White House calls on America’s most critical companies to improve cyber defenses

By Christopher Bing and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House is signaling to U.S. critical infrastructure companies, such as energy providers that they must improve their cyber defenses because additional potential regulation is on the horizon.

U.S. President Joseph Biden signed a national security memorandum on Wednesday, launching a new public-private initiative that creates “performance controls” for cybersecurity at America’s most critical companies, including water treatment and electrical power plants.

The recommendations are voluntary in nature, but the administration hopes it will cause companies to improve their cybersecurity ahead of other policy efforts, said a senior administration official.

The announcement comes after multiple high profile cyberattacks this year crippled American companies and government agencies, including a ransomware incident which disrupted gasoline supplies.

“These are the thresholds that we expect responsible owners and operators to go,” said the official. “The absence of mandated cybersecurity requirements for critical infrastructure is what in many ways has brought us to the level of vulnerability that we have today.”

“We are pursuing all options we have in order to make the rapid progress we need,” they added.

Biden on Tuesday warned that if the United States ended up in a “real shooting war” with a “major power” it could be the result of a significant cyber attack on the United States, highlighting what Washington sees as a growing threat posed by hackers from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

“The federal government cannot do this alone,” said the official. “Almost 90% of critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector. Securing it requires a whole of nation effort.”

The official described the current state of cybersecurity rules for critical infrastructure companies as “patchwork” and “piecemeal.”

“We’ve kicked the can down the road for a long time,” said the official.

(Reporting by Christopher Bing; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

White House sees YouTube, Facebook as ‘Judge, Jury & Executioner’ on vaccine misinformation

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House has YouTube, not just Facebook, on its list of social media platforms officials say are responsible for an alarming spread of misinformation about COVID vaccines and are not doing enough to stop it, sources familiar with the administration’s thinking said.

The criticism comes just a week after President Joe Biden called Facebook and other social media companies “killers” for failing to slow the spread of misinformation about vaccines. He has since softened his tone.

A senior administration official said one of the key problems is “inconsistent enforcement.” YouTube – a unit of Alphabet Inc’s Google – and Facebook get to decide what qualifies as misinformation on their platforms. But the results have left the White House unhappy.

“Facebook and YouTube… are the judge, the jury and the executioner when it comes to what is going on in their platforms,” an administration official said, describing their approach to COVID misinformation. “They get to grade their own homework.”

Some of the main pieces of vaccine misinformation the Biden administration is fighting include that the COVID-19 vaccines are ineffective, false claims that they carry microchips and that they hurt women’s fertility, the official said.

Social media companies have come under fire recently from Biden, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who have all said the spread of lies about vaccines is making it harder to fight the pandemic and save lives.

A recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which has also been highlighted by the White House, showed 12 anti-vaccine accounts are spreading nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine misinformation online. Six of those accounts are still posting on YouTube.

“We would like to see more done by everybody” to limit the spread of inaccurate information from those accounts, the official said.

The fight against vaccine misinformation has become a top priority for the Biden administration at a time when the pace of vaccinations has slowed considerably despite the risk posed by the Delta variant, with people in many parts of the country hostile to being vaccinated.

The requests to Facebook and YouTube come after the White House reached out to Facebook, Twitter and Google in February about clamping down on COVID misinformation, seeking their help to stop it from going viral, another senior administration official said then.

“Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to vaccine misinformation… but Google has a lot to answer for and somehow manages to get away with it always because people forget they own YouTube,” said Imran Ahmed, CCDH founder and chief executive.

YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said that since March 2020, the company has removed over 900,000 videos containing COVID-19 misinformation and terminated YouTube channels of people identified in the CCDH report. She said the company’s policies are based on the content of the video, rather than the speaker.

“If any remaining channels mentioned in the report violate our policies, we will take action, including permanent terminations,” she said.

On Monday, YouTube also said it will add more credible health information and as well as tabs for viewers to click on.

The senior administration official cited four issues on which the administration has asked Facebook to provide specific data, but the company has been reticent to comply.

These include how much vaccine misinformation exists on its platform, who is seeing the inaccurate claims, what the company is doing to reach out to them and how does Facebook know the steps it is taking are working.

The official said the answers Facebook has given are not “good enough.” Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said the company has removed over 18 million pieces of COVID-19 misinformation since the start of the pandemic and that its own data shows that for people in the United States using the platform, vaccine hesitancy has declined by 50% since January and vaccine acceptance is high.

In a separate blog post last Saturday, Facebook called on the administration to stop “finger-pointing,” laying out the steps it had taken to encourage users to get vaccinated.

But the administration official said the blog post did not have any metrics of success. The Biden administration’s broad concern is that the platforms are “either lying to us and hiding the ball, or they’re not taking it seriously and there isn’t a deep analysis of what’s going on in their platforms,” the official said. “That calls any solutions they have into question.”

(Reporting by Nandita Bose; Editing by Chris Sanders and Dan Grebler)

White Houses still sees inflation abating, can’t say exactly when

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House expects supply chain pressures that are fueling higher inflation to abate in the “not-too-distant future,” but cannot say exactly when, a senior official said on Tuesday after June consumer prices showed the biggest gain in 13 years.

The official declined to repeat earlier forecasts that inflation would peak in the summer months, citing continued uncertainty about when the supply chain pressures would ease, and concerns over the emergence of new COVID-19 variants.

Asked if the bump in prices for certain services reflected any price gouging, the official said, “that probably remains to be seen,” and added that it was an issue worth investigating.

The U.S. consumer price index increased 0.9% in June amid supply constraints and a continued rebound in the costs of travel-related services from pandemic-depressed levels as the economic recovery gathered momentum.

The CPI had jumped 0.6% in May.

White House officials remain convinced that the bump in prices is transitory, citing moderating pressures in the semiconductor market and a drop in lumber prices – two factors that have led to bottlenecks and pushed prices higher.

They cited recent upward revisions in overall growth forecasts and said President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 rescue plan had been effective in driving a stronger-than-expected recovery, but also signaled growing concern about new COVID-19 variants and lingering disparities in vaccination rates.

“We expect that these things will work themselves out in the not-too-distant future, but I can’t say exactly when,” said one official. “We also can’t say whether or not we really truly do have this pandemic under control.”

Pressed to put a timeframe on when the inflationary pressures would ease, the official said, “We are just watching the data closely, week by week, month by month.”

About 60% of the June increase was due to used and new cars and auto parts, the official said.

Officials were looking at the sectors driving the higher prices carefully, the official said, adding that some of the increase was due to the so-called base effect, reflecting the low level of prices seen during the pandemic.

A second official said there was continued concern about the automotive market, but administration officials were in close touch with dealers, producers, semiconductor suppliers and others, and remained convinced current pressures would diminish.

The White House did not expect the sharp increases in used car prices to last beyond this year, said one of the officials.

The official said some underlying problems in the U.S. economy – including a severe shortage of housing and the high price of pharmaceuticals – would remain a problem.

Biden’s proposed budget included $213 billion in funding for affordable housing to address part of the issue, while the executive order he signed on Friday should result in lower pharmaceutical and hearing aid prices, the official said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

U.S. industry groups, lawmakers press White House to lift travel restrictions

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coalition of 24 industry organizations on Wednesday urged the White House to lift restrictions that bar much of the world from traveling to the United States but the Biden administration showed no signs of taking immediate action.

The groups led by U.S. Travel Association and representing airlines, casinos, hotels, airports, airplane manufacturers and others, urged the administration to ease entry restrictions by July 15 that were imposed last year during the pandemic, and to quickly lift entry restrictions on UK travelers.

“We have the knowledge and the tools we need to restart international travel safely, and it is past time that we use them,” U.S. Travel Chief Executive Roger Dow said.

Separately, 75 members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on Biden to reopen the U.S. border with Canada to non-essential travelers.

The lawmakers in a letter cited projections that if the restrictions are not lifted, the United States could “lose 1.1 million jobs and an additional $175 billion by the end of this year.” The White House did not immediately comment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has raised concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19 in U.S. government meetings, sources said. Industry and U.S. officials told Reuters they do not expect the administration to lift restrictions soon.

The CDC wants airlines to implement international passenger contact tracing as part of any lifting of restrictions, sources told Reuters.

The administration has been holding separate working group calls with Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union typically every two weeks to discuss how to unwind the restrictions.

Airlines and others have pressed the administration to lift restrictions covering most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in Britain, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The 75 lawmakers called for lifting restrictions that bar most UK travelers and to develop “a risk-based, data-driven roadmap to ease inbound entry restrictions.”

Some in congress have also called on the administration to lift requirements that travelers wear masks in airports, subway stations and on airplanes and trains but is not currently considering lifting those requirements, officials told Reuters.

The Transportation Security Administration in April extended the face mask requirement in transit through Sept. 13.

Last month, the administration extended restrictions barring non-essential travel at Mexican and Canada land borders until July 21.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)

White House sending special teams to COVID-19 hot spots to combat Delta variant

By Andrea Shalal and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Thursday said it would send out special teams to hot spots around the United States to combat the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant, and urgently called on Americans who have not been vaccinated to get shots.

White House COVID-19 senior adviser Jeffrey Zients told reporters the “surge response” teams would be ready to speed additional testing supplies and therapeutics to communities that were experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases.

The seven-day-average number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen 10% since last week, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director (CDC) Rochelle Walensky said on a Tuesday press call.

The more easily transmitted Delta variant, which was first detected in India, is thought to have become the second most prevalent coronavirus variant in the United States, she added.

“It is clear that communities where people remain unvaccinated are communities that remain vulnerable,” Walensky said, adding that 1,000 counties in the United States have vaccination rates below 30%.

Zients said federal personnel will assist communities with public health staffing and the CDC will provide assistance in containing potential outbreaks.

The United States remains a world leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, with more than 180 million Americans having received at least one shot.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Carl O’Donnell and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)

White House plans to do more for voting rights even if federal bill passes

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House will pursue other initiatives to boost voting rights even if a contentious federal bill to counter state voting restrictions passes the Senate, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.

Democrats in the Senate this week will try to advance legislation setting new national election standards, seeking to counter voting-rights rollbacks at the state level. Republican-controlled legislatures are pursuing these in presidential election swing states liked Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.

“Even if the voting rights bill was sailing across the finish line with support of every member of Congress, there would still be more to be done,” Psaki said. “So again this is not the end of our effort, this in some ways is the beginning.”

Senate Democrats spent the weekend trying to finalize a bill that could win the support of all 50 Democrats and independents in the 100-member chamber. Republicans showed no signs of joining an effort that would expand voting by mail and change the way congressional districts are drawn in an effort to prevent them from being defined along partisan lines.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has scheduled a procedural vote for Tuesday to let the Senate begin debating an election reform bill.

President Joe Biden is appreciative of the efforts by Senator Joe Manchin to push the voting rights bill forward, Psaki said.

Manchin, a moderate Democratic senator, opposes a broader bill passed by the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives in March and offered his own election reform ideas last week.

Psaki said failure to pass the voting rights legislation would prompt new consideration of the legislative “filibuster” rule, which requires 60 votes to advance most legislation.

Democrats could try to scrap or modify the rule, leaving Republicans powerless if the Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents stick together.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Franklin Paul and Cynthia Osterman)

White House sees ‘summer of joy and freedom’ as COVID-19 shots surpass 300 million

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States has administered 300 million COVID-19 vaccinations in 150 days, a White House official said on Friday ahead of President Joe Biden’s scheduled update on his administration’s vaccination program.

Biden’s government-wide push to accelerate vaccinations was paying off, with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths down to their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic, the officials said.

While Biden would “make clear that there is more work to be done” to ensure an equitable response to the pandemic, the U.S. economy was experiencing its strongest rebound in decades, the White House said.

“The results are clear: America is starting to look like America again, and entering a summer of joy and freedom,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

The news comes days after the United States marked a grim milestone, surpassing 600,000 COVID-19 deaths.

The U.S. death toll remains the highest in the world, although other countries, including Brazil, Britain and Russia, have higher death rates as a measure of their populations.

A White House fact sheet said the number of COVID-19 deaths has decreased by 90% since Biden took office in January, when more than 3,300 Americans were dying each day, and highlighted big gains in the economy as people return to work.

It said more than 175 million Americans had now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, and 55% of adults were fully vaccinated.

Addressing racial imbalances in vaccination rates remained a huge and continuing concern, the White House said, but pointed to gains there as well. In the past month, it said, people of color had accounted for 54% of nationwide vaccinations, while making up 40% of the U.S. population.

Vice President Kamala Harris visited a vaccination site at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Friday, underscoring the importance of faith groups and community-based organizations in accelerating vaccinations and overcoming vaccine hesitancy.

“Church is always a healing place. It’s so appropriate that we’re doing this here,” she said in remarks at the historic church where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father once preached.

“We just need to get the word out. One of the most important ways is friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor … please help us get the word out,” Harris said, according to a pool press report on the visit.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

White House urges states to seek to lengthen shelf life for J&J COVID-19 shots

(Reuters) – A top White House official on Tuesday urged state governors to work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to extend the shelf life of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shot as millions of doses nationwide sit unused and approach expiration.

“I would encourage every governor who has doses that they worry may be expiring to work with the FDA directly on the proper storage procedures as they continue to examine processes that will allow them to potentially last longer,” White House COVID-19 Advisor Andy Slavitt said on a Tuesday press call.

Safety concerns about J&J’s shot and flagging demand for vaccinations have left close to half of the 21 million doses J&J has produced for the United States sitting unused.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Editing by Franklin Paul)

White House warns companies to step up cybersecurity

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House warned corporate executives and business leaders on Thursday to step up security measures to protect against ransomware attacks after intrusions disrupted operations at a meatpacking company and a southeastern oil pipeline.

There has been a significant hike in the frequency and size of ransomware attacks, Anne Neuberger, cybersecurity adviser at the National Security Council, said in a letter.

“The threats are serious and they are increasing. We urge you to take these critical steps to protect your organizations and the American public,” she added.

The recent cyberattacks have forced companies to see ransomware as a threat to core business operations and not just data theft, as ransomware attacks have shifted from stealing to disrupting operations, she said.

Strengthening the country’s resilience to cyberattacks was one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities, she added.

“The private sector also has a critical responsibility to protect against these threats. All organizations must recognize that no company is safe from being targeted by ransomware, regardless of size or location,” Neuberger wrote.

The letter came after a major meatpacker resumed U.S. operations on Wednesday following a ransomware attack that disrupted meat production in North America and Australia.

A Russia-linked hacking group that goes by the name of REvil and Sodinokibi was behind the cyberattack against JBS SA, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The cyberattack followed one last month by a group with ties to Russia on Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the United States, which crippled fuel delivery for several days in the U.S. Southeast.

Biden believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has a role to play in preventing these attacks and planned to bring up the issue during their summit this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.

Neuberger’s letter outlined immediate steps companies can take to protect themselves from ransomware attacks, which can have ripple effects far beyond the company and its customers.

Those include best practices such as multifactor authentication, endpoint detection and response, encryption and a skilled security team. Companies should back up data and regularly test systems, as well as update and patch systems promptly.

Neuberger advised that companies test incident response plans and use a third party to test the security team’s work.

She said it was critical that corporate business functions and production operations be run on separate networks.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by David Holmes and Steve Orlofsky)

Biden to send 20 million doses of U.S.-authorized vaccines abroad for first time

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden will send at least 20 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses abroad by the end of June, marking the first time the United States is sharing vaccines authorized for domestic use.

The move marks a notable pivot from the White House as the administration seeks to use the country’s vaccine supply as a diplomatic tool with the pandemic outlook brightening at home.

Biden announced on Monday that his administration will send doses of the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, on top of 60 million AstraZeneca Plc doses he had already planned to give to other countries.

Unlike the others, AstraZeneca’s shot is not yet authorized for use in the United States.

“Just as in World War Two America was the arsenal of democracy, in the battle against COVID-19 pandemic our nation is going to be the arsenal of vaccines,” Biden said.

The president has been under pressure to share vaccines to help contain worsening epidemics from India to Brazil, where health experts fear new, more contagious coronavirus variants could undermine the effectiveness of available shots.

Biden noted that no other country will send more vaccines abroad than the United States. So far, the United Stages has sent a few million AstraZeneca doses to Canada and Mexico.

“We want to lead the world with our values with this demonstration of our innovation, ingenuity, and the fundamental decency of American people,” Biden said.

The White House has not provided any details about what countries will receive the shots. Biden said that Jeff Zients, who heads the U.S. vaccine efforts, will now also lead the global vaccine push.

The United States has administered more than 272 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and distributed more than 340 million, according to federal data updated on Monday morning.

With more and more Americans vaccinated, U.S. deaths from COVID-19 last week fell to their lowest in nearly 14 months, while the number of new cases declined for a fifth consecutive week, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

Biden warned that those who do not get vaccinated “will end up paying the price” as he lamented that “we’re still losing too many Americans” despite the significant progress.

(Reporting By Steve Holland, Carl O’Donnell and Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Trevor Hunnicutt and Bill Berkrot)