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DHS official warns of ongoing election interference from Russia, China

As the midterm elections approach, administration officials continue to warn of attempts by foreign entities to influence their outcome. But they also assert that their preparation could yield ‘the most secure election in the modern era.' Judy Woodruff speaks with Christopher Krebs, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With the 2018 midterm elections less than a month away and early voting already under way in some states, officials in the Trump administration are sounding the alarm about foreign attempts to influence the outcome of next month's vote.

    I spoke — spoke a short time ago with Christopher Krebs — he's undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate — about these concerns.

    And I started by asking him how he sees the threat.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Given our experiences of 2016 and what we saw the Russians attempt to do across the nation's election equipment, the election infrastructure, we certainly have a degree of concern of what their capability and — their capability is.

    And the prior intent is demonstrated. So that's kind of been the planning factor that we have been working against, the fact — whether they come back or not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They being?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    They being the Russians, for sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right. Right.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    We haven't seen demonstrated Russian activity in a repeat of 2016.

    But I mentioned the planning aspect, how we're planning. We're ready. We're planning for them to come back. And I think in terms of where we are for '16 — I mentioned this before, but I think this is probably going to be the most secure election in the modern era because of the amount of work we have done with state and local election officials, who are, by the Constitution, by law, responsible for administering elections, federal elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you know, the president, the vice president have gone out of their way in the last few days to talk about China, to say that China has been trying to meddle in our elections.

    The vice president went so far as to say what the Russians have done pales in comparison to what the Chinese are doing.

    Can you explain what that means, spell it out?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Yes, I think we need to keep in mind that, given the way that we're connected, and given the way we consume and use and share information, there's a broad range of opportunities for any nation state, whether it's Russia or China, to try to influence the way Americans think and they act.

    And so the Russians, I think, have been historically — or at least most recently — much noisier, much more out in front. They have attempted to get into election equipment and manipulate there. They have also used social media to sow discord and divisiveness.

    The Chinese are much more strategic, much more under the radar perhaps, with a longer, more strategic game in play. And their attempts here are to influence the way the Americans think about policy issues.

    And down the road, whether it's the '18, but also more for the midterm — or — I'm sorry — the 2020 presidential, trying to influence how voters, when they go to the polls, what — what bubble they're going to fill in and what button they're going to push.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's interesting you should mention that, because we have seen, I guess, newspaper inserts, one in particular in Iowa. The president tweeted about that.

    But we saw that the editor of The Des Moines Register, the newspaper where this insert was, she was quoted as saying, this kind of insert meets our standard criteria for advertising, unlike the kind of hidden thing that, as you just mentioned, the Russians were doing.

    So is it really that underhanded, I guess, is my question?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Well, it's not that it's underhanded.

    It's that it's, in fact, a foreign influence operation. So we think back to 2016 and what the Russians attempted to do. They used their state-sponsored media outlets of Sputnik and R.T. to amplify message and drive false narratives.

    China's doing the same thing with China Daily and other instruments of state media. And they're carrying a message on behalf of Beijing in this case. So, while it may meet some journalistic standard, they're still trying to accomplish an outcome and achieve their own policy objectives through these — through these efforts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it — is it — but we think of the Russians as just spreading disinformation. The Chinese are basically giving their point of view. Is there a difference there?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Well, absolutely.

    And I think, again, when you kind of lay it all out on the table of what the independent — or the various objectives of a nation may be, the Russians are much more tactical and operational and here and today.

    For them, a strong U.S. doesn't really benefit them in the long run. The Chinese, however, we have a relationship. And it is important that they — well, they think strategically. And so, for them, they want our outcomes, our policy objectives to align with their — with their longer-term goals.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how are you countering that in your job, worrying about security of the elections?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    So, I think about things in two different ways.

    One is defending today. And that's working with state and local election officials to ensure that, for the midterm 2018 elections, that they have as much information to secure their own systems, that they have the technical support and resources that they need to defend their systems and protect the vote.

    But, also, we're securing the future. And what I mean by that is, there's still equipment that is old that needs to be replaced. And so when they go through a procurement process, do they have the right information to make secure decisions for tomorrow's deployments?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to — I want to quote something the director of national intelligence said. I guess it was in June.

    Dan Coats said in 2018 — "It's 2018, and we continue to see Russian targeting of American society in ways that could affect our midterm election."

    We have heard other officials say there was just no way to completely protect against this in 2018. What should voters still be worried about?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    So, I think voters need to be thinking about a few things, but, first and foremost, make sure that you know what to do on Election Day.

    Verify your registration. Ensure that you know where to go, what precinct you're registered at, but also understand your rights as a voter. If you get there and something goes wrong, because let's be clear, something goes wrong, whether it's a cyber-attack or something, on Election Day, every single time. It's — there are technical glitches.

    So just know your rights as a voter. Provisional ballots are always the fallback if something goes wrong. Ask for that provisional ballot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We know — we saw, I think it was Secretary Nielsen and others have testified or said recently that, so far, you don't see any successful attempts to interfere with the infrastructure of our elections.

    Is that still the case?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    That's right.

    I tend to break things up into two buckets. One is the preparation bucket and what — and then the second is what we're actually seeing.

    We're — again, we're planning as if the Russians are coming back just like they did in '16. And then we're also trying to think through, what more could they do? Because if we know anything about the Russians, they get better, they learn. When they come back, they're a little bit trickier than they were the time before.

    So what do we need to be thinking about in terms of enhanced capabilities? But, again, in terms of activity right now, we're just not seeing what we saw in '16.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In terms of infrastructure.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But in terms of influence, you're saying they're active?

  • Christopher Krebs:

    In terms of influence, they have never gone away.

    They have continued to find those meaty social issues that drive Americans apart. And they really get on both sides and they amplify the message. And so it's important that we — that we remind folks that, look, when you see something on social media, think about what you're seeing, who might be presenting it to you.

    Try to find a validator, a third-party news source that validates that, before retweeting or liking. But also keep in mind that there are state-sponsored media outlets, like Sputnik, like R.T., that are pushing a message on behalf of the Kremlin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A warning just, what is it, less than four weeks before Election Day.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Yes, ma'am.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Undersecretary Christopher Krebs, the Department of Homeland Security, thank you.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    Thank you.

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