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Sep 10, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: DHS whistleblower alleges political interference in threat assessments


Rachel Van Dongen


with Tonya Riley
A senior Department of Homeland Security official was told to stop providing intelligence assessments on the dangers of Russian interference in the 2020 election, according to a new whistleblower complaint.
The official, Brian Murphy, said that he was twice “told to stand down on reporting about the Russian threat and alleged that senior officials told him to modify other intelligence reports, including about white supremacists, to bring them in line with President Trump’s public comments, directions he said he refused,” reported my colleagues Shane Harris, Nick Miroff and Ellen Nakashima.
Murphy was formerly the head of intelligence and analysis at DHS, which supervises election security in states and cities, but was assigned to a different administration role on July 8. His complaint documents evidence the Trump administration wanted to shift the focus from Russia to China and Iran when it came to worried about foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Murphy claims orders to stand down came from the top.

“On July 8, Murphy said in the complaint, acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf told him that an ‘intelligence notification' regarding Russian disinformation efforts should be ‘held’ because it was unflattering to Trump, who has long derided the Kremlin’s interference as a “hoax” that was concocted by his opponents to delegitimize his victory in 2016,” my colleagues reported.
“He claimed that in May, Wolf told him to stop producing intelligence assessments on Russia and shift the focus on election interference to China and Iran. He said Wolf told him “that these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.”
Murphy also says he made “two classified disclosures” to the department's No. 2 official, Ken Cuccinelli related to “abuse of authority, willfully withholding intelligence information from Congress, and the improper administration of an intelligence program.”
DHS vigorously denied Murphy's charges.
“We flatly deny that there is any truth to the merits of Mr. Murphy’s claim,” said Alexei Woltornist, a DHS spokesman, according to Shane, Nick and Ellen.

There have already been reports Russia is, again, attempting to spread disinformation about the 2020 election.

Facebook and Twitter have already identified attempts by the Kremlin troll farm that used their platforms to boost Trump in 2016, the Internet Research Agency, to reprise their meddling in 2020 on smaller scale. The IRA used a network of fake accounts and launched a fake left-wing news site called Peace Data using American writers.
Meanwhile, senior intelligence leaders recently said they will no longer brief members of Congress about potential threats to the election in person but instead in writing because of fears their information will leak.
“The move follows a public statement earlier this month by William Evanina, the top counterintelligence official who had been leading the in-person briefings, that Russia is ‘using a range of measures’ to interfere in the 2020 election and has enlisted a pro-Russian lawmaker from Ukraine — who has met with President Trump’s personal lawyer — to damage Joe Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” Ellen reported.
Dan Coats, the former head of the intelligence community under Trump, yesterday criticized the suspension of in-person briefings.
“It’s imperative that the intelligence community keep Congress fully informed about the threats to our elections and share as much information as possible while protecting sources and methods,” the former director of national intelligence told Ellen in an interview.
“We must stand united in defending the election security process from being corrupted and ensure that a vote cast is a vote counted," he added.

The DHS whistleblower complaint also alleges political considerations affected other areas besides election security.

Murphy “claims that Wolf and [Cuccinelli] … on various occasions instructed him to massage the language in intelligence reports ‘to ensure they matched up with the public comments by Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups,’ according to the complaint,” my colleagues report.
One of Trump's main campaign themes is the behavior of left-wing groups in Democratic-controlled cities protesting following the shooting by police of Black people.
Murphy played a controversial role in one such protests after reports he collected information about journalist tweets about the situation in Portland. Some people told my colleagues that while his complaints about political interference in intelligence assessments may hit the mark, Murphy was the wrong person to make them.
The whistleblower “complaint prompted mixed reactions among former senior administration officials, who said he had valid and significant concerns but described him as a flawed messenger. According to three former senior officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, Murphy was a poor manager and the source of low morale in his office,” Shane, Nick and Elllen reported.
Joe Marks will be back on Sept. 21. We have a slate of excellent guest hosts to keep you informed in the interim.

The keys



A new book on Trump by Bob Woodward claims to have new details on Russian election interference efforts in 2016.

Woodward reports the National Security Agency and the CIA have classified evidence that the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, St. Lucie and Washington, Jamie Gangel, Jeremy Herb and Elizabeth Stuart at CNN report.
Woodward says although there was no evidence the malware that infected the systems was used, it was capable of erasing votes.
The details have not been confirmed by federal authorities.
The breach of election infrastructure in some Florida counties in 2016 was outlined in a March 2019 report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The FBI briefed members of Congress from Florida after the report, but the names of the counties and details remained classified. Officials confirmed one of the counties as Washington County, The Post previously reported.
“These reports continue to demonstrate just how much voters are unwisely kept in the dark by our government about election meddling and how this confusion only serves to destabilize trust in our democracy,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said in response to Woodward’s reporting.

Chat room


Cybersecurity experts sounded off about the allegations in the new book. FireEye’s John Hultquist.
Cybersecurity journalist Kim Zetter:

Industry report



Former NSA chief Keith Alexander is joining Amazon’s board.

Alexander, the co-chief executive of IronNet Cyberecurity, also served as commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. He will serve on a four-member audit committee.
Alexander was involved in the NSA’s broad data collection program revealed in the Edward Snowden leaks, Devin Coldewey at TechCrunch reports. The Snowden leaks led to a change in the way tech companies addressed transparency and user privacy policies.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Alexander also brings defense contracting experience as the tech giant continues to challenge a Pentagon decision to award Microsoft a lucrative cloud-computing contract. The company alleges that President Trump’s animosity toward Amazon influenced the decision. (Amazon told TechCrunch it will continue to follow rules for conflicts of interest in government contracts.)
The U.S. Secret Service announced its inaugural U.S. Cyber Investigations Advisory Board 
The 16-member board is comprised of senior executives and experts from industry, government and academia and works with the Secret Service to provide cybersecurity expertise. Inaugural members include Tom Kellerman, VMWare Carbon Black Head of Cybersecurity Strategy,

Global cyberspace



China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom is demanding that Twitter investigate an alleged hack. 

Ambassador Liu Xiaoming claimed his account was compromised, resulting in “likes” of pornographic material and tweets criticizing China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, Jeff Stone at CyberScoop reports. “The Embassy has reported this to Twitter company and urged the latter to make thorough investigations and handle this matter seriously,” the statement said. “The Embassy reserves the right to take further actions and hope that the public will not believe or spread such rumor.”
More international news:

Privacy patch



Ireland has issued a preliminary order requiring Facebook to stop sending user data to the United States. 

It’s the first major step by European Union regulators to enforce a July ruling restricting how tech companies can transfer the personal information of Europeans to America, Sam Schechner and Emily Glazer at the Wall Street Journal report. The ruling could require Facebook to overhaul its data collection service or potentially halt service entirely to E.U. consumers.
The order against Facebook could set a significant precedent for the numerous other big tech companies that operate in the bloc, including Google and Apple. Failure by Facebook to comply with the order would result in a fine of up to 4 percent of its annual revenue — or nearly $3 billion.
Facebook slammed the move as potentially devastating to the global economy.
“A lack of safe, secure and legal international data transfers would damage the economy and prevent the emergence of data-driven businesses from the EU, just as we seek a recovery from Covid-19,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s top policy and communications executive. He confirmed that the order comes as part of a larger inquiry.
At the center of the conflict are E.U. lawmaker concerns over U.S. surveillance laws and lack of strong privacy protections. The E.U. and U.S. officials started negotiations this summer to iron out a new data-sharing agreement.

Daybook


  • The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on “Providing the Census Bureau with the Time to Produce a Complete and Accurate Census” today at 11 a.m.
  • European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders will participate in a Brookings virtual panel discussion on advancing the transatlantic dialogue on data privacy, security, artificial intelligence and consumer protection on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine threats to U.S. intellectual property, focusing on cyberattacks and counterfeits during the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 23 at 2:30 p.m.

Secure log off


A haunting scene from San Francisco as the area deals with smoke and ash from raging wildfires.

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