Morning News Brief

Aug 21, 2018
Originally published on August 21, 2018 9:46 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The meddling has certainly not ended. A group with ties to the Russian government has been linked to another hacking attempt.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. Microsoft said last night that it discovered and then disabled six misleading websites apparently created by the group APT28, also known as Fancy Bear. The group was active during the 2016 presidential election. That's where you heard that name a lot. Cybersecurity researchers blamed them for the hack of John Podesta's email account, Hillary Clinton's former campaign chairman.

GREENE: All right. This latest story was broken by The Washington Post and reporters Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin. And Elizabeth joins us this morning.

Good morning.

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on and talking about your reporting. Can you tell me what exactly Microsoft discovered here? I mean, what was this group's goal? And who were they targeting?

DWOSKIN: Well, Microsoft discovered six websites. Now, remember, Microsoft is managing one of the largest corporate email programs in the world, so they really care about phishing attacks, when you open up your email and you click on a link and then you're taken to a website. You know, you think it's an email from a trusted person, and then you're taken to a website that is loaded up with malware and...

GREENE: And stealing stuff from me if I'm...

DWOSKIN: ...It's going to take your credentials.

GREENE: Yeah.

DWOSKIN: Yep. Yep. Yep, exactly. And so this wasn't like what we saw with the Russian IRA, Russian operatives on Facebook, where they're actively creating these pages that are trying to sow divisive messages in the U.S. political pages. This was different. These were going to be set up as impersonation pages for the U.S. Senate and also for two prominent think tanks as well.

GREENE: Oh, I see. So this would be kind of, in theory, luring me in. If I was going to look at something on a conservative think tank or in the U.S. Senate website, I might accidentally go to one of these sites. And they could somehow phish me and start collecting data from my stuff.

DWOSKIN: Yeah. That's what it looked like it was about to be. It didn't get to that point, or at least Microsoft didn't know of any attack that had been staged from these pages. But it was - these pages, they said, had ties to the group that is publicly linked to the Russian intelligence agency. And so it really shows how active these efforts are to meddle in our democracy two months ahead of the midterms.

GREENE: Well, Microsoft says that they've actually been tracking this group for a couple years now. So what is the timing of this? Why speak out about this now?

DWOSKIN: Yeah, I thought that was fascinating. That was, like, one of my biggest questions for them is, why now? - because they said they've found actually 84 websites associated with the group for the last two years. And the reason for the why now is that they've seen an uptick in activity leading into the midterms, which is scary. But I think it's also more that tech companies right now, Silicon Valley as a whole, is wrestling with how to be more public, how to be more transparent. These are - tend to be really secretive, competitive companies. How do they be more transparent about the threats against them and the way their own systems might be weaponized?

And remember, it's frightening because here you are naming a foreign country and a foreign government, potentially making yourself into a bigger target, and just getting involved in these geopolitical issues that you're not used to. It also can make you look bad if you were the subject of an attack. So it's very risky for them. But Microsoft's president, who I interviewed today, he said that - excuse me, yesterday - he said that they just feel like it's an imperative now, which is what the companies are kind of stretching towards.

GREENE: And I'm sure we might be hearing more of this in the months leading up to the midterms. It sounds like Russia is still at it.

Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post, thanks so much for talking to us this morning. We really appreciate it.

DWOSKIN: Thanks for having me, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So you might remember the Clean Power Plan. That was one of the Obama administration's signature efforts to combat climate change. It was designed to achieve a 32 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from power plants by the year 2030 compared to levels in 2005.

MARTIN: Right. And back in March of 2017, President Trump took the first steps toward rolling it all back. And now today he is set to reveal a dramatic rewrite of those very regulations with much less stringent emissions rules on power plants.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Nathan Rott covers the environment for NPR. He's based with me here in Los Angeles. He's here in the studio.

Hi, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: OK. So you haven't seen the final documents yet from the Trump administration. Right? But what do we know so far?

ROTT: Well, we know the new proposal's name, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE for short...

GREENE: OK.

ROTT: ...Which is definitely a sharper acronym than we usually get for government rules.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That's true. They were helpful in that way.

ROTT: But in terms of substance, I'm going to talk generally here because we have not seen the details. We know that they're looking to place the onus of regulating carbon emissions from power plants on the states. So under this proposal, states would make their own regulatory plans for coal-fired power plants. And then the EPA would come in and eventually say, yeah, that works or no, that doesn't. Now, that's a big shift from Obama's approach, which had the federal government imposing pollution standards.

So the catch is critics of this proposal worry that states could do very little to address carbon dioxide emissions or nothing at all. And the EPA could still give them the green light. Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA under Obama, told reporters yesterday that it creates a loophole in air regulations that she says, essentially is a huge gimme to coal-fired power plants. It gives them a free pass to increase carbon pollution and other pollutants.

GREENE: All right. So Nate, it is still not clear - and this seems really important - what the EPA would actually do if they have a state that is actually not doing that much to curb emissions, like what power they would have and what they would do.

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, that's the big question - or a big question here. And we honestly don't know the answer to that. This EPA might handle it differently than another. And this proposal is supposed to be rolled out over the course of years past the current term of this administration. And frankly, we don't even know that this proposal is going to become law. It's a proposal. The Clean Power Plan was approved in 2015 after years of crafting, and it never went into effect. It was challenged by dozens of states, and the Supreme Court put a stay on it in 2016.

I think it's very fair to say that this proposal by the Trump administration is going to be challenged, too, by environmental groups and maybe even some states who want to see the federal government taking a more hands-on approach to this type of pollution. Remember, air pollution does not know state lines. That's the reason we have an Environmental Protection Agency. What happens in one state affects others. And that's especially true when we're talking about greenhouse gases that can change the global climate.

GREENE: Nate, coal jobs came up very prominently in the last presidential election. President Trump has said that he wants to fight for people who work in the coal industry. Is this change likely to help coal plants?

ROTT: You know, some environmental groups and critics are worried that it will keep old coal-fired power plants operating longer than they would have otherwise. Longer term? No. President Trump is likely to tout this later in West Virginia at his campaign rally. But barring some huge unforeseen change in the energy market, coal is not making a comeback. Natural gas is cheaper. Renewable energies are booming. And this proposal does nothing to change that.

GREENE: NPR's Nathan Rott here at NPR West in LA.

Nate, thanks.

ROTT: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So inmates in many of America's prisons are getting ready to begin a protest today that includes both work and hunger strikes.

MARTIN: Yeah, they're protesting what they say are unacceptable conditions, pointing to violence, understaffing and the use of lockdowns. But the issue that's really uniting the prisoners in this moment is how their labor is used and, in their view, how their labor is exploited.

GREENE: All right, German Lopez is a senior reporter at Vox who has been covering this story. He's in our studio in Washington, D.C.

German, good morning.

GERMAN LOPEZ: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Thanks for coming in and talking about this. Can we start with this labor issue? I mean, these inmates feel that they are forced to work and treated unfairly. Remind us what type of jobs they're doing, what the conditions are and what's really prompting this.

LOPEZ: Sure. So the big thing is how much they're paid. Usually, they're paid about an average, in state prisons, of 20 cents an hour. In some cases, they're not paid anything at all. So that kind of colors this entire conversation. This is what makes it, as they refer to it, quote, unquote, "prison slavery."

And essentially, what these jobs entail - I mean, they can be anything from doing work for private companies. So in the past, there have been, like, things where, like, Starbucks or Victoria's Secret is actually getting products from some of these inmates and their subcontractors. And sometimes, these are really menial tasks, like doing chores around prison. Sometimes it's, like, cutting hair. In California, a big one that always gets attention every year is inmate firefighters. So the state actually uses inmates that they volunteer to go out to these wildfires, and they help fight them.

GREENE: Putting them in harm's way. I mean, it's - I just want to make clear here, I mean, you said that they talk about these things as prison slavery. This is technically legal under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Right?

LOPEZ: Right. So the 13th Amendment is what we know as abolishing slavery. But one thing that's important in that amendment is that it has a very clear exception for anyone who's been convicted of a crime. They can still be forced into involuntary servitude, essentially, as part of their punishment. And in fact, if you go back at some, like, old court cases, the Virginia Supreme Court specifically called it slavery shortly after the amendment was passed. So it's not exactly out of the - like, it's not out of the mainstream, necessarily, to consider this involuntary servitude, or slavery, as a part of their punishment.

GREENE: OK. So we're expecting hunger strikes, work strikes. How widespread could these protests be in the coming days?

LOPEZ: So we know that at least 17 states are participating. It's not totally clear because it's kind of difficult to communicate with people in prison. Right? So - but it...

GREENE: Planning a protest from inside a prison cell is probably difficult.

LOPEZ: Yeah. So that's one thing that's inherently difficult here, is figuring out exactly how many people will be involved. But we know that in 2016 when similar protests were planned, it ended up being the largest protest up to that point in a prison, and thousands of inmates participated around the country.

GREENE: All right, German Lopez is a senior reporter at Vox talking to us about these protests in American prisons that are expected to start today. A lot of uncertainties - we'll be watching that.

Thanks so much for joining us, German. We appreciate it.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.