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Biden presides over National Christmas Tree Lighting at start of holiday season



U.S. President Joe Biden and his wife Jill participated in the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony outside the White House on Thursday, helping to usher in the holiday season.

In a program that featured performances by singers Patti LaBelle, Billy Porter, and Kristin Chenoweth, the president presided over a countdown that ended with a brightly lit tree with a shining star on top.

Biden said the evergreen tree “reminds us that even in the coldest, darkest days of winter that life and abundance will return.”

The president, who unveiled hnew measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic during the winter on Thursday, cited those who had lost loved ones to the deadly coronavirus and paid tribute to members of the military and their families.

“Jill and I are especially grateful to our service members and their families,” Biden said. “We also keep in our hearts those who lost loved ones because of this virus or any other cruel twist of fate or accident.”

The Bidens are spending their first holiday season in the White House as president and first lady. Earlier this week, holiday decorations were unveiled.

On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, celebrated Hanukkah with the lighting of a menorah at the White House.


(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose; editing by Grant McCool)


Russia calls in Canadian envoy, complains over protests outside its embassy



Russia threatened Canada on Monday with retaliation if it failed to ensure the safety of its diplomats and complained over what it said were hostile protests outside its embassy in Ottawa and two other consulates.

In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry said it had called in Canada’s ambassador to Moscow to lodge a formal protest.

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U.S. banks prepare for cyber attacks after latest Russia sanctions



U.S. banks are preparing for retaliatory cyber attacks after Western nations slapped a raft of stringent sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, cyber experts and executives said.

Tensions between Russia and the West escalated on Saturday as the United States and its allies moved to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system and placed curbs on the Russian central bank’s international reserves.

Western governments have warned for weeks that the tensions could spark massive cyber attacks from Russia or its supporters. Some executives said the latest measures may be the trigger.

“There will be some retaliatory measures taken by them, and I think in the least costly way that they can do it – that means some kind of cyber attack,” said Steven Schweitzer, senior fixed income portfolio manager at the Swarthmore Group in New York.

Global banks, already top targets for cyber attacks in peacetime, are increasing network monitoring, drilling for cyber attack scenarios, searching their networks for threats and lining up extra staff in case hostile activity surges, according to cyber security experts.

Among the threats they are preparing for: ransomware and malware attacks; denial-of-service attacks that take down websites; and data wiping and theft, possibly simultaneously.

“Banks are incredibly prepared. They have taken out their playbooks and it’s practice, practice, practice,” said Valerie Abend, who leads Accenture’s global financial services security group.

The largest U.S. banks, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc, Bank of America Corp, Wells Fargo & Co, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc, either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to discuss their cybersecurity plans.

As guardians of critical national financial infrastructure, global banks are subject to strict operational risk rules and have some of the highest cyber security standards in corporate America, according to cyber experts.

The industry regularly plans for attacks and completed a massive, system-wide ransomware drill in November, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which led the exercise.

Leading up to the invasion, there has been a more concerted industry effort to ensure banks’ incident responders are on high alert and that they had increased monitoring, Abend said.

The New York Department of Financial Services and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have warned private companies to be vigilant for cyber threats.

“We wouldn’t be doing our due diligence if we weren’t preparing for that,” said Teresa Walsh, global head of intelligence at the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an international group of institutions that share cyber intelligence.

“Right now, they’ve been warning in generalities – just be prepared. We are trying to put some more specificity to it,” Walsh added.

Walsh said banks have been brainstorming risk scenarios based on tactics Russian hackers have used in the past. The 2020 SolarWinds Corp software breach that gave hackers access to hundreds of companies using its products, is top of mind.

That has increased lenders’ focus on third-party providers such as big cloud and software-as-a-service firms. While banks themselves have big IT budgets and strict compliance programs, if such providers are hacked their data could be exposed.

Banks are urging such partners to ensure they have the right security protocols, according to Walsh and Abend.

They are also “threat hunting,” searching for known malicious behaviors inside bank IT systems, examining potential vulnerabilities and testing anything they had to recently patch, Walsh said.

“It’s all about being prepared and not waiting for when the crisis happens,” Walsh added.


(Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts Marshall; Writing by Michelle Price; Additional reporting by Pete Schroeder, Davide Barbuscia and Matt Scuffham; Editing by Will Dunham)

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Canada emergency powers still needed, PM says, citing signs of new blockade



Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said his government still needed temporary emergency powers in the wake of a truckers’ blockade, citing “real concerns” about threats in the days ahead.

Trudeau told a televised news conference there were signs some truckers were regrouping outside the capital Ottawa and might come back to try to restart a three-week occupation that brought downtown Ottawa to a halt.

The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, but the occupation turned into a demonstration against Trudeau and the minority Liberal government.

“This state of emergency is not over. There continue to be real concerns about the coming days,” Trudeau told reporters.

Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act last Monday granting authorities broader powers to stop the demonstrations in Ottawa and blockades of several Canada-U.S. border crossings.

Police spent two days clearing protesters from the downtown core, making 191 arrests and towing 79 vehicles by the time the operation ended on Sunday. Downtown Ottawa was deserted on Monday but Trudeau said dangers remained.

“Right now … people (are) out there indicating that they are ready to blockade, to continue their illegal occupations to disrupt Canadians’ lives. We feel that this measure needs to remain in place,” he said.

Trudeau also called for people to work together, saying “we don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, but that doesn’t mean we cannot start healing as a nation”.

Some members of the official opposition Conservative Party accuse Trudeau of abusing his powers. Legislator Dean Allison decried what he called “authoritarian military style measures” against the protesters.

Legislators in the House of Commons are due to vote at about 8 p.m. Eastern Time (0100 GMT Tuesday) on whether to back Trudeau’s move. The left-leaning New Democrats say they will back the Liberals, ensuring that the measure will be approved.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Grant McCool)

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