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The Latest On Election Security


There are new signs that Russia may be intensifying its efforts to disrupt the 2020 presidential elections. Bernie Sanders was briefed by U.S. officials on Russian attempts to try to help him in the Democratic primary, help he says he does not want. Last week, intelligence officials told House lawmakers that Russia wants to help President Trump get reelected. At a campaign rally in Las Vegas yesterday, Trump once again blamed Democrats.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's disinformation. That's the only thing they're good at. They're not good at anything else. They get nothing done - do-nothing Democrats.

SIMON: We're joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers election security. Pam, thanks so much for being with us.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Quick fact check first - is what the president said true?

FESSLER: Now, I mean, this information comes from his own intelligence officials, and they widely agree that Russia is trying to interfere in the elections and that they seem to have a preference for Trump.

SIMON: Now, to be explicit here, we don't know what Russia may be doing to try and boost Bernie Sanders. We don't know what the intelligence looks like. There does seem to be a lot of confusion.

FESSLER: Exactly, which, of course, is what Russia's main goal is - to create confusion with our elections. Sanders confirmed yesterday that intelligence officials told him a month ago that Russia was trying to help his campaign, and that's something that the Mueller investigation found. They also did in 2016 in an effort to stop Hillary Clinton from getting elected. Sanders responded by saying that Russia should stay out of U.S. elections. He also took a stab at President Trump, saying that, quote, "Russians want to undermine American democracy by dividing us up, and unlike the current president, I stand firmly against these (ph) efforts."

And that was likely a reference to President Trump's response to news this week that House lawmakers were told that Russia's trying to get him reelected - something that's angered the president, who doesn't want people to think he's in his job because of Russia. And he dismissed it as a hoax, and after the briefing, he replaced his acting director of national intelligence with another acting director.

SIMON: And, of course, this report comes out as - today we have Democratic voters going to caucus in Nevada. Is there concern that this could shake their confidence in the process?

FESSLER: Well, it definitely doesn't help. I mean, as you know, voters were already nervous because of the meltdown in the Iowa caucuses, when this reporting app that they used failed. And we have to see how things are going to go in Nevada, but just broadly, polls that we've done here at NPR and other polls have shown that voters are very worried about the accuracy of these elections and about foreign efforts to interfere. And these new intelligence reports are disturbing, but also, the response is pretty disturbing. Sanders yesterday seemed to question why this news about Russians helping him leaked the day before the primaries, in which he leads - these caucuses. And then Trump yesterday accused Democrats - other Democrats of doing it to hurt Sanders' chances of getting the nomination.

SIMON: From what you've learned, Pam, what kind of threats are intelligence officials most worried about?

FESSLER: Well, the biggest thing is disinformation campaigns, the kind of things we saw in 2016, and they actually really haven't stopped. And that was the main focus of that House intelligence briefing - that they expect that Russia, as well as others, are going to try to take advantage of our political divisions and amplify them and basically try and goad Americans into fighting with each other more than we already are. And they're also watching out for, you know, possible attacks on the voting process itself, efforts to hack into voting systems or registration databases or maybe even things like ransomware attacks that might disrupt voting.

I think actually, the biggest concern is that they're worried that Russians or the Iranians or some other - maybe even a domestic actor is just going to not actually change votes but make people believe that they can and that that will undermine confidence just enough so that people will question the legitimacy of the results. And I think we're starting, quite frankly, to see some of that right now with all these reports.

SIMON: NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks so much.

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

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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