Agencies Are Sharing More About Election Meddling Than They Did In 2016 : The NPR Politics Podcast The US government shared details about two alleged election meddling operations by Iran and Russia this week. The operations initially appear to be smaller-scale than they were in 2016. And we talk about what to expect in the last full week of campaigning.

This episode: political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, voting reporter Miles Parks, election security editor Phil Ewing, campaign correspondent Scott Detrow, and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

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Agencies Are Sharing More About Election Meddling Than They Did In 2016

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ANDREW: Hi, this is Andrew (ph)...

CHLOE: And Chloe (ph).

LUKE: And Luke (ph).

ANDREW: ...From Indianapolis, Ind., where we are taking down the last of our garden for the year and picking lots of green tomatoes. This POLITICS PODCAST was recorded at...


11:56 a.m. on October 23.

ANDREW: The news is always changing, but hopefully by the time you hear this, we'll be enjoying fried green tomatoes and having more for the winter. All right, here's the show.




PARKS: Fried green tomatoes - one of the best brunch foods.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Midwest represent.

Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

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

PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: And I'm Phil Ewing, election security editor.

KURTZLEBEN: And Miles and Phil are here to talk about something very serious. We are going to talk about election interference efforts by malicious foreign actors. It's like 2016 all over again.

PARKS: I know. Buckle up.

EWING: It never stopped.

KURTZLEBEN: It never did (laughter). All right. So let's start with the latest news this week. Let's start with Iran specifically. Now, there were some threatening emails sent to voters in Alaska and Florida, and they said some pretty scary things. They said, vote Trump or else. Another quote is, you will vote for Trump on Election Day, or we will come after you. So, of course, this really upset some voters. But it appears that this was the work of a foreign actor, of Iran. So, Miles, let's start with you. What exactly were these emails, and how many people were impacted?

PARKS: Yeah, it's still a little unclear on exactly how many people actually got these emails. Just from Google alone, we heard that about 25,000 Gmail users received these emails. Luckily, the Google spam filters were able to filter out about 90% of those. But we still know that that means at least a few thousand people received these emails. The emails purported to come from this far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys.


PARKS: And they seem to indicate that they had a lot of information about the voter. They had mention of the voter's address in some cases, phone numbers, definitely party registration. So it gave this kind of really chilling feeling that this group was kind of watching you as the voter. But now we know that it was not actually the Proud Boys. It seemed to have come from this hacking group in Iran.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, and how did Iran get ahold of all that information?

PARKS: Yeah, it's a little unclear at this point how these actors actually got ahold of this data. But it's important to note that much of the data was actually publicly available. But in the emails that were sent, they seemed to indicate - one of them said, we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure, which we know from national security officials is part of the game plan, that these foreign actors basically want to be able to hack into some small aspect of some underlying part of the election system and then try to overplay their hand, try to convince the American public, basically, that they've hacked into the broader system, that they can change votes, that they can do all of this stuff just by hacking into one small aspect of it. So that seems like that was part of this - taking this public data but trying to, like, basically turn that into a messaging campaign about, you shouldn't have confidence in the entire system because of this.

KURTZLEBEN: I see. Well, Phil, let's turn to you for the why. Tell us about the geopolitics of this. What does Iran want here, and why intimidate Democratic voters?

EWING: The 2016 example, Danielle, that you talked about was really an important case study for a lot of countries around the world about how low the costs are to just kind of mess with the United States, to just kind of make people suspicious, to sow chaos, sow distrust in our democratic practices. And so anyone with any kind of moderate cybercapability, cyberattack capability, has the ability to do that. And they have started doing that according to what we hear from U.S. national security officials.

In the case of Iran, there's a lot of antipathy, deep antipathy, between the Islamic Republic and the United States. President Trump ordered one of Iran's top military commanders, Qassem Soleimani, to be killed in a drone strike earlier this year, and there was a big confrontation about that that many of us have forgotten because it took place before the coronavirus pandemic. And the Iranians have not forgotten about that, clearly. They want to mess with Americans. And this was an example of them doing that. According to what we hear from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Administration, or CISA, we could see more of it before Election Day.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's change gears slightly because, of course, it wasn't just Iran we got news about this week. It was Russia. In what feels a bit like deja vu from 2016, Russia appears to also be meddling in our elections again. National security officials alerted us of this this week. Miles, let's go back to you. Give us the rundown of what they said.

PARKS: Yeah. So it's important to really make a distinction between the cyberattacks that we're hearing about this week by this Russian hacking group and what happened in 2016. We're - there's no indication that this was the sort of specific election infrastructure targeting that we saw from Russia in 2016. Basically, what we found out is that this Russian hacking group, known sometimes as Energetic Bear - they've been known to hack into a lot of government infrastructure, U.S. government infrastructure over the past couple of years. They've been seen in nuclear power plant infrastructure, for instance.

So what we found out is that they had broken into two - at least two county government servers. And through doing that, they were also able to access a limited amount of voter data. This obviously worried national security officials because that sort of access to the back end of county government systems could allow, you know, this sort of Russian hacking group on Election Day and the time after Election Day to potentially deface public websites that show election results or mess with other voter information. But what it didn't do is allow these hackers access to the actual vote tallies, the actual underlying results. So it's not like these hacks allowed them to change the results in these - the election results in these individual counties. But they still did get some access to the government - to the local government systems, which is worrisome.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So you mentioned 2016 and did a comparison there. I mean, is it fair to say that thus far, these attacks from Russia aren't as severe as 2016? How would you characterize this?

PARKS: Yeah, I think that's definitely fair to say. And that's what - this press briefing I went to yesterday with some of the high-level DHS cyberofficials, they said the same thing. They're just not seeing the same level of intent and targeting from the Russians as they did four years ago.

The other thing that's worth noting is the - kind of this marked change from the U.S. government on how they're reacting to it. Even the fact that we found out about these two local government breaches - one in California, one in Indiana, according to The Washington Post - the fact that we found out about it from the government this quickly before Russia has actually used those breaches to do something indicates this really change of strategy from the U.S. government, where they're trying to get out in front of it and say, hey, voters, this happened. The Russians got some sort of access to these local government systems. They potentially could do X, Y, Z. You need to be looking out for this sort of misinformation effort. It doesn't mean your votes are at risk.

And that sort of kind of getting out in front of it is a new change of strategy for the U.S. government to try and fight back against some of these misinformation efforts.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, and, of course, even if it's less severe than 2016 thus far, we certainly don't want to downplay this. It is definitely really worrisome. Is this just what we have to look forward to in our elections in the future? We just have this brave new world of other countries messing around.

EWING: Yeah, the short answer is probably yes, this is the way we live now. The specifics will change from year to year and election to election. But this is so easy and so relatively inexpensive for nations to do with the kind of capabilities they have in terms of spreading false information or using cyberattacks that it's probably something that we're going to have to get used to for many years to come - let's put it that way - in our political lives. But that doesn't mean that the American response necessarily will be static.

The other thing, Danielle, you know, that we really can't stress enough is these threats, this challenge probably not pertains to actual votes. So if you're out there and you haven't cast your ballot yet or you're thinking about going to a polling place in person on Election Day, you should go. Your vote likely will be counted, and everything will be fine in terms of the conduct of the election. What these threats, according to what national security officials tell us over and over again, are about - are things associated with election systems. So, like Miles said, if your county has a website that shows results, that might get defaced or targeted. Or things surrounding public databases might be involved with these attacks. But the actual process for conducting this election, we understand, continues free and fairly and will continue to do so.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, of course, that's super-important. Great. Well, Miles and Phil, thank you so much. This is such a super-important topic with 11 days to go.

PARKS: Thanks, Danielle.

EWING: Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk about how the candidates are spending this last full week of campaigning.

And we are back. And we are joined by Scott Detrow and Ayesha Rascoe once again. Hey, guys.


SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hello, hello, hello.

KURTZLEBEN: Eleven days left, you guys...

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Eleven days until a new phase starts - until we start...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: ...Counting votes and maybe we don't find out immediately. Such is life in 2020.

DETROW: Until we go into the West.

KURTZLEBEN: But OK (laughter). Yeah. We can always count on you for a "Lord Of The Rings" reference.

DETROW: I'm bringing...

KURTZLEBEN: All right...

DETROW: ...The atmosphere here of someone who was podcasting at midnight last night.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Let's do some loopy podcasting, guys. All right, so next week is the final full week out there on the campaign trail, so let's start with a really broad question. How are the campaigns spending those last precious days? Ayesha, let's start with you. Tell us about President Trump.

RASCOE: Well, President Trump is all about rallies. You know, he's going to be, you know, heading out to those pivotal states. And he's trying to recapture some of that magic that I - that he and the campaign clearly feel like helped him in 2016, you know, when he was doing multiple rallies a day. And they feel like that really helped them in the final stretch to bring home the presidency. And so I think he's kind of trying to recapture some of that. And he will be out there, and his surrogates will be out there, you know, at airports. If you're in a swing state, you know, like North Carolina or - you know, or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, maybe at someplace near you, at an airport, in a hangar with a bunch of people trying to win a presidency.

KURTZLEBEN: And these are all - are they all outdoors because of COVID? Is that what he's doing at this point?

RASCOE: Pretty much. You know...


RASCOE: ...At this point, all of them recently had - he has done some indoors, but not recently. Recently - and since he caught the coronavirus himself, they've all been outdoors.


RASCOE: But people without masks, outdoors, close together.

DETROW: He did do one indoors in Florida, which was ironically aimed at protecting seniors.

RASCOE: Yeah, I think that technically was not a rally, though. I think that was actually a White House event.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a fine line.

RASCOE: Yes. He does indoor events, but the rallies have been outside. He's still president, and he's still inside, and people can still catch the coronavirus. And, you know, obviously, as an incumbent, you can use all of that, right? I mean, the lines are kind of blurred - not technically. They're not supposed to be, but they are kind of, in effect.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. All right. So while Trump is out there whipping up enthusiasm among his diehard supporters at rallies, Scott, what is Biden up to?

DETROW: So, interestingly, Biden has, in the last week or so, really scaled back his campaign appearances. He was out last weekend in North Carolina. I was traveling with him that day. Since then, Biden hasn't held any events. Later today, after we tape this podcast, he's going to be giving a speech from Wilmington. This weekend, he'll be in Pennsylvania, in some interesting swing counties in Pennsylvania - not like the Philadelphia area that you saw President Obama in earlier this week.

So that's a little bit of reverting to the more cautious approach that Biden took this summer. But that doesn't really tell the full story because, first of all, the Biden campaign has thought all along that voters want a candidate who's careful about the coronavirus and risk exposure. Two, as we've talked about, Biden's campaign is just swamping the Trump campaign in advertising - millions and millions of dollars more, especially in the key states. You know, Biden's message is blanketing voters in every space.

And he's also deployed the superfriends in the final days of the race. Barack Obama is out in Pennsylvania. I think he's going to Florida next. Bernie Sanders is out holding events in Pennsylvania. Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have been hitting the campaign trail, mostly in this drive-in rally approach that the campaign has really embraced so that people can gather in groups safely. It is a full Democratic team swarm in the final weeks of this race.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's stick with Biden here, because he's ahead in national polls. He's outdoing Clinton in swing states, at least from what the polls tell us right now. So what is his message? What are the superfriends' message, as you called them, as he tries to hold onto that?

DETROW: There are a couple different messages. In terms of what Biden is spending his time talking about, it's a lot of what you heard on the debate stage last night. You know, the policy is taking a backseat to this broader message of, I am someone who's going to try to unite the country. I want to bring people together. I will respect voters even if they didn't vote for me, even if they backed President Trump.

From the message the campaign is driving out to its base, it's not what you'd expect. I mean, the Trump campaign is running all over the place saying, we could win this race; we're in this race. And the Biden campaign is saying, yeah, that's right. President Trump could win this race. We have a double-digit national lead. Please ignore that. This race is a lot closer. So you have this - like, this inverse effect going where this campaign is saying, we could lose; don't let up steam.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

DETROW: The ironic thing is they don't really have to tell Democrats to be nervous about this.


DETROW: Like, any Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 is well aware that they should be nervous about this race.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, let's look at the flip side of that. Ayesha, what about Trump as he tries to make up that ground and pull off that win?

RASCOE: Yeah. I mean, President Trump - I think the closing message for President Trump has been, like the Trump presidency, kind of all over the place. I think the message they want to deliver is that Trump is not a regular politician, but he gets things done. And the argument that he has done more in four years than Biden did in 47 years, Biden is just making promises that he can't keep - I think that is the argument they want to focus on.

The question that I have is whether that will actually be the one that is delivered because President Trump is often talking about Hunter Biden and corruption and all of these other things and fighting with "60 Minutes."


RASCOE: And he has not been someone who has been able to stick to a message. But I think that's the one they want to do. And I think also, the stuff about - you know, about oil and gas - and there was a moment in the debate last night where Biden said, we need to transition away from oil. And so they're trying - the campaign clearly sees an opening there, and they're going to try to drive home a message that, you know, Biden is against fossil fuels. And they think that will help them in states like Pennsylvania, Texas, elsewhere.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. But like you said, seizing on that, making that a thing, requires a fair bit of discipline, especially with this few days left. The question seems to be whether he can do that.

DETROW: And can I hop in on the fossil fuels thing? Because this has really been picked up over the last day or so. I mean, a lot of Republicans are saying that this was a gaffe from Joe Biden. I don't really think it was a gaffe. I think he was articulating what his policy lays out. He is talking about this massive overhaul of the country's energy infrastructure in a decade and a half. And, yeah, that would probably, ultimately, over the next couple of decades, phase out fossil fuels. Biden thinks that most Americans want to see that transition to happen. And I also just want to very quickly point out, not in as ranty (ph) of form as I've said on the Internet, you know, people talk about fracking in Pennsylvania. Yes, it's a big part of the economy in western Pennsylvania in particular. There's a lot of clean energy in Pennsylvania as well. There's a lot of solar industry. There's a lot of wind industry. This is a diverse energy economy.

RASCOE: It's a very complicated issue. And I think, I mean, Democrats for years, and certainly during the Obama administration, had been talking about making a transition to a clean energy economy. That has been a part of the message. You know, I don't know that it's a big shock to a voter voting for a Democrat that they want to move towards clean energy. Obama won the White House twice with that very same message.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Although I've seen - but we've seen climate change really gain a lot of steam among Democrats, especially in the last few years with the Green New Deal. So, I mean, it seems like this is becoming - this is only growing as an issue for them.

Well, let's switch gears one more time and let's talk about just how little time is left, right? We saw the debate last night. It didn't seem to make too many waves. And as we know, historically, debates don't tend to sway elections much. There aren't a lot of big events left, guys. We're in a new phase here. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of time for big changes to happen, right?

DETROW: Well...

RASCOE: There are no big events left that we know of.

DETROW: That we know of is key.


RASCOE: Well, that we know of.

KURTZLEBEN: Good point.

RASCOE: There better not be no more big events. I can't take it.

DETROW: We are taping - this Friday is 11 days to Election Day. That is the exact same window where - surprise - FBI Director Jim Comey sent out a letter saying that he was - he had found new evidence in the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which, as we know, did not lead to any substantive changes to his earlier conclusions in that investigation. It really disrupted the race. There's a lot of argument that that was one of the many things that cost Hillary Clinton in the end in that very close election. But more than 50 million people have already cast ballots.


DETROW: That number is going to keep growing every day. I mean, it's just - you can't even describe how unprecedented the early vote is. And on top of that, we have been talking for a year and a half about the fact that most voters had already made up their minds in this election. So even if something like that were to happen, I think it'd be very hard to have the impact it did even four years ago.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. All right, well, let's leave it there for now. And when we get back, Can't Let It Go.

And we are back. And it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, 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. Scott Detrow, let's start with you. What can't you let go of?

DETROW: I want to talk about the triumphant rise and inevitable fall of the #debatedogs, if that's OK with you.


KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

DETROW: (Laughter) One of - as a lot of listeners know, one of my side passion projects over the years is to get people to tweet pictures of their dogs watching presidential debates with the #debatedogs. I did this for every single one of the 16,000 Democratic debates. I did it for these debates. And I really wanted to go out with a bang last night. So I started pushing it early in the night. I got a lot of people to help me. And there was a beautiful two-hour window where debate dogs became trending, and thousands of people were sending pictures of their dogs in the hashtag. And I have on TweetDeck just a column up for it. And I just saw all these dogs flashing by, and it made me so happy. But then, as always happens, the Internet very quickly ruined it. Because it started to get trending, people started including it with a lot of bot-type accounts as well in their broader debate hashtags.


DETROW: And it was just suddenly people in all caps screaming at each other in debatedogs. And I was like, no.


RASCOE: So it would be like something, something, negative, negative - debate dogs (laughter).

DETROW: Yeah. So...

KURTZLEBEN: It's like it almost - it's not quite milkshake ducking, but it's something adjacent to milkshake ducking.

DETROW: Its close, which, of course, would happen. Of course, it's Twitter.


RASCOE: And it's 2020, so nothing - you can't have nice things.



DETROW: I still consider it a success and a validation, and I'm excited to start debate dogs hashtags again in 2023, unless we're not on Twitter anymore by then.


DETROW: And I'll leave you with that.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Let's not talk about 2023. Let's get through next week. Two weeks, two weeks (laughter). So, Danielle, what can you not let go of this week? Did you like that? I did it in a very nice voice.

DETROW: That was good.

KURTZLEBEN: That was great.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let me just say I'm going to continue in the sad vein of we can't have nice things. I'm - the thing I can't...

DETROW: Of course.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, I know. The thing I can't let go of is "Charlie Brown" holiday specials.


DETROW: Oh, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: This bums you out. Guys, Apple TV two years ago bought the rights from ABC to "Charlie Brown" holiday specials like "Great Pumpkin," "Charlie Brown Christmas." So now Apple Plus or Apple TV Plus or whatever it's called - that is where...

RASCOE: Apple Plus.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Those - yes, Apple Plus. That is where these shows will be exclusively available, which means, like, children this year will not have the joy of turning on the TV some random weeknight, and, lo and behold, there's Linus reading the Bible passage or putting his blanket on his head like a shepherd. No, no, no. You have to pay for the right of that now. I just - I feel like "Charlie Brown" holiday specials - they are a right, not a privilege.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: That is my political platform for (laughter) - for the rest of my life.

DETROW: Danielle, is what you're saying that these holidays have become commercialized?

RASCOE: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: (Laughter).



KURTZLEBEN: ...Lord. See, Scott has absorbed the message, and children of the future...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: ...Won't know that.

DETROW: I mean, like, obviously you can pull it up anytime you want, but there's something about just flipping through and watching...


DETROW: ...It. And you're, like, oh, "Charlie Brown Christmas" is on. "Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" is on. That - you know, that does make me sad.

RASCOE: I do have to say, though, that many kids probably are not just flipping through. Like, my kids would...

DETROW: I know.


RASCOE: ...Never come to - they would never come across it because they - you know, everything is on demand. So unfortunately, a lot of kids probably would not just come across it. But I do think it is a bit against the spirit of Charlie Brown. But, you know, capitalism comes for us all. And I have an Apple TV subscription, so it works for me.

DETROW: You and Lucy Van Pelt...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...And Snoopy watching on Apple TV.

RASCOE: So I will be watching that, you know? But yes, it is sad. And I love the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special, so - and we always have our little "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree every year.


RASCOE: So it's...

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, Ayesha, cheer us up. What can't you let go of this week?

RASCOE: (Laughter) I don't know that this is - I mean, this is something - this is, I think, more upbeat because it's about engagement, right? And so this is about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC. She was on this thing that the - speaking of the young people - Twitch. And she had this massive streaming audience. She was trying to get people to vote, but she had, like, 400,000 people watching her play this game called Among Us on this Twitch. Do y'all know what the Twitch is? I don't really know what Twitch is, but I think it lets you watch...


RASCOE: ...Video games. It lets...

DETROW: Our colleague Juana Summers watches a lot of Twitch. I became aware of Twitch during my four weeks of being really into South Korean baseball this year.

RASCOE: Oh, OK. So it lets you watch people play video games. Is that correct? Am I correct in that?


RASCOE: (Laughter).



DETROW: And Bernie Sanders rallies. Bernie Sanders...

RASCOE: And...

DETROW: ...Was big on Twitch.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, interesting.

RASCOE: OK. And so there were 400,000 people watching her play this game, Among Us, which is basically, like, you play on this game, and you're trying to work on, like, this spaceship to fix stuff. But there are also these impostors who are sabotaging and killing people, and you have to figure out who the imposters are. And, you know, so they play this game. And, you know, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was also on the team and played this as well. So, I mean, this was a big thing. This shows, like, AOC really gets attention, No. 1, wherever she goes. But she's also using it to try to get people to vote. And it shows, like, there are all these different platforms for the young people (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: And the thing is...

DETROW: Who aren't watching "Charlie Brown" on ABC.

RASCOE: Ah. And I have started playing Nintendo Switch.


RASCOE: So maybe I could get on Twitch.

KURTZLEBEN: Are you doing Animal Crossing, Ayesha?

RASCOE: I am doing Animal Crossing.


RASCOE: Before, I thought it was like Frogger, but then I found out it wasn't.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

RASCOE: And it is a very good way to - so no animals are getting run over. But it is a good way to just in your day sometimes to just do the little task and just to feel like, OK, I've - you know, now the store's open. Now I've collected all the iron ore that I need. Like, it's a good way to just decompress after a long day. So I have gotten into that.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to go let Ayesha fire up her gaming rig. For now...


KURTZLEBEN: ...That is a wrap for today. We have great people who make this podcast with us. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thank you to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Kalyani Saxena. I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign for two more weeks - or more.

RASCOE: (Laughter) And I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House

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


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