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Oct 7, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Russia’s the top election threat but top Trump officials rarely say it.

Joseph Marks


The Kremlin’s “overarching objective is to undermine the U.S. electoral process and weaken the United States through discord, division, and distraction in hopes America becomes less able to challenge Russia’s strategic objectives,” the report states. 

That’s far starker language than the foreword by acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf, which draws no clear distinction between Russian efforts to influence the election and those of other adversaries. “While Russia has been a persistent threat by attempting to harm our democratic and election systems, it is clear China and Iran also pose threats in this space,” that section states. 

The divergence reflects a broad pattern by top Trump administration officials to play down Russian efforts to influence the election, as Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima note. That’s a topic that particularly irks President Trump, who seems to view any talk about Russian election interference as questioning the legitimacy of his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. 

The report seems to be trying to appease Trump while also setting the record straight. 

On one hand, it suggests the department’s analysts haven’t succumbed to administration pressure to soft-pedal intelligence that might upset the president. 

“Given the politicization that has occurred on so many issues within the department, it’s encouraging that the homeland threat assessment takes a much more objective and nonpartisan perspective on cataloguing all these threats,” Javed Ali, a former DHS senior intelligence analyst who now teaches public policy at the University of Michigan, told Ellen and Shane.

Yet the foreword makes it tough to describe the report as apolitical

“It seems designed a bit to try to appease the president in case he sees the report,” said Elizabeth Neumann, former DHS assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention.

Trump administration officials have faced intense criticism for seeming to falsely equate election threats from Russia, China and Iran. 

Or at least for not highlighting Russia as the greatest threat.

Top Democrats, for example, criticized William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, this summer for a statement they said “treats three actors’ differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections.” An intelligence official responded that “each of these adversaries poses a threat to our election and it’s imperative that we all work together as a nation to combat them.”

Brian Murphy, former acting head of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, accused Wolf in a whistleblower complaint last month of directing him to play down reports on Russian interference to avoid making “the president look bad.” Wolf rejected those charges in Senate testimony last month and denied he had sought to politicize intelligence or minimize the threat from Russia. 

In a message on election security yesterday, FBI Director Chris Wray pledged, “We’re not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.” 

No specific adversaries were named in the address, in which Wray was joined by Evanina and top officials at DHS and U.S. Cyber Command. 

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the United States will not tolerate any election interference and reiterated that he’d told his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, to “stay out” of the November election.

“The Russians said that they had no plans to do anything of that nature,” O’Brien told reporters, the Associated Press reports.

Outside analysts have also called out the government for conflating threats from Russia and other U.S. adversaries. 

“Calling them all equal in the scale and scope of activity, the evidence just doesn't bear that out,” Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks disinformation, told me during a Post Live event. 

What we've seen is that the scale and scope of activity in this election from Russia is far greater than any other foreign adversary,” he said. 

Trump officials might even be peddling Russian disinformation in an effort to aid the president as the election nears. 

Within hours of the DHS report release, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified a Russian intelligence estimate obtained by U.S. spies that critics say they fear is intentional disinformation. 

The documents are aimed at supporting an assertion that Hillary Clinton actively tried to “stir up a scandal” in 2016 by tying the Trump campaign to Russia's hack of the Democratic National Committee. 

“Pro-Trump media outlets have suggested that this Russian intel assessment adds evidence to their claim that Moscow fed former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele disinformation, prompting the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election,” Post Columnist Josh Rogin notes. “Pro-Trump lawmakers immediately celebrated the latest disclosures as a ‘smoking gun,’ pointing to Clinton’s supposed guilt and the FBI’s refusal to investigate the Russian information.” 

Trump applauded the release on Twitter, boasting that he “fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!”

The keys

National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone is quarantining after potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Nakasone previously tested negative for the virus, but it's unclear when his last test was, Shannon Vavra at CyberScoop reports. Nakasone leads the country's main military hacking unit, raising concerns about the United States' ability to beat back Russia and other actors looking to influence the U.S. elections. 

The precautions come as a slew of White House officials, including Trump himself and senior adviser Stephen Miller have tested positive for the virus. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Staff and chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force are also quarantining after potential exposure to the virus.

“Cyber Command and NSA maintain strict safety protocols to achieve our missions and defend the nation, a National Security Agency representative told Shannon. Nakasone is also director of the NSA. 

More from Shannon:

Nakasone can work effectively from his home, a military official at Fort Meade, the facility that houses Cyber Command, told Shannon. 

Facebook will remove all QAnon-affiliated groups and pages. 

The ban is an escalation of the platform's previous decision to restrict content associated with the conspiracy theory that violates Facebook's policies against inciting violence and hate speech, Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker report.

The ban will not touch on individual posts or pages.

QAnon followers support baseless accusations that Democratic officials and celebrities engage in crimes including eating children and that Trump is engaged in a secret battle with them. The conspiracy theory has been picked up by several Republicans running for Congress and has fueled coronavirus misinformation. 

Facebook launched a more limited sweep of 3,000 QAnon-related pages in August that violated its policies around violence and hate speech. But the content quickly resurfaced in new ways.

 “We aim to combat this more effectively with this update that strengthens and expands our enforcement against the conspiracy theory movement,” the company said in its blog post. 

The action drew some praise but also skepticism. 

“Ultimately the real test will be whether Facebook actually takes measures to enforce these new policies — we’ve seen in myriad other contexts, including with respect to right-wing militias … that Facebook has repeatedly failed to consistently enforce its existing policies,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).

There’s no evidence of hacker activity in a web crash that took down Florida’s online voter registration system before a registration deadline.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) extended the registration deadline by one day following the crash after civil liberties groups threatened a lawsuit. 

“At this time, we have not identified any evidence of interference or malicious activity impacting the site. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide any additional information as it develops,” Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said in a statement. 

The crash is an early test case for how election officials will manage the onslaught of technical foul ups, mistakes and digital mischief that are sure to beset this election season in even in the best of circumstances.

A spokeswoman for DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said the site went down “due to a high volume of traffic” and that there’s "no indication of malicious activity causing the outage.”

“We will continue to monitor the situation and support Florida and other states in protecting the 2020 Election,” the spokeswoman said. 

Government scan

An IRS watchdog will investigate the agency's use of commercial location data to track Americans without a warrant.

The inspector general will investigate concerns from lawmakers including that using the database unlawfully allowed IRS criminal investigators to bypass getting a warrant for cellphone data, Joseph Cox at Motherboard reports

The IRS admitted to using the commercial database, which draws from ordinary cellphone apps such as games, after a Wall Street Journal article uncovered documents showing the agency had used it in criminal investigations. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called for the agency watchdog to launch an investigation last month.

A federal judge will hold a hearing on the TikTok ban on Nov. 4.

The judge will decide at the hearing whether to block the next phase of a full ban of the app, which would go into effect Nov. 12, Reuters reports.

More cybersecurity news:

Chat Room

Trump resumed attacking the integrity of mail voting on Twitter just over a day after returning to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center following his coronavirus diagnosis. 

Daybook

  • The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is hosting an online symposium on Data and Democracy on October 15 and 16.
  • New America will host an event "Will We Ever Vote on Our Phones" on Oct. 21 at noon.

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