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How Russia hacked American faith in the democratic process

July 20, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
What did the Russian government really do to the American voting process and confidence in its efforts to meddle with the 2016 election? A new cover story for TIME magazine takes a deep dive into the lengths at which the Obama administration and cybersecurity officials tried to protect the U.S. election system. Judy Woodruff takes a closer look with its author, Massimo Calabresi of TIME.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn back to the Russia investigations and the issue at their core: that government’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

How Russian officials made it happen is the focus of at least three official probes in Washington, but information about what they did and didn’t do to our voting process and to our confidence in our election system has come in fits and starts.

A new cover story for TIME magazine takes a deep dive into what we know now, connecting the dots of how, why and how far they went.

It’s titled “Inside the Secret Plan to Stop Vladimir Putin’s U.S. Election Plot.”

And the author, TIME magazine’s Massimo Calabresi, is here with me now.

Welcome to the program, Massimo.

So, what you have reported in this issue of TIME is what we don’t know before, how far the federal government had gone last year to prevent damage by the Russians.

MASSIMO CALABRESI, TIME: In the days leading up to the election, the top federal cyber-security officials realized that, for the efforts they had taken throughout the election, our voting system was still vulnerable, not to interference with the actual vote count, but to undermining the credibility of the vote, the integrity of the vote, which is, of course, the purpose of voting to begin with, to reach a consensus that the democratic will of the people has been expressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what was it that the government was prepared to do?

MASSIMO CALABRESI: Well, they enumerated in this 15-page plan some extraordinary steps.

They stipulated at the beginning that, under most circumstances, the federal government would defer to the states in a cyber-incident, but in a particularly bad one, for example, one that halted voting at a voting place, they would go so far as to send armed law enforcement, federal law enforcement agents to polling places.

They were prepared to deploy active and reserve military forces in case of a massive incident. And they also prepared for counterpropaganda efforts in the wake of the vote, should false information be spread to try and undermine its credibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what had they seen that caused them to go to this length before election?

MASSIMO CALABRESI: So, initially, they saw one or two states back in the summer where the Russians had broken into the voter registration rolls and meddled around.

But the more they looked, the more they found other states had been compromised. And they didn’t quite know what the Russians were doing. Initially, they thought they might be able to swing the vote, but they soon concluded that actual meddling with the vote count wasn’t going to be possible.

But they decided that what the Russians could do was take certain actions that would call into question whether it had been free and fair, like interfering with the reporting systems on election night, meddling with voter rolls throughout the country in ways that would cause long lines or, in swing states, might cause an extraordinary number of provisional ballots to be cast.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me, but there were instances where — you have reported, because you have written a number of stories about this, were in California, for example.

There was an instance where a number of people reported they had trouble voting because of how their identity had been changed in voter registration.

MASSIMO CALABRESI: That’s absolutely right.

On primary day in California in June 2016, the local DA started getting a bench of calls from voters saying that they were not being allowed to vote because their voter registration information had been changed in the statewide voter registration database.

The hackers remain unknown in that case because the state of California doesn’t record the I.P. addresses of computers that make changes. But, looking back, the federal officials who were in charge of defending the vote, in the context of the other Russian intrusions, concluded that this might have been a test run by the Russians to show what kind of disruption they could cause on Election Day.

And indeed, in this county in California, the voters became quite agitated, and the mystery actually fed the doubt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to press you on this, because you’re saying that the Russians were not able — they weren’t worried that the Russians were going to be able to change the final vote count.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But were able to get in, in a remarkable way, into state voter files, into election systems.

MASSIMO CALABRESI: And this is what’s so important, because the Russians had over time become bolder and bolder about their intrusions, and had not tried to hide the fact that they were breaking into systems.

The Russians are very skilled cyber-actors, among the best in the world. So the fact they were remaining in the open was a clue to the larger purpose of the operation. And it’s crucial to keep this in mind. The first and primary goal of the Russian operation against the election was to undermine American faith in the democratic process, the first and abiding goal.

Every secondary goal that came had to first fulfill undermining our faith in the democratic process. And so what the cyber-security officials at the White House and across government at the FBI and intelligence community concluded was that these intrusions were less about the specific effect that they could have than they were on undermining the faith of the Americans in elections generally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it appears that they succeeded, at least in part, in doing that.

And you report that there is every reason to think that they may still be engaged in this. We have an election, governors election coming up, this year.

MASSIMO CALABRESI: That’s right. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of our congressional elections next year.

MASSIMO CALABRESI: That’s right. That’s right.

The crucial thing here is, this is an attack by Russia on America, not on a particular candidate or on a particular party. Their interests are in weakening the U.S. at home and abroad. And that’s why it’s so important now that we take steps to try and secure our election, so that this kind of exercise, propaganda, influence operation designed to undermine our faith in the democratic process here can’t succeed in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how high up in the Russian government does the direction of this go? We know that at one point President Obama was reportedly telling Vladimir Putin, cut it out.

MASSIMO CALABRESI: Well, that’s right.

Obama famously confronted him in that photograph of the two staring at each other icily in China at a meeting and told him to cut it out. The intelligence community reported publicly in their assessment in January that the operation had been approved at the highest level. And my sources tell me that means Putin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it doesn’t get any higher than that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s a remarkable collection of stories.

Congratulations on all this reporting. And I know you’re continuing to work on it.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Massimo Calabresi with TIME, thank you.

MASSIMO CALABRESI: Thanks for having me.