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How Russia is trying to disrupt the 2018 election

U.S. intelligence agencies are unanimous in their assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and senior officials warn of ongoing efforts to do it again in 2018. Judy Woodruff talks with former Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem and Laura Rosenberger of the German Marshall Fund of the United States to examine the threat.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    U.S. intelligence agencies are unanimous in their assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. And senior officials warn of ongoing efforts to do it again in this year's midterm elections.

    To examine the threat and what's being done to stop it, I'm joined by two women with recent and extensive experience focusing on voting infrastructure and Russian meddling in the U.S.

    Juliette Kayyem worked in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and led a review of state election systems. And Laura Rosenberger is director of the bipartisan project Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is based at the German Marshall Fund and tracks foreign interference in the U.S. and Europe. During the Obama administration, she worked at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff.

    And a note. We invited the current Department of Homeland Security to be on tonight's program, but they were not available.

    And I want to welcome both of you to the program.

    I'm going to start with you, Laura Rosenberger. Tell us a little bit about the project. We heard the man who heads intelligence for the country, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, say last Friday, he said, "Russia has been the most aggressive foreign actor, no question. They continue their efforts to undermine our democracy."

    What is your project on the lookout for?

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    That's right, Judy.

    And what we see, actually, is exactly consistent with the kinds of things that Director of National Intelligence Coats was outlining. We're looking at trying to understand and expose the full range of tactics that Russia is using to undermine our democracy.

    One of the things we see very consistently is the kind of engagement on social media, the divisions that they're playing, that they're trying to further divide Americans against each other, weighing in on hot-button issues.

    We're tracking the kinds of messaging that they're promoting, trying to polarize Americans even further.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, social media, you're monitoring, and what else?

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    We're monitoring social media.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    We're also looking at the ways that that's intersecting with cyber-attacks.

    One of the things we know that happened in the 2016 election, of course, was the use of hacking, combining that with releasing that information, promoting that on social media. We're looking out for that kind of activity.

    We're looking at the ways that elicit financing and money laundering may be used. Obviously, what you were talking about with this Maria Butina case is of interest in that category of things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    Trying to understand that full picture of what's happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Juliette Kayyem, you are looking at ways to prevent this, these things from taking place, from harming our electoral system, our democracy. But what would you add to what Laura just said?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Well, a couple of things.

    I mean, I think, first, of course, we should anticipate that 2018, the attempts to get into state and local election systems will be more persistent, better-sourced, longer-term. So the fight has started now, because the election is very soon.

    And I think the other issue is that the failure — I mean, we need to think about elections as any other type of critical infrastructure, water, the electrical grid, nuclear system. All of them are critical infrastructure that makes our systems work, that help us live.

    The election system is now part of that. And the sort of lack of focus by the federal government on this right now, at least from the White House perspective, and even questions about whether it's ongoing, as we saw today, really does undermine the tremendous activity on the state and local level.

    This is a homeland security issue. This is being fought, you know, on the street corner, not — you know, it's not a war abroad. And so we need to empower our secretaries of state and local officials in ways that just aren't being done sufficiently right now, given one would anticipate the Russians want to do it again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, some of the states, Juliette Kayyem, as we understand it, are being more vigilant than others.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They are beginning — or working on this. What are they doing?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    So, there's a couple of things, and I think it's really important for people to understand that putting the word cyber before security doesn't make it any different than any other security.

    Essentially, what you want to do is avoid the single point of failure. You do not want that one access point that is going to bring the system down.

    So, what we have learned over time is, cyber-defenses are the same as physical security defenses. You want a layered system. You want to control access to information. You want to isolate more essential information. You want to make sure your vendors are taking security seriously, because there is a private sector component.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vendors, meaning what? I'm sorry. Vendors, meaning who?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    I'm sorry. Third-party — third-party vendors. So a lot of these election systems, the ballot boxes, the electrical boxes, are actually owned — are actually run and owned and operated by other companies — by companies, essentially. So there's a private sector component to it.

    So I think that if we can just sort of take the sort of mysticism of cyber, you know, sort of out of this, and just say, how would you want to set up a security system, this is what states are doing. And they're also, obviously, educating their election personnel to ensure that, if anything were to happen on Election Day, that they have a quick response, are able to protect the system.

    Essentially, it just gets back to, you do not want to have a single point of failure. You need the layered defenses. And we know how to build them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Laura Rosenberger, clearly, the Russian know that the U.S. is on guard at this point. They were successful to a degree in 2016.

    This year, they must be trying different things. What do you see that is different or better or more sophisticated from them now?

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    Yes, that's absolutely right.

    One of the things that Dan Coats has said is that we think they will be learning lessons or that they have learned lessons. And we think that they're adopting those as they're looking at new ways to divide Americans.

    So some of the things that we seen is them weighing in on things like the NFL protests, whether it was, you know, good or bad, appropriate or not for NFL players to be taking a knee during the national anthem. We saw accounts on Twitter that have now been identified as ones that were created by the Internet Research Agency, but were pretending to be Americans, accounts that had tens of thousands of followers, weighing in on both sides of that issue.

    We have seen social media accounts that we now know were operated by the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg weighing in on issues like the MeToo movement. We have seen them weighing in on things like Roseanne Barr's racist comments.

    So we see these kinds of activities basically trying to stoke tensions within America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you mentioned a minute ago, Juliette Kayyem, that you're still waiting for the federal government to do more to pull this together.

    The White House is saying they are working on this. The Department of Homeland Security says they're working on this. So, what more needs to be done from Washington and in the states?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    I think that's right.

    So, I think we need to view this as a threat to any other critical infrastructure. We do not leave transportation security to the states and locals. We distribute money. We have actually oversight from the federal perspective. And you have a focus from the federal government.

    Now, that may be true from the agency side. Department of Homeland Security is clearly working with state and locals in this regard. But until we begin from the White House and president's statements to understand that this battle to protect our systems has begun already, as Dan Coats has said, you're not going to get the focus that you need to on the state and local level.

    And we need to treat it that way. We need to treat this as a critical infrastructure threat, just like we would if a foreign entity went after our electrical grid. We wouldn't say it's Nebraska's problem, it's, you know, Washington's problem. We would say, you know, this is a national security problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you see just quickly, Laura Rosenberger, the federal government weighing in, monitoring this as it needs to?

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    I think there is activity being done to monitor this. It's not as it needs to.

    Similar to what Juliette just described on the cyber-security side, on the disinformation, information operation side, this is a challenge that requires working across different parts of the federal government, working with the private sector, with the tech sector.

    This is a really complex problem that requires a whole bunch of people coming together. That requires political leadership from the top. And that, unfortunately, is what we're missing right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, the alarm bells couldn't get any…

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    Couldn't get louder.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Any louder than they are, given what Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, has been saying.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, I want to thank both of you.

    Clearly, we are going to continue to watch this story, as important as it is.

    Laura Rosenberger, Juliette Kayyem, thank you both.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Thank you.

  • Laura Rosenberger:

    Thanks, Judy.

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