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Amid new reports of foreign election interference, whistleblower claim roils DHS

U.S. elections continue to be a target of foreign interference. Microsoft announced Thursday that Russia, China and Iran are all trying to hack campaigns and officials. The news comes one day after a whistleblower from the Department of Homeland Security claimed he was urged to downplay the Russian threat and skew intelligence reports. Nick Schifrin and Amna Nawaz join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. election is a target.

    Microsoft announces today Russia, China and Iran are trying to hack political parties, presidential campaigns and consultants.

    It comes one day after a whistle-blower from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security claims that he was urged to downplay Russian interference, and was under constant White House pressure to skew intelligence.

    Our Nick Schifrin and Amna Nawaz help fill in the picture.

    Hello to both of you.

    Nick, I'm going to start with you.

    Tell us exactly what it was that Microsoft announced today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Microsoft says foreign groups have stepped up their efforts targeting the election and cites three examples.

    The same Russian military intelligence unit that hacked and leaked in 2016 has now targeted 200 organizations, including campaigns, political consultants.

    And one independent analyst I spoke to say one of those targeted unsuccessfully, SKDK, SKDKnickerbocker, which consults for Biden.

    Microsoft also says Chinese actors on a smaller scale unsuccessfully targeted people affiliated with the Biden campaign and a prominent individual formally associated with the Trump administration. But we have no details on that. And Microsoft says Iranian actors tried unsuccessfully to log into the accounts of Trump administration and campaign officials.

    Now, Microsoft acknowledges that some of these foreign influence operations have been successful. And it also details how Russians are going to new lengths to avoid detection.

    The Department of Homeland Security and intelligence officials said today this is a sign of public-private partnership over election security.

    But, Judy, it should be noted there has been no release of any stolen data to influence the election, at least not so far.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, with regard to Russian influence operations, the Trump administration was targeting them today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, these are actions from the departments of Treasury and Justice that really highlight the spectrum of Russian attempts to continue to influence the election.

    The Treasury Department sanctioned a Ukrainian member of Parliament whom it calls an active Russian agent. He has released videos designed to disparage Joe Biden. And this is an example of Russia's ongoing attempt to weaponize divisions inside the U.S. Those videos have been retweeted by President Trump and cited by Republican Senator Ron Johnson.

    And the Department of Justice charged a Russian who manages a Russian effort to influence elections. And his indictment is a sign of an ongoing Russian disinformation campaign. That has the same goal as it did in 2016, create distrust in the U.S. political process and to help President Trump.

    The independent analyst I spoke to today Judy says, all of this is more proof that Russia continues to interested in tipping the scale, while China and Iran are more interested in longer-term intelligence-gathering operations.

    And these analysts fear that the director of national intelligence is downplaying the active threat posed by Russia to the election by instead highlighting the longer-term threat posed by China.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to keep track of.

    But let's talk about that.

    Amna, separately from this, there was this whistle-blower complaint saying that the administration is trying to downplay Russian influence. Tell us about that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The whistle-blower is a man named Brian Murphy. He was the former head of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Before that, he was a longtime FBI agent. And he's basically alleging in his complaint that he was asked to censor or to skew intelligence, so that it better lined up with President Trump's messages and with his priorities.

    And he alleges a few things. In one complaint, he says that the acting secretary of homeland security — that is Chad Wolf — told him to hold back on reports about Russian disinformation campaigns, to stop providing assessments on the Russian election threat, and instead to focus on Iran and China.

    Murphy says he refused to comply in both cases. And former DHS officials I talked to said, in their experience, there was constant pressure from the White House not to talk about the Russian election threat. Murphy also alleges that he was asked by the second in command — that is Ken Cuccinelli — to change intelligence reports to downplay the threat of far right white supremacist violence, and then to include information left-wing groups like the anti-fascist group Antifa.

    There's a bit of a complicated picture there. One former official I talked to said he doesn't believe it's a priority for the current DHS leadership to address the growing white supremacist threat. Another said he actually thinks the agency's done a lot of good work on that front in recent years — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I saw today the president formally nominated Chad Wolf to be the secretary of homeland security.

    Amna, you have been in touch with the folks at — with people at Homeland Security today. What are they saying about all this?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Judy, they flatly deny the claims.

    They say that they welcome the results of any investigation. They say there's no truth to Murphy's claims.

    Here's what they said on the record. They said: "The agency is working to address all threats to the homeland, regardless of ideology," and that the acting secretary — that is Chad Wolf — "is focused on thwarting election interference from any foreign powers, any attacks from any extremist group."

    Judy, we should mention that Brian Murphy has been invited by House Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee to testify before them in a private session. That would be on September 21. So we will follow up more then — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Again, so much to keep track of, almost dizzying for the American public trying to follow what's going on in Washington with regard to these elections.

    Thank you both. It is such important reporting.

    Amna Nawaz, Nick Schifrin, thank you.

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