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Intelligence Official Warns Of More Interference In 2020 Presidential Election

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

The top U.S. counterintelligence official is warning of yet more interference in the 2020 presidential election. William Evanina says Russia is using, quote, "a range of measures to primarily denigrate Democrat Joe Biden," end quote, while China prefers that President Trump does not win reelection. And Iran, he says, is also seeking to undermine U.S. institutions. Joining us live to talk about this is NPR elections reporter Miles Parks.

Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

VANEK SMITH: So there seem to be a lot of characters in this situation. What prompted this warning from Evanina now?

PARKS: So this is part of an updated warning that Evanina, who is the head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center - he promised it last month. And at that time, he warned that the three countries that you mentioned - China, Russia and Iran - were working to influence the 2020 election. He called it a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy. But lawmakers, especially Democrats in Congress, have been clamoring for him to release even more information. Overall, one of the lessons that officials who dealt with the 2016 attack on democracy from Russia say they learned is that more transparency in this space is usually a good thing. So this is a step in that direction, too.

VANEK SMITH: What else is he saying today?

PARKS: So the main new information is about motive. China has increased its rhetoric around the U.S. response to the coronavirus and the U.S. position on Hong Kong. And Evanina says that's because the country hopes Trump loses reelection in November because it views him as unpredictable. He said the country - he being Evanina - said the country is weighing more aggressive action, but we haven't really seen that yet, really.

On the other hand, Evanina said Russia is working against Joe Biden, who that country views as anti-Russian establishment. Now, this part isn't new. Evanina noted that it's consistent with Russia's opinions about Biden going back to the time when he was vice president. Russia and its allies are spreading debunked claims about Biden and corruption, and he said some Kremlin-linked actors are even seeking to boost President Trump's candidacy on social media and Russian television. Iran, as the third country here, is looking to push divides in American society, Evanina said.

VANEK SMITH: Well, what about more extreme tactics? Did he say anything about any of these three countries attempting to hack any part of the U.S. election system like Russia did back in 2016?

PARKS: He didn't say anything about that. But he did note that any of the three could try it, potentially, since they could all potentially benefit from affecting the results or, much more likely, just sowing doubt in the legitimacy of the results. The good news is that the top cyber official for the Department of Homeland Security said in a speech earlier this week that his team had not seen anything like the slew of focused attacks of 2016 from Russia on state and local infrastructure. But we should also note that earlier this summer, Google revealed that Chinese- and Iranian-linked hackers were observed trying to break into the campaign email accounts of both Biden and Trump campaign staffers.

VANEK SMITH: So what does today's statement mean for the security of the 2020 election?

PARKS: So experts you talk to basically say there's no metric you can look at where we're not better prepared in 2020 than we were in 2016. And even then, it's important to remember that there were no vote tallies actually affected in the 2016 election from that interference. But the bottom line is there are still some vulnerabilities. You know, it's a massive threat landscape. When you think about campaign emails, voting machines, social media information - literally thousands of things to protect - it's sort of a game of mitigation more than prevention. And this sort of disclosure by Evanina is kind of part of that mitigation tactic.

VANEK SMITH: NPR's Miles Parks.

Thank you, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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