KETR

National Security Officials Discuss Threats To U.S. Political System

Aug 3, 2018
Originally published on August 3, 2018 9:07 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump has sent mixed messages on just how seriously he takes the threat of foreign influence in U.S. politics - especially when it comes to Russia. But his administration is trying to telegraph to the public that the threat is real.

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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.

KING: That was Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen yesterday. She and other top national security officials made a surprise appearance at the White House. There, they talked openly about threats to the U.S. political system. And they talked about what they're going to do about it. NPR's Tim Mak has been following all of this. Good morning, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

KING: So why are we hearing from the White House about these threats now - why this big meeting yesterday?

MAK: So I think there's been a lot of recent criticism over the Trump administration's handling of this threat. Republicans have been arguing that the response has been inadequate. And when the president's own party speaks up, that's a really big deal for the White House. Yesterday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a new set of legislation that would address a lot of these issues when it comes to threats to election security and foreign meddling in the elections. And, of course, we're now less than 100 days from the election. And there's a lot of concern that the process isn't safe - that the security of balloting and the election system and infrastructure, it might be vulnerable.

It's something that's been - this threat and this concern, it's been building since Helsinki when - you remember. President Trump stood with Vladimir Putin. They appeared - he appeared to put Putin's view on the same level as the views of the intelligence community, which has assessed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. So the intelligence community had its turn on the podium yesterday with officials stressing that the president takes it seriously. And they also painted a stark picture of the threat in the midterms this year. So here's the FBI director Chris Wray talking about that.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: But it's important to understand this is not just an election cycle threat. Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis whether it's election season or not. There's a clear distinction between, on the one hand, activities that threaten the security and integrity of our election systems and, on the other hand, the broader threat of influence operations designed to manipulate and influence our voters and their opinions.

KING: I mean, that's really interesting and also kind of worrying - whether it's election season or not. Even this week, we've seen some some new threats uncovered, right?

MAK: That's right. Facebook announced this week that it had disrupted an influence operation on its networks. And this was something that only involved about 30 actual accounts that it shut down. But these accounts had an influence and an impact that was magnitudes larger than just 30 accounts. They had 290,000 followers. They had thousands and thousands of posts and 150 advertisements that they placed. Facebook announced this week that it had shut that down.

We also learned that there had been attempted hacks of politicians' emails. Two Democratic senators basically said this week that they had been the apparent targets of Russian cyberhacking - Claire McCaskill and Senator Shaheen. We also understand that officials are saying that voting systems are vulnerable. And although hacking attempts are not as abundant as they were in 2016, it is still constant. And there is a lot of disagreement on Capitol Hill over how to fund that security.

KING: Is the government doing anything new to address these threats as of, say, yesterday?

MAK: Well, you know, yesterday's announcements and yesterday's show of force behind the podium at the White House by the intelligence community wasn't really about announcing new efforts. They hinted at perhaps pursuing some new ones. But we didn't really get a sense that there were new initiatives. It was more about tone. It was more about the intelligence community saying, we stand together on this issue, and we want to emphasize how serious it is. What we had was this week - House Republicans, they actually voted down an effort to get new funding into election security. Here's Senator Burr talking this week about how even Republicans felt that people weren't taking the issue seriously enough.

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RICHARD BURR: Some feel that we as society are sitting in a burning room, calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves this is fine. That's not fine. And that's not the case.

KING: All right, so some serious language there - let me bring us back to the president very quickly. What is his most recent message on security?

MAK: Well, he's kind of equivocated, right? And that's the basis of a lot of this concern. He didn't confront Putin in Helsinki. And he has said, oh, well, Russia may not still be attacking the United States.

KING: NPR's Tim Mak. Tim, thank you so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.