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Are There Still Any Threats To The Election?


Russia is working to undermine Joe Biden, whereas China would prefer President Trump lose his bid for reelection. And Iran - it is trying to weaken U.S. institutions. Those were the headlines back in high summer, August, when America's top counterintelligence official issued a warning on behalf of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. The warning called foreign efforts to interfere with the November 3 election, quote, "a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy." Well, with Election Day nearly upon us, we wanted an update - what's changed, what hasn't - so we have brought in NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

Hey there, you two.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Ryan, I'm going to give you the first word. What is the update? Just give us - in a few sentences, do things look more or less as they did in August?

LUCAS: They do, more or less, yes. Russia remains the top concern. I checked back in with sources again today, and I'm hearing that Russia is using social media and proxies and state media to hurt Joe Biden and his chances to win the election. Two other countries that you mentioned, Iran and China, are still on the radar, though. We haven't heard anything concrete regarding China at this point, but the Trump administration has publicly called out Iran for actions that they have taken to try to interfere in this election.

KELLY: OK. I mean, I notice you're not mentioning any evidence that any foreign actor has managed to massively swing the election in one way or another. Without wishing to jinx us with a few days to go, is it fair to say that so far, foreign efforts to interfere in this election have fallen flat?

LUCAS: Look; I don't want to be the one to jinx us here, either...

KELLY: Yeah.

LUCAS: ...But no, we have not seen the same sort of interference at this point - the sweeping sort of interference like we saw in 2016 - no hack and leak of emails, no massive influence operation online. Sources that I have spoken with say the U.S. is much better prepared for these sorts of things this year. The FBI has foreign influence task forces that focuses on these issues. The FBI is cooperating with tech companies, social media companies at really a different level than they did in 2016.

One big question is about the integrity of mail-in ballots. The president has repeatedly claimed that a foreign adversary could crank out counterfeit ballots, throw the vote. The top counterintelligence official here in the U.S., Bill Evanina, was asked about that in an interview with Hearst TV, whether he's seen any evidence. And here's what he said.


BILL EVANINA: We have not identified any foreign actors manipulating or attempting to manipulate any mail-by-vote systems or processes here in the U.S.

LUCAS: And it's worth repeating again that that is the top U.S. counterintelligence official who is saying that.

KELLY: Okey-doke. Greg Myre, let me let you pick up the thread here. You have been looking into something called perception hacks. What is that?

MYRE: Well, it's a new sort of catchphrase you're hearing more frequently in the cybersecurity community. And what it refers to is a sort of small-scale hack or information operation that it's not that significant on its own, but it can get exaggerated and amplified when government officials and the media start talking about it, and then it takes off on social media. Now, the reaction to a perception hack is something that turns out to be far bigger than the actual intrusion. In effect, we hack ourselves by overreacting.

KELLY: Hang on. I'm not sure I get it. Could you just - give me a concrete example here.

MYRE: Sure. So the Russians have obtained U.S. voter information in a couple states. So that sounds pretty ominous. Alarm bells go off, and it takes on a life of its own on social media. But it turns out with a little examination that this was publicly available data. Election officials stress that it wouldn't affect the actual voting or the counting of voting. So these kinds of episodes do require government officials and the media to provide some perspective and context to explain what's happening but not to overreact.

KELLY: A timing question for you, Greg, which is this - we're seeing reports of record early turnout. With so many Americans having already voted, is there much left to influence in this election?

MYRE: Well, all this early voting does help limit the impact to any sort of last-minute surprise or any potential disruption on Tuesday. Now, there are still worries on Election Day. Officials really want to guard against, say, a ransomware attack that could freeze a polling station or mess with voter rolls. Now, anything like this, even if it does happen, would probably be very isolated. But it could certainly create an impression of a much broader threat. And perhaps the most dangerous period of all would be after the election, if it's close, and if the counting stretches on for days. Now, I spoke about this with Nina Jankowicz at the Wilson Center.

NINA JANKOWICZ: There's also a possibility that adversaries could dump hacked material post-election, which could call into question the legitimacy of the process. That's a real vulnerability in the American information ecosystem right now.

MYRE: And so she's referring to a scenario where there's any talk of mishandled ballots in a state that's hotly contested, and this could easily be exploited by Russia or any other foreign actor. So I think the real takeaway here is, don't hyperventilate on Tuesday. Take some deep, cleansing breaths, and everybody should just have some patience.

KELLY: Ryan, I'm going to give you the last word on this. What are you looking for as you look to November 3 itself and then all the days that are going to follow?

LUCAS: The concerns that I'm hearing most from people that I talk to is really about kind of, as Greg said, the post-election period. This does not end on November 3. We know already - election officials have told us that vote counting is going to take some time, in large part because of absentee ballots and mail-in voting. And they have told the public and in a very sort of conscious way of letting them know that we're not going to necessarily have results on election night. It's going to take some time to get those counts in. But that does open up this window for, one, foreign actors to try to sow chaos and push disinformation themselves on this, but to also - potentially for political actors in this country to raise questions about the integrity of the vote and the vote count and then for foreign actors to play up those concerns, to try to sow discord and amplify those divisions. And that is in - for the people that I'm talking to, that is a major concern - a major concern.


LUCAS: And the hope is that with people being aware that, we can diffuse that.

KELLY: A little guidance on what to look for on November 3 and beyond from NPR's Ryan Lucas and Greg Myre.

Gentlemen, many thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DEAD KENNY G'S' "DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.