Senate floor yesterday evening that the vote on Wednesday will “[get] the legislative process started here on the Senate floor [but] isn’t a deadline to determine every final detail of the bill.”

Top Republican senators involved in the project don’t seem convinced by this assertion. As I noted in yesterday’s Jolt, Portman rejected this argument outright on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday: “Start debate on what? We don’t have a product yet, and we won’t have a product until we can finish the negotiations properly.”

After a day of wrangling over the bill in light of Wednesday’s pending vote, GOP senators appear to be even less inclined than they were over the weekend to rush a product to the finish line just to give Schumer a PR victory. One top Republican, Missouri senator Roy Blunt, told reporters that there’s “no chance” ten Republicans will join the Democrats and vote in favor of the bipartisan agreement on Wednesday. If true, that would kill the bipartisan bill.

“There’s no bill,” Blunt said. “You can’t expect that many Republicans to move forward on a pretty vague concept. It’s pretty much up to the majority leader. If he wants to kill the bipartisan bill, insisting on a vote before there’s a bill is a certain way to kill the bipartisan discussion.”

Meanwhile, as Politico notes this morning, plenty of senators outside the bipartisan working group seem to be either losing patience or unwilling to support the deal at all. Some Republican senators have shown signs of unwillingness to back the measure, but more important for Schumer, so have Democrats. Members of his own coalition are upset over GOP alterations to the plan and don’t trust that the necessary number of Republicans will follow through on supporting the bill. And that’s not even getting into how progressives in the House are beginning to grumble.

Schumer has said since the project began that July was his deadline for bringing an infrastructure bill to the floor, so his insistence on having the cloture vote this week isn’t a huge surprise. The question now seems to be whether the majority leader cares more about bringing something to the floor just for the sake of doing so, only to see it become dead on arrival, or whether he wants to actually pass an infrastructure package, in which case scheduling the vote before the details are hammered out will turn out to be a big blunder.

China Was Responsible for Major Hack

The Biden administration announced yesterday that criminal hackers associated with the Chinese government had been responsible for an enormous cyberattack on Microsoft Exchange, the company’s email-server software. News of the hack was first made public in March by Microsoft, which said at the time that the attack had been carried out by a Chinese cyber-espionage group with ties to the Chinese government.

“The group, known as Hafnium, was found by Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Centre to be state-sponsored and operating out of China,” the BBC reports. “Western security sources believe Hafnium obtained advance knowledge that Microsoft planned to deal with the vulnerability, and so shared it with other China-based groups to exploit it while they could.”

Because of the widespread use of Microsoft’s email service, the hack affected at least 30,000 groups, including major companies, small businesses, and government organizations. The president of one U.S. cybersecurity firm said at the time that targets of the hack included “defense contractors, international aid and development organizations, and the NGO think-tank community.”

Cybersecurity experts backed up Microsoft’s statement that Hafnium had been responsible for the attack, but until yesterday, the Biden administration had yet to agree with those conclusions or offer any statement on whether China or groups associated with the Chinese government had been responsible. Now, Biden officials have unflinchingly stated that China was indeed to blame. The Wall Street Journal has more:

The U.S. government has high confidence that hackers tied to the Ministry of State Security, or MSS, carried out the unusually indiscriminate hack of Microsoft Exchange Server software that emerged in March, senior officials said. . . .

The U.K. and European Union, among others, joined in the attribution of the Microsoft Exchange Server hacking activity, which rendered an estimated hundreds of thousands of mostly small businesses and organizations vulnerable to cyber intrusion. Attributing the Microsoft hack to China was part of a broader global censure Monday of Beijing’s cyberattacks by the U.S., the EU, the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, a 30-nation alliance.

Biden administration officials called the collective condemnation the largest international effort yet to criticize Beijing’s state-sponsored hacking. While statements varied, the international cohort generally called out China for engaging in harmful cyber activity, including intellectual property theft.

China, for its part, has rejected the claim that the latest hack can be traced back to its government as “fabricated.” The government’s foreign-ministry spokesman responded to the latest news by saying that “the U.S. has mustered its allies to carry out unreasonable criticisms against China on the issue of cybersecurity.”

While the forthright condemnation of China by Biden and Western allies was welcome, critics of the administration were swift to note that the announcement wasn’t paired with sanctions or any other punitive measure — an even more noteworthy omission in light of recent sanctions the administration imposed on Russia for cyberattacks and interference in U.S. elections.

Why Is Election Polling Always So Wrong?

A new report from the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the leading trade group for U.S. pollsters, has confirmed that election polling in 2020 ended up being even more inaccurate than usual. Though polls were right in the big picture — voters did end up favoring Joe Biden over President Trump — the polling results consistently overstated the Democratic-Republican margin, not only in the presidential race but also in state-level races across the country.

Here’s a bit of what the group’s analysis found after reviewing last year’s polling as compared to the actual outcome:

The 2020 polls featured polling error of an unusual magnitude: It was the highest in 40 years for the national popular vote and the highest in at least 20 years for state-level estimates of the vote in presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial contests. Among polls conducted in the final two weeks, the average error on the margin in either direction was 4.5 points for national popular vote polls and 5.1 points for state-level presidential polls.

The polling error was much more likely to favor Biden over Trump. Among polls conducted in the last two weeks before the election, the average signed error on the vote margin was too favorable for Biden by 3.9 percentage points in the national polls and by 4.3 percentage points in statewide presidential polls.

And the polling, it turns out, was even less predictive when it came to gubernatorial and Senate races, giving an enormous edge to Democratic candidates that turned out not to be present on Election Day:

Whether the candidates were running for president, senator, or governor, poll margins overall suggested that Democratic candidates would do better and Republican candidates would do worse relative to the final certified vote.

No mode of interviewing was unambiguously more accurate. Every mode of interviewing and every mode of sampling overstated the Democratic-Republican margin relative to the final certified vote margin. There were only minor differences in the polling error depending on how surveys sampled or interviewed respondents. Regardless of whether respondents were sampled using random-digit dialing, voter registration lists, or online recruiting, polling margins on average were too favorable to Democratic candidates.

Unfortunately, the group has little to offer by way of explanation for this rather egregious failure to accurately assess public opinion or predict which way voters would go last November. According to the group’s taskforce, the errors were not the result of a failure to weight by education or of respondents’ reluctance to say they support Trump, otherwise known as the “shy Trump voter” theory that some pundits and GOP pollsters have advanced.

As to an actual theory accounting for the errors, the report gives us little to go on: “Identifying conclusively why polls overstated the Democratic-Republican margin relative to the certified vote appears to be impossible with the available data.”

Maybe they can do some polling on it.

ADDENDUM: Here’s yet another article insisting that TV shows and movies really need to feature abortion more often and more favorably. At this point, I think there have been more “more abortion on TV, please” articles than there have been actual TV plotlines involving abortion. If you have to browbeat even the most progressive sector of American society into portraying your pet project in a positive light, perhaps you — and your pet project — are the problem.

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