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Russia greatest foreign threat to U.S. election and infrastructure, intel official says

With U.S. intelligence officials united in their assessment that American adversaries are trying to influence the presidential election, can voters be assured of its integrity? William Evanina is the top U.S. counterintelligence official charged with combating foreign attacks on American electoral systems. He joins Nick Schifrin to discuss why he feels confident the country is prepared.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that brings us to William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and the intelligence community coordinators to secure the election.

    William Evanina, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Just yesterday, the FBI announced an imminent cyber-crime threat to American hospitals. Cybersecurity firms say it's a ransomware attack that's already hobbled at least five medical centers and was launched by Russian actors.

    Can you tell us, who's behind the attack, and what's the motivation?

  • William Evanina:

    What I can tell you and your viewers that we have seen a systematic processing of surveillance and penetrations by nation state threat actors, to include Russia, into our critical infrastructure the last few years.

    And that critical infrastructure has also been our hospital situations and our research and development, particularly with the onset of COVID and the amount of research and development to a COVID prophylactic, to a vaccine.

    We have seen a lot of our nation state threat actors, and, again, including Russia, make attempts to not only steal that vaccine, but cause chaos in our supply chain to further the vaccine's implementation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beyond COVID, just last week, we saw the intelligence community saying that Russian actors have targeted dozens of government and commercial networks that aren't election-related, but they did get access to some voter information. Some of these were successful.

    How successful were they, and how serious were those attacks?

  • William Evanina:

    As we have seen for multiple years, foreign adversaries, like Russia, China and Iran, have been surveilling and attempting to penetrate our critical infrastructure across a wide swathe of infrastructure, from the economic sector to the hospital sectors to the critical infrastructure and financial systems.

    Two countries, Russia and Iran, both exfiltrated data from election infrastructure. However, only one of them, I think, as we get through the infrastructure surveillance perspective, some of that might have been by accident.

    But the fact they took it also drives that wedge of interference and sowing discord and confusion, the capability to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so, just to be clear, how much data have the Russians and Iranians stolen from voters that wasn't already public?

  • William Evanina:

    We're still looking at that right now, as we speak.

    We're trying to identify if the data taken by Russian and Iran was also available publicly. But, right now, all we know is, both nations took voter data registration information from places that were election-related infrastructure.

    The Russian penetration was part of an overall cyber-activity where they're just doing a lot of penetration and surveillance of critical infrastructure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned 2016. We have gotten independent reports from the Justice Department, from the Senate Intelligence Committee that have detailed how Russian hackers, how Russian hackers successfully tapped into the voter registration files in two Florida counties, penetrated Illinois' voter registration database.

    And there were also reports of similar attempts in about half-a-dozen cases, by our count.

    Why should voters be confident they won't actually use that data this time?

  • William Evanina:

    Well, I think that confidence is a really important word.

    And what we're trying to really drive here is voter confidence, knowing that you should vote, and you should vote with confidence. Two anecdotes of that, Nick, I will bring back to last week.

    So, in a matter of 24 hours, we had intelligence that we derived overseas of a foreign actor exfiltrating voter data registration and putting it into nefarious action. Within 24 hours, we collected that information, we analyzed it, were able to get on the ground in two separate counties and drive mitigation with the local authorities to prevent any additional impact to not only the election infrastructure, but to those voter registration files.

    As of right now, where we sit today, we're very confident that our adversaries will not be able to manipulate any votes or change any votes at scale.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You just mentioned the words at scale, but some of these states might be very close. Are you concerned perhaps about a small attack that could sway results one way or the other?

  • William Evanina:

    The American voter will determine who they're going to vote for when they pull that lever.

    I think the concern we have is a potential ransomware attack, where systems are shut down and we're unable to process votes in a timely fashion.

    So, when I say at scale, I mean literally at scale, in the numbers, the dozens. I don't think that's capable. I think our assessments and DHS assessments have been very, on that point, that that's not possible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned the announcement last week by your boss, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, about an Iranian campaign that had a video and e-mails attached to it.

    Ratcliffe announced that it was designed to hurt President Trump. You have said in a statement in the past that Iranian actors were trying to hurt President Trump.

    But I was told that night that Ratcliffe's prepared remarks did not make the assessment that that particular campaign was designed to hurt President Trump.

    Was there an intelligence community assessment that that campaign was designed to hurt the president?

  • William Evanina:

    Well, Nick, on that question, I can only comment to the actual effects and impacts of last week with respect to what happened with Iran's intentions.

    The Iranians truly believe that the united government is trying to enact regime change. So, logically, they are anti this administration.

    When you get into the semantics of whether they're for President Trump or for Vice President Biden, I think we lose a little bit of the solemnness of the threat.

    So, your question is valid, but I think we have to really keep our eye on the prize that we have nation state threat actors out there who are doing their darndest to sow discord and really destabilize our democracy any way possible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have released two major statements over the last few months discussing Russian, Chinese and Iranian threats.

    Isn't it Russia that possesses the best capacity and presents the biggest threat for the election itself?

  • William Evanina:

    I would confirm that.

    Yes, I think that I have been very clear about this, as a counterintelligence official here in the U.S. that, from an election perspective, Russia poses the greatest threat. And they have the best tools, capabilities and intent, right? Democracy really scares Vladimir Putin and the Russian establishment. That's been known.

    But I will also say, putting my counterintelligence hat on, the Chinese Communist Party poses the greatest national security risk to our nation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Cyber Command, with the National Security Agency, have launched offensives against foreign actors in the last few months and years.

    I know you're not able to speak about the specifics, but how successful have those attacks been?

  • William Evanina:

    Very successful. And they occur on a regular basis.

    And what we learned in 2018 is, we can be successful defending our democracy and our elections, if we incorporate overseas in the battle space.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Are you concerned that foreign actors could try and sow discord and chaos on election night and in the days after the election, especially if it's close?

  • William Evanina:

    Absolutely.

    I think it's important for your viewers to understand the ultimate goal of Russia and Iran is to sow discord and to be able to destabilize our democracy.

    Both those regimes, their biggest Kryptonite is democracy. So, anything they can do in any manner to destabilize the democracy and continue to sow discord and drive wedges in our society is their ultimate goal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bill Evanina, thank you very much.

  • William Evanina:

    Thanks, Nick. Thanks for the opportunity.

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