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Russia Launched Cyberattack On Voting Vendor Ahead Of Election, Report Says


We have a better idea this morning of just what the U.S. government thinks that Russia did to interfere in the presidential election. A top secret document has leaked from the National Security Agency. It was sent to the publication The Intercept. And it describes specific Russian efforts to gain access to the computers of voting systems and election officials.

Almost as if to confirm the authenticity of this document, federal authorities have arrested a woman, a contractor, accused of leaking a document from a government agency and mailing it to an online site. Ryan Grim is among those who broke the story for The Intercept. And he begins our conversation. Thanks for coming by. Good morning.

RYAN GRIM: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So what kind of document is this exactly?

GRIM: I mean, this is an NSA analysis of Russian efforts to tamper with the investigation. And what it lays out is both simple and sophisticated, you know? The way spear phishing works and the way it worked in this case is that you send out an email to somebody trying to trick them to click a link and put their password into a form.

INSKEEP: There's an emergency...

GRIM: There's an emergency. You need more storage. Somebody is hacking you. You have to change your password. Whatever they can do to try to get you to do that.

So they - in August, they hacked this company called VR Systems, which does registration software for about 14 states around the country. And it appears that the goal of that was to be able to then create a better spoof to go after election officials because now when they're reaching out to election officials, they're saying, hey, we're contacting you from VR Systems, you know, your contractor here.

And they sent Microsoft Word documents that looked very anodyne and said, you know, here are updated guidelines for Election Day. So just click on this Microsoft Word document if you want to see how you're going to do your job in a couple of days when the election comes.

INSKEEP: OK, so this is not a Russian propaganda effort about which we've heard a lot. We heard, generally, about Russian efforts to go after voting systems. But this is a detailed Russian effort to go after voting systems. Did they get in?

GRIM: They got into VR Systems. The NSA concluded that. They think they likely compromised a number of election officials. Now, where they went from there, nobody knows. Now, there are plenty of Russia experts who say that the goal is not actually to tip the election but to delegitimize American elections. And...

INSKEEP: Make us wonder if the result...

GRIM: Exactly. And they do this in other countries, as well. The idea is to cast doubt so that the loser of the election doesn't feel like it was a - it was a fair shake.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, according this document that you published - and I'm looking at it here. It's headed National Security Agency. Were the hackers people affiliated in some way with Russia, or were they the Russian military?

GRIM: They were directed by Russian intelligence, according to the document.

INSKEEP: Directed by Russian intelligence. So maybe not somebody in a uniform. But somebody who is...

GRIM: Not sure exactly what they were wearing when they were doing it. But, yeah...

INSKEEP: Four-hundred-pound guy on a bed to use...

GRIM: The NSA is quite clear who - yeah.

INSKEEP: ...President Trump's phrase. Stay with us for a moment. I want to bring another voice into the conversation. NPR political editor Ron Elving is with us. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does news like this affect the political environment?

ELVING: It roils the political environment because the Trump administration has been trying very hard to change the subject away from all of the Russian interference in the election stories to the leaking about the Russian interference in the election. And this gives them an opportunity to actually produce a live human being and say, this is a leaker. This is wrong. This is where the outrage should be directed.

INSKEEP: Well, let's give the name - Reality Leigh Winner. And she is described as a U.S. government contractor. They haven't specifically said for what agency. And she's accused of leaking something. Ryan, you're still with us. Do you know that Reality Leigh Winner is the person who sent you the document that you published?

GRIM: No, we don't. We noted in the story that the document was sent to us anonymously. And that's really all we know at this point.

INSKEEP: So there is a leaking story, Ron Elving. But there's also this document which makes it harder - doesn't it? - to pass off Russian interference as not that big a deal.

ELVING: Exactly. So it's a double-edged sword in the sense that the administration would like everyone to be upset about the leaking. And leaking is an issue. And it is a problem. And it is against the law. But at the same time, they've also tried to characterize this entire controversy as something other than real fake news.

INSKEEP: Well, there's going to be some very real testimony this week. James Comey, the former FBI director, is going to be testifying before Congress. I would imagine this is going to come up now.

ELVING: Yes. Indeed, and most likely to be raised by Republican senators - the allies of the administration on the committee - who have been trying to shift the attention to the leaking element of the entire story, which is a legitimate part of the entire story. And this, really, is going to give them an opportunity to do that.

But on the other hand, the Democrats on the committee are probably going to want to know how much James Comey can tell them about other evidence like this NSA evidence of Russian hacking and not just into the campaigns of the parties or what they may have said about each other last fall but into the actual infrastructure of the way we conduct our elections. And I believe that this affected eight states and that includes four of the five most populous states.

INSKEEP: Ryan Grim, if you had a chance to put a question to James Comey this week, what would you ask him?

GRIM: What can we do to shore up elections and to kind of remove the kind of hindsight partisanship that always comes into conversations like this?

INSKEEP: And, Ron Elving, what would you put to James Comey if you had an opportunity? What question is on your mind?

ELVING: People want to know what James Comey meant about a month ago when he was testifying to a different Senate committee - the Judiciary Committee - when he said that no Justice Department official had ever told him to shut down an investigation for political reasons. Does that exclude the president of the United States if, as in Comey's memo from back in his February conversation with the president, indeed, the president had suggested he'd do just that?

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Also Intercept correspondent Ryan Grim. Thanks for coming by.

GRIM: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.