Mar-a-Lago Affidavit Released; Combatting Election Security Disinformation : The NPR Politics Podcast The Justice Department released a redacted affidavit justifying the FBI search of former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence. What's in it, and what's not?

In Washington state, an election security device is the subject of conspiracy theories.

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Mar-a-Lago Affidavit Released; Combatting Election Security Disinformation

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REBECCA: Hi. This is Rebecca (ph) from central Alabama. I'm currently sitting in a trade building at the Living History Center where I work, hand-quilting a petticoat while I wait to receive a secret message from a fifth grade school group that is here on a field trip. This podcast was recorded at...

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

2:22 p.m. on Friday, August 26.

REBECCA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully I'll have a message to pass along to Paul Revere to begin his famous midnight ride. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SNELL: I appreciate that she was able to deliver that so quietly, but also so calmly, while she's in the middle of work (laughter).

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: There are a lot of things, elements there that I did not expect to be combined into one - secret messages, hand-knitting petticoats.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I just hope the message isn't redacted.

SNELL: Ugh.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

SNELL: The Justice Department has released a redacted version of the affidavit justifying the search of former President Donald Trump's Florida residence. The department took this step in response to a court order. So, Ryan, let's just get started right away. Let's go with the big takeaways. What do we know now that we didn't know this morning?

LUCAS: Well, look. This affidavit gives us our best view yet into the Justice Department's investigation into how certain documents - White House records, national defense information, classified documents - ended up leaving the White House in the last days of the Trump presidency and ending up at Mar-a-Lago. It tells us some of what we already know, which is that the FBI's investigation began with a referral in February from the National Archives after the Archives recovered 15 boxes of materials from Mar-a-Lago in January. In the affidavit, we learned that there were news articles, printouts, notes, personal records in those 15 boxes, but also intermingled with all of that was a lot of classified material just all kind of tossed together.

The FBI went through all of that - says they found 184 classified documents. Twenty-five of those were at the top-secret level. Ninety-two were at the secret level. There were also some, though, that had special classification markings. I won't take you through the alphabet soup of what those were, but stuff that indicated that it could have come from human intelligence sources - so from spies, stuff that would have been collected from monitoring foreign communications. This is very delicate stuff, very closely guarded government secrets. And having it just kind of in the wild at Mar-a-Lago is something that would certainly make the Justice Department and American national security agencies generally very nervous.

SNELL: Before we get too far, I mean, what is the big risk in having this information out there and not in a controlled environment?

LUCAS: Well, to be clear, we don't know exactly what this information is. We're just using kind of umbrella groupings here. But it's a concern because, one, if it got into the wrong hands, it could compromise national security. It could compromise how the CIA or the NSA's collecting intelligence that's used to make decisions by the government, but also more generally, it could put people's lives at risk - people who are collecting intelligence for the United States government. We don't - again, we don't know exactly what's in there, but from the information that we do have, that sort of stuff is definitely a possibility. And having the stuff out there, as I said, would certainly set national security officials' hair on fire.

PARKS: So, Ryan, a huge chunk of this affidavit was blacked out. A lot (laughter) - I don't know how many pages exactly...

LUCAS: You mean like this page right here?

PARKS: (Laughter).

LUCAS: This one that's all blacked out?

PARKS: Exactly. So, I mean, do you have - I don't want to make you try to read what's under there, but do we have any...

SNELL: (Laughter).

PARKS: ...Sort of sense of what else is in this affidavit that we don't know from what was made public today?

LUCAS: Well, we know from other documents that were released today, explaining to a degree the Justice Department's justification for some of the redactions that were made - that document, as well - I will note - was redacted. But we know that there are a number, a significant number of witnesses that the Justice Department has spoken to, that the FBI has spoken to as part of this investigation. That was a big concern for the Justice Department in releasing this affidavit, that the identities of witnesses could be made public, that they could face ramifications for that, that future witnesses or current witnesses would be reluctant to talk to the government moving forward. So anything that would identify witnesses, where information is coming from has been removed. That was a big concern of the Justice Department.

SNELL: I mean, if they have those concerns, then why is this being released?

LUCAS: This is being released over the concerns (laughter) of the Justice Department. The Justice Department did not want any of this affidavit released. It's worth saying that normally these things are not made public at this point in time...

SNELL: Right.

LUCAS: ...In an investigation. They would only be made public if someone is actually charged. That, of course, has not happened here.

What happened, though, is a number of media organizations were pushing for this affidavit to be released - pushing in court - saying that this is a matter of great national interest, public interest. It concerns an unprecedented search of a former president's home; therefore, transparency is extremely important. The Justice Department had concerns about, as I said, government witnesses, about law enforcement officers' names being released. They also have concerns about the scope, the direction of their investigation being made public because that would be in here as well. And that has been redacted as well. We don't know all of what is driving this investigation because it's been blacked out. And the Justice Department has described the affidavit as sort of a road map for its investigation. If this is a road map, a lot of the roads have been blacked out, which means we don't know exactly where we're going.

PARKS: Something that's been a little confusing to me, Ryan, is how the former president feels about all of this. Obviously, he has made a number of public statements on his...

LUCAS: Yes, he has.

PARKS: ...Social media accounts, but they don't always seem to line up with the actions of his lawyers or even the actions - I remember, I'm just thinking of he was asking for the search warrant to be released. He could have released it himself. He did not...

LUCAS: Sure could have - yep.

PARKS: ...Do that. And so what do we know, I guess, about how former President Trump feels about this affidavit being out here?

LUCAS: Well, he had argued that it should be released. His lawyers had argued that it should be released. His lawyers had argued as well, at least some of them, that the names of government witnesses should be released. That's something that they, of course, would be interested in seeing. It's also something that would be improper for them to see. And of course, as we've discussed, those government witnesses' names were not released.

Consistency in messaging has not been a strong point of the former president or his legal team since this search. The former president did release a statement today shortly after the affidavit was made public. He accused federal law enforcement of carrying out, quote, "a total public relations subterfuge without providing explanation." And he basically said that they turned over quite a bit and said that he had been voluntarily cooperating with the investigation. I think the consistent message that we've had from the former president himself and many of his allies and, to a degree, his lawyers, has been the same narrative that we've heard from the president for several years, which is that he is a victim. He views himself as a victim of a weaponized Justice Department. There's no evidence backing that up that he has put forward. He called the Russia investigation a witch hunt for years. So this has been a consistent theme, and it's something that I think he views - and from leaks that have come out from his inner circle - he views as playing that up as politically advantageous.

SNELL: I mean, it's pretty clear from what you're saying here that this is not nearly over. So can you tell us a little bit about what you expect to see next?

LUCAS: Well, I can tell you what I would like to see next, and I don't think that we're going to see it. I, of course, am very curious as to what the FBI recovered in the search two weeks ago. What we got today from the affidavit is insight into what was recovered in January from Mar-a-Lago. What we don't know is what the FBI was so concerned about to go back and conduct an unprecedented search of a former president's home a couple of weeks ago. And so I'm very curious - and I think many folks are - to find out what exactly drove that decision and what they found at Mar-a-Lago itself. We're going to have to wait for this investigation to play out to learn more of that.

SNELL: All right, Ryan, I am looking forward to talking to you about this over and over again in the future because I don't think that we're going anywhere.

LUCAS: I think I'll be back, yeah.

SNELL: (Laughter) Thank you so much. For now, we're going to let you go and keep reporting.

LUCAS: Thanks for having me.

SNELL: We are going to have to take a quick break and then come back and talk about how election security got stronger and then weaker. Back in a second.

And we're back. In the wake of Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. elections in 2016, there were big efforts made to enhance election security. And, Miles, you cover elections and election security, and today we are going to focus on one element of that. But before we get started, can you give us some context about the big picture on what has happened in the country when it comes to making elections more secure?

PARKS: Yeah. So I would say that over the last six years, since 2016 and the Russian attempts to hack into some voter registration systems and broader election networks, the U.S. has made big strides in trying to improve cybersecurity. But then in the last two years, since Donald Trump's misinformation campaign against voting, we're seeing pockets of the fringe right kind of try to break down some of these improvements. We're seeing it in some counties where they're pushing to go back to hand-counted paper ballots as opposed to machine counts, even though we know, you know, hand-counting ballots is more expensive...

SNELL: Yeah.

PARKS: ...Takes longer and is less accurate. We're seeing it in something I talked about on the podcast a few months ago - targeting a system that makes it easier for election officials to be able to actually find fraud and clean up their voter rolls, and then now we're seeing it target this cybersecurity tool.

SNELL: So to talk a little bit about that, we're going to bring in Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network in Washington state. Hi, Austin.

AUSTIN JENKINS, BYLINE: Hello.

SNELL: So you've been covering kind of a local version of this saga. Tell us what was implemented there in Washington and how it worked.

JENKINS: Yes. This device that was installed on county systems - computer systems - is called an Albert sensor. And, in fact, it was deployed across the country in the wake of the 2016 election. But in Washington state, the secretary of state's office really pushed this as a cybersecurity measure that was really important for the counties to embrace. The Albert sensor goes on the system - the county system. And what it does is it scans for known hostile IP addresses. And if it spots something, an alert goes to a 24/7 special operations center in New York State. Analysts take a look, and they decide if the threat is real. And if so, then they notify the government entity that they're being targeted. So it's a passive monitoring device. It doesn't actually do anything proactively. It just monitors.

SNELL: Is it like a - it's kind of like a computer program that's just hanging out, making sure nothing nefarious is happening.

JENKINS: It is. But it's also a device that gets attached to the county system. It's an actual physical thing, which I think is part of what made some counties here - some rural counties - a little, perhaps, more wary - that it wasn't like you were just applying this patch - online patch to your system. You're actually getting this device that shows up, and you have to attach it and plug it into your system.

PARKS: I do think it's important to kind of take you back to 2016 when you're thinking about, like, why is this thing necessary? You know, after the 2016 hacks, no one knew what was happening. There was no communication between counties, states and the federal government, which is kind of hard to fathom. It took months to get information about which, you know, states were targeted, where Russian hackers were able to break into - all of the - there was no information sharing across all of these thousands of election offices.

And so these Albert sensors were a big part of the Department of Homeland Security's effort to improve that kind of situational awareness. They've got them deployed now in hundreds of counties and states, and it basically allows them to say, oh, wow, we're seeing an IP address that's associated with a hostile actor, you know, try to target this, you know, town in California. We're also seeing them try to target Arizona or something like that. It just gives a much better sense of - you know, it allows counties to be able to defend their networks against some of these hostile actors, but it also gives the best understanding - that we have so far - of kind of what's happening in the election realm in cyberspace.

SNELL: Austin, tell us more about what happened.

JENKINS: Well, I want to be clear that, you know, vote tabulation systems are not connected to the internet. That's not what this is about. This is about protecting county systems, like, where there's an election website that, you know, you might go to to try to register to vote or where there might be results on election night that aren't official, but they're posted on a public website. You know, if somebody wanted to mess with elections, they don't have to actually change votes. They just need to harm confidence in elections. So this device is really about hardening county systems and local election systems from nefarious actors who might be trying to, you know, wreak havoc, essentially.

But what happened here in Washington state is a couple of counties removed the Albert sensor after installing it, and a third small rural county decided not to install one in the first place. And what happened is, earlier this year, in February, when one of these counties decided to remove the Albert sensor, it really set off an alarm bell at the secretary of state's office. The Democratic secretary of state, Steve Hobbs, was worried that this was the beginning of a misinformation campaign, and so he quickly marshalled a meeting. He brought in county officials. He brought in federal officials. He brought in the Center for Internet Security that runs the Albert sensor program. And he essentially said, like, these are important devices. Don't remove them. And this is part of what he said kind of in his closing statement to the counties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE HOBBS: I am pleading with you - is that if you do not have an Albert sensor, get the Albert sensor. If you have removed the Albert sensor or are thinking about removing the Albert sensor, please reconsider.

SNELL: So did people put them back? Where do things stand right now?

JENKINS: Yeah, the counties that removed them did not put them back.

SNELL: Oh.

JENKINS: One of those counties is Ferry County. The commissioner there, who really led this effort, said he's open to putting it back on, but he said he would need more information, and he said he, frankly, has bigger projects - bigger fish to fry right now - that, you know, maybe down the road he'll do that research, and maybe they'll put it back on. He doesn't think it's necessary. You know, all of these counties have other mechanisms to protect themselves from cyberattacks. This was sort of that extra layer of protection, and he just doesn't think it's that important.

No other counties have removed theirs. And really, when we talk to Democrats, Republicans and independents who are the county auditors in Washington state, across the board - with the exception of these three small counties - they embraced this program. They want to be a part of it. They feel like it's useful and helpful. It's giving them a little extra peace of mind. They're sleeping a little better at night because they have these Albert sensors.

And it was also interesting - we talked to Matt Blaze, who's a cybersecurity expert at Georgetown University. He explained why he thinks it's so important for local governments to have this layer of protection in this environment of global cyberthreats.

MATT BLAZE: The analogy that I often use here is that we don't ask the county sheriff to be responsible for repelling military invasions. But that is really the equivalent of what they're up against on the internet.

PARKS: It's one thing to have a discussion about, you know, what is important or correct for your county or state's cybersecurity presence. But over the course of our reporting, Austin found that these commissioners were relying on this document that came from a local Republican Party official that made a lot of claims about the Albert sensor program. And a few of those claims were really conspiracy-minded, tried to connect this program - which, again, has been considered by Republicans, Democrats, federal election officials, a bipartisan success story - they tried to connect this program a shadowy group of kind of left-wing organizations. Which is - we could not find any evidence to support that fact. And so I talked about this with Matt Masterson, who kind of oversaw the increase in the use of the Albert sensors in the Department of Homeland Security leading up to 2020. And here's what he said.

MATT MASTERSON: It's OK to ask legitimate questions about what are the purpose of these devices? What do they do? I think that is natural. I think that's the right thing. What is not appropriate is to make up or invent or lie about what these devices do and therefore hurt the overall security of our elections in the United States. That is what's frustrating. None of this is based on fact.

PARKS: That's the thing. Like, big picture, we're just seeing misinformation inform the decisions of counties and states a lot more than they were a few years ago.

SNELL: I was just going to say that one of my main questions here is where did these ideas that kind of sparked the conspiracies come from? Do we know? Or is this like a lot of other misinformation out there that it is kind of - it breeds a little insidiously?

JENKINS: I think that is the case, that - it looks like this is very homegrown here in Washington State. The first county that took their Albert sensor off had actually been the victim of a ransomware attack after putting the thing on. And so their view was - as one of the county commissioners in that county said - the damn thing didn't work. Well, you know, it's not going to be 100% foolproof. But that was enough of a spark. And he started doing research. And then he shared that with his local Republican Party chair. She kind of ran with it. Then she put the memo together that Miles referenced. And then she sent that out to all of the county Republican Party chairs. And again, it was like raising questions. You know, you should be asking, why do you have this? Where's your data going? What is this nonprofit? And just kind of dropping all of these hints that maybe there's something weird or nefarious going on here. And, you know, I think by and large, most counties either didn't see that memo or ignored it. But for at least one other, it was enough to say, yeah, maybe we don't want to be a part of this program.

PARKS: And that's the thing about kind of conspiratorial thinking, too, is if you have a conspiratorial mindset and you're prone to kind of believing that there are puppet masters kind of trying to affect our elections and trying to rig our elections, it can kind of make you have a negative view over a lot of different things.

SNELL: This has been a really interesting example of the kind of challenges that we're going to see going into this midterm election and into 2024. And Austin, I really appreciate you joining us.

JENKINS: Thank you for having me.

SNELL: We're going to take a quick break. And Miles, you're going to stick around because when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go. It's the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. And we want to welcome our friend Deepa Shivaram. Hi, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hello. Happy Friday.

SNELL: Happy Friday. We made it.

PARKS: Barely.

SHIVARAM: Just barely. Just barely.

SNELL: You get to come for the fun part.

SHIVARAM: I know. I did. I get to pop in just for the fun. And that's how we like this.

SNELL: And since you are popping in just for the fun, I'm going to have you go first. So what is it that is on your mind? What can you not let go of?

SHIVARAM: All right. So this week, I cannot let go of something dinosaur related. Second grade Deepa was, like, dream job to be a paleontologist. So this is pretty exciting news. Basically, in Glen Rose, Texas, at Dinosaur Valley State Park, there's been a lot of heat from climate change and not that much rain. However, because of the lack of rain, there's just been all of these new dinosaur tracks that have revealed in the park. I don't know if you guys have seen pictures, but if you...

SNELL: It's really cool.

SHIVARAM: ...Have a second, I would totally look it up because - I don't know. There's just, like, all this dry land and these massive dinosaur footprints all over the place, and it's really exciting. And so it's giving researchers a bit right before the rains kind of come back to take measurements and look at, you know, these pieces of history, essentially - really, really old history. So, yeah, my paleontologist nerd self was really excited about that this week.

SNELL: Dinosaur news is big news in my house. All dinosaur news is big news in my house (laughter).

SHIVARAM: Yeah. Here's the thing. All dinosaur news is the most important news, if we're being honest.

SNELL: This was just after we learned about a new dinosaur that they discovered that's the size of a dog, so big dinosaur news all over the place.

SHIVARAM: Yeah, big moment for dinosaurs, right?

PARKS: Yeah. I'm looking at the tracks right now. These things are - I'm like, what were these guys going to do? Were they, like, just walking to grab some food? They're just kind of waddling along, hanging out.

SHIVARAM: They're just - yeah. They're just hanging out. And it's so cool that, like - I mean, it's literally millions - hundreds of millions of years. And they're so, like, well-preserved. You'd think after all of that time, like, the sediment and the rain and everything - it would just have completely eroded all of this. And it's just wild to me that we're able to just take out a measuring tape and be like, oh, yeah, so this dinosaur's foot was this long. It's pretty cool.

SNELL: Yeah.

PARKS: I would not be surprised if, in 10 years, you are, like, a paleontologist, Deepa. I feel like - don't sell yourself short. It's not too late.

SHIVARAM: You know, I'm keeping it on the backburner. Yeah, it's not too late.

SNELL: (Laughter) Well, Miles, what about you? What is on your mind?

PARKS: So I'm - I feel like every single time I come in for Can't Let It Go, I have something sports-related because that's just how my brain works if it's not on politics.

SNELL: You know, it's important for us all to have brands. You're sports.

PARKS: Yeah.

SNELL: I'm animals.

PARKS: That's my brand.

SNELL: Yeah.

PARKS: So mine is baseball and Albert Pujols. I don't know if you guys have been monitoring. This is, like, one of the best baseball players definitely in the last 20 years but potentially of all time, who is 42 years old. And he was basically on his way out of baseball over the last couple of years. He was one of the worst position players in baseball. But then this year, he was signed for his last year in baseball to go back to the team he was with first, when he had his glory days in, like, the mid-2000s. And he's just decided to turn it on, and he's been absolutely mashing. And I feel like old guy sports moments are, like, one of my favorite things in the world where, like...

SNELL: You are so young. You're too young to be like, I need the...

SHIVARAM: That's pretty iconic, though.

SNELL: (Laughter) I need the validation of old guy sports moments.

PARKS: But, like, I just love the fact that, like - A, his young teammates, who were, like, kids when he was, like, really good when he first came up - they're clearly in awe of everything he's doing. And then you look - they always have these camera shots after he hits a home run, and there's like, literally, like, people crying in the stands. They're so emotional. Like, the - I just feel like when you have that - he has, like, this 20-year connection to Saint Louis, and he's doing this. And it just it's been, like, really beautiful and heartwarming to watch.

SHIVARAM: Oh, that's a great story.

SNELL: We all need those, like, sports moments that make us feel like we're actually humans. That's good (laughter).

PARKS: Yeah.

SHIVARAM: Kelsey, what can you not let go of this week?

SNELL: Well, the thing that I can't let go of is that we have a chance to celebrate Miles right now. You, after we're done here, are getting ready to leave to go get married.

PARKS: I am, indeed.

SHIVARAM: Oh, my gosh. Congratulations.

PARKS: This is, like, my last thing that I'm doing for NPR, and then I am going to go away. And I'm going to go get married, and then I'm going to go to Hawaii, and you will not hear from me for multiple weeks.

SNELL: It's so exciting. I'm so happy for you.

SHIVARAM: Oh, wow. Look. I'm not going to lie to you. I kind of feel like the dinosaur news is a little bigger than that, but, like, I'll let you have it.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKS: That's fair. I mean, that is fair. I mean, definitely more people care about that, but I definitely care more about this.

SHIVARAM: No, congratulations.

PARKS: Thank you.

SNELL: We're very excited for you, and I cannot wait to see all of the photos both from the wedding and from Hawaii. I am jealous of the beach time you've got ahead of you.

PARKS: Yeah, I am definitely a lucky dude. And we are an NPR couple. We met here at NPR, so I am very...

SHIVARAM: Even better.

PARKS: ...Honored and thankful for this workplace as well.

SNELL: Hey. I mean, you could always still, you know, submit a timestamp (laughter)...

PARKS: Oh, not a bad idea.

SNELL: ...From your honeymoon.

SHIVARAM: That's a great idea.

PARKS: See; you're trying to get me to work on my honeymoon, Kelsey. I knew that people were going to try and do this, and you're trying to get me to work on my honeymoon.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: Well, congratulations, and I'm excited we get to celebrate a little bit here ahead of time. We're going to wrap up the show now for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers are Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Thanks to Brandon Carter and Maya Rosenberg. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

SHIVARAM: I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover politics.

PARKS: And I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

PARKS: You have to let me go, Kelsey. You have to do it.

SNELL: We do actually have to let Miles go. That's so funny.

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