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After Mueller revelations, how to protect election integrity in 2020

Although the Mueller report concluded Russia intervened in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion," the Trump administration has at times downplayed the interference, as well as 2020 election security. Judy Woodruff asks former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem and Thomas Rid, author of a forthcoming book on influence campaigns, about what has and hasn't been done.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amid the flurry of debate over the report by Robert Mueller and his team, the special counsel was clear on one main point: The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.

    But, yesterday, President Trump's son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, dismissed the seriousness of all that.

  • Jared Kushner:

    And, quite frankly, the whole thing's just a big distraction for the country.

    And you look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it — and it's a terrible thing — but I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In addition, a New York Times article today reports that the Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was discouraged by the president's chief of staff from discussing security for the 2020 election in front of Mr. Trump.

    The White House denied this after the story was published. But what about 2020? What has been done, and what more needs to be done, to protect the integrity of our next election?

    Juliette Kayyem previously served in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And Thomas Rid is a cybersecurity expert at Johns Hopkins University who has closely studied Russian operations.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour" to both of you. Welcome back.

    Let me start with you, Juliette Kayyem.

    We hear Jared Kushner saying it was just a few Facebook ads, but we see a much more serious picture being portrayed, painted in the Mueller report. What do we know, in sum, about what the Russians did in 2016?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    So, we know now that it started earlier than we previously thought, as early as 2014, and that it was more systemic — or systematic and more targeted than we had once known.

    What I mean it was systematic is that there is a theory that Russia just threw a bunch of things at the wall and something stuck. And what we now know is that, both through the Republican primary and then through the general, that the Russians had a sustained and concerted effort to utilize social media, the advertisements, and other networks to perpetuate essentially lies about other candidates or to support, by the end, one particular candidate, Donald Trump.

    This is outside the hacking issue. On the hacking issue, the story is well-known, and it's documented in volume one, that those — the hacking that was initiated and started by Russia, desired by Russia through WikiLeaks, was then sort of weaponized by the U.S. media in terms of it repeating what was stolen, and then became a storyline that by the end Hillary Clinton had to defend.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Thomas Rid, how much of this was underlined or in fact became new information in the Mueller report?

  • Thomas Rid:

    The Mueller report in fact added very little genuinely new details to the story of Russian interference that wasn't already publicly known.

    In fact, I'm a little disappointed that we didn't learn more about the social media data specifically that the Mueller report cites. They seem to rely on publicly available data. But there's an important thing that I think the Mueller report is falling short on.

    The Mueller report named the IRA, the Internet Research Agency, the trolling and the social media operation, first and also that's where the first indictment was published. But the leaking and the hacking — or, rather, the hacking and then the leaking of Democratic files, especially John Podesta's inbox, was far more significant than the social media operation.

    So we risk overstating the effect of the social media campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying we need to pay attention to all of it.

    Juliette Kayyem, what then do we know about what the Russians are up to for 2020?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Well, you know, I believe White Houses matter, and I believe that a White House that is committed to stopping a foreign campaign against our democracy would be relevant.

    And so what we're seeing, of course, is the denials, the Giuliani statement this weekend that, you know, it's OK to get this information from the Russians. So I don't want to put that aside, because I do think that matters.

    But, on the tactical level, you do see a lot of effort being made on the state and local level through the Department of Homeland Security to protect elections and the election process, and then, of course, the kind of training and efforts that are being done through campaigns, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, to protect their networks.

    Some of that is defense, you know, layered security encryption. But some of it also has to be offense, which is in this case naming and shaming it. We have to be quite public about when someone's stuff has been taken, say, e-mails.

    And then the final thing, which I mentioned before, the media has to start having some standards by which they will determine whether things stolen, not leaked, things stolen, will be utilized by them to amplify the sort of criminal behavior by a foreign entity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's a message we need to give very serious consideration to.

    Thomas Rid, what about for 2020? What do you see coming in 2020 that this country has to be on guard against?

  • Thomas Rid:

    Important, I would add to what was just said that we learned in 2016 that some of the leaks were messed with.

    The very first leak, for example, contained a document that was the Russian front account said, classified, came from Hillary Clinton's server and the State Department. All three statements were lies, were just not backed up by the evidence.

    So we have to expect — and that's the historical norm — we have to expect forgeries. And don't trust the leaks at face value. Very important message for journalists.

    But I would highlight a really serious risk here. The biggest risk is a combination of two things. It's a combination of the president of the United States, if he is defeated, calling the legitimacy of the vote into question, which he has announced multiple times already that he would be doing so, and, in combination, a Russian operation that would provide some sort of credible evidence to this claim that the system is rigged in the heat of the moment on election night and the following days to sow doubt and create uncertainty in a very fragile moment, and thus endanger a peaceful transition of power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Juliette Kayyem, just quickly, I see you nodding. What gives you — what makes you believe that that's a concern?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Because the Russians know the playbook. They know that the White House is not essentially stopping or forcefully stopping the playbook.

    And they will change. And so one of my biggest concerns coming from the — you know, both the cyber and physical security space is that the Russians will utilize cyberattacks to have a physical impact on the voting process.

    So, in other words, how do you win Michigan? You depress 20,000 African-American votes in Detroit, so, whether they, you know, sort of force traffic issues or signals go out, or there's a blackout. And so there's what we call the Internet of things, that you would have a cyberattack that would impact physical processes.

    For me, that's my worry. The Russians are sophisticated enough to do that. And they will change and modify, in light of what we now know because of the Mueller report.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thomas Rid, that's alarming to even think about that. How can the U.S. be on guard against some or all of this?

  • Thomas Rid:

    One important aspect of being on guard is to really look at the available evidence of what is happening in a very, very sober and cool-headed way, which, is of course, very difficult because this conversation is so highly politicized.

    But by overstating the threat — and we are overstating the full spectrum of Russian influence operations in 2016 currently — by exaggerating the threats, we are effectively making that operation more successful than it actually was.

    And we risk, by overstating disinformation, we risk engaging in disinformation. Now, of course, we still have to be on guard and protect systems, and I support everything that we heard here.

    But I just think it's really important to be also aware of this risk of overstating the problem at the same time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Being clear-eyed and direct about everything we hear and what we say.

    Thomas Rid, Juliette Kayyem, we thank you both. We're going to continue to follow this.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Thank you.

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