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What Federal Officials Are Doing About Foreign Interference Leading Up To 2020

Sep 6, 2019
Originally published on September 6, 2019 7:35 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The 2020 presidential election is just over a year away, so it's worth asking now, what is the federal government doing to protect the vote from the sort of foreign interference that we saw in 2016 from Russia? NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been looking into that and is here in the studio.

Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Russia took a lot of people by surprise with what it did in the lead-up to 2016. Has the federal government learned lessons from that experience?

LUCAS: Officials say that absolutely they have. There's an acknowledgment that the government was caught a bit flat-footed back in 2016. Some officials say that the intelligence community saw pieces of what the Russians were doing, but they didn't really put them all together until it was too late. Some folks chalk that up to a failure of imagination.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that the Russians were collecting emails and so on for intelligence purposes. Few people thought that they would weaponize them the way they did by releasing them publicly, and so national security officials have gone back and taken a very close look at what Russia did. National Security Agency Director General Paul Nakasone talked a bit about that yesterday at a conference outside of D.C.

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PAUL NAKASONE: Last summer, one of the things that we immediately did is we went back and we took a look at 2016 and thoroughly understood our adversary. What we knew coming out of that is we had to do something different.

SHAPIRO: So what are they doing differently?

LUCAS: A lot, actually. On a 30,000-foot level, there's a concerted focus on this issue in a way that we definitely did not see ahead of 2016. This is very much a front burner issue now for the federal government. The FBI, for example, has a Foreign Influence Task Force now. That's been up and running since 2017. The Director of National Intelligence recently appointed a point person to oversee and coordinate election security for the entire intelligence community. The Department of Homeland Security is working with five companies that make election, voting and management systems to make sure that those systems are as secure as possible. The feds are also much better now at sharing information about cyber threats with state and local election officials, and that, of course - that was a really big problem back in 2016.

SHAPIRO: I think we all remember the moment that President Trump sort of wagged his finger at Putin and jokingly said, don't meddle in the 2020 election. Is the government doing anything more proactive than that to make sure that this doesn't happen again?

LUCAS: The government is, yes. The National Security Agency and Cyber Command - they are the ones who are being more aggressive. They're not just putting up walls. They're not just playing defense. They are aggressively going after adversaries on their own turf. During the 2018 midterms, Cyber Com basically took the Russian troll farm known as the IRA that was involved in 2016 disinformation operations against the U.S. - they took them off the Internet for a period of time. That's part of a strategy that the NSA and Cyber Com folks like to call persistent engagement.

SHAPIRO: And so what will that look like in 2020?

LUCAS: Well, here's what the head of Army Cyber Command Lieutenant General Stephen Fogarty said about that at the same conference this week.

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STEPHEN FOGARTY: They're going to work very hard to evade, you know, our defenses. They're going to try to limit the costs that we're going to attempt to impose on them, so I think it's going to be pretty sporty, actually.

LUCAS: Pretty sporty is one way to put it. Bottom line...

SHAPIRO: What does that even mean - pretty sporty?

LUCAS: It means that this is going to be a competitive - a very competitive place.

SHAPIRO: Not one-sided the way it was in 2016?

LUCAS: Not one-sided. U.S. is going to be going after adversaries as well.

SHAPIRO: Social media was really key to Russia's effort in 2016. Are platforms like Facebook and Twitter as vulnerable as they were four years ago?

LUCAS: They are, but there's been progress. Social media companies are very much aware that their platforms were abused in 2016. They weren't aware of what was going on at the time back then. The FBI has been working with them, holding meetings with them, most recently this week in Silicon Valley with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, information-sharing with those companies going both ways so they know what threats are on the horizon.

So this is all a step ahead of the run up to 2016, but officials are also aware that, you know, the Russians aren't going to do necessarily the same thing as they did, and we don't know what it's going to look like.

SHAPIRO: They'll change their playbook, too.

NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.