What The Government Is Doing To Stop Foreign Interference In U.S. Elections

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 4:33 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week has raised the question, what is the U.S. government doing to protect our elections from foreign interference? We take a look in this week's All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: Preventing Russia and other countries from trying to hack election systems or spread false information on social media is a Herculean task. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has warned that we could see a repeat of what happened in 2016.

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DAN COATS: We fully realize that we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.

CORNISH: To hear more about the government's efforts to prevent that we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So are we actually looking at the same threats in 2018 as in 2016?

MYRE: Same threats, but there are some really important differences. 2016 was this kind of perfect storm. The U.S. as a whole just really wasn't paying attention, was extremely vulnerable. The White House even when they learned of the potential threats didn't want to say too much. It was a very close race. We know that the Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted to help Donald Trump and had this long-standing grudge against Hillary Clinton. It's such a different election this time with 435 House races, 35 Senate races. You don't have that one big race that would potentially define U.S. policy.

CORNISH: So not on the same scale. What have you learned about what the government is doing to stop foreign interference this year?

MYRE: So the kind of phrasing you hear is that it requires a whole of government effort involving multiple agencies. But let's try to break it down into two key parts here. One is Department of Homeland Security, which is working with all the states to do security for voter rolls and the actual election machinery, the real nuts and bolts of it. But this is still a relatively new process. You've got 50 different states to work with. So it takes a lot of coordination. Even if everybody has goodwill, it - the coordination part is pretty difficult.

CORNISH: And the other part?

MYRE: Well, this is what the Justice Department has raised in the past week or so. They've talked about looking at a range of threats. They've mentioned five different things. But perhaps the most important of them is attempts, which the Russians did previously and will presumably try to do again, of sowing division on these issues that are really divisive - immigration and gun - gun control and abortion. The Justice Department also says it's going to alert the public when it finds evidence of this. So this would be a real break from what we saw two years ago.

CORNISH: And where's the White House on all of this?

MYRE: Really not saying very much. You know, we have a president who's extremely sensitive to the notion that his electoral victory might have been tainted by Russian involvement. But the president gets a security briefing every day. If he wants to stress and ask for increased focus on election security, he'll get it.

CORNISH: How are the leaders of these government agencies feeling right now about their actual ability to stop threats?

MYRE: Well, you know, we just heard from Dan Coats, director of national intelligence. He was one of the leaders out at the Aspen Security Forum last week. And this was a recurring theme. What is the level of threat? How are you addressing it? And they gave pretty similar answers. A lot of bad actors are cropping up, particularly Russia, and they're very concerned about this. But they were also - there was a real consensus that they're just not seeing anything, at least not so far, on the same scale as 2016.

CORNISH: And for voters, what can we do?

MYRE: Be informed consumers. All those who are involved and dropped the ball last time said they're going to do better this time - the government, the media, social media companies. But at the end of the day, it's up to the voters to be alert and have a good judgment about what they're seeing.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you.

MYRE: Thank you.

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