A tiny federal agency that plays a crucial role in assisting the nation’s local election supervisors is gripped by a leadership crisis that has sparked concerns that it is unprepared to play its role in protecting the 2020 presidential race from foreign interference. Brian Newby, the executive director of the Election Assistance Commission, has blocked important work on election security, micromanaged employees’ interactions with partners outside the agency and routinely ignored staff questions, according to former election officials, former federal employees and others who regularly work with the agency. In doing so, Newby has not only frustrated his own employees and helped create a staff exodus — nine EAC office directors have left since Newby arrived — but also angered cybersecurity experts, election integrity activists and state and local officials. His reputation in the elections community conjures up “the eye-roll emoji,” said one former election official. “Everybody kind of puts up with him.” POLITICO’s seven sources — all of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly — described Newby, a Republican, as too beholden to the EAC’s GOP chairwoman, Christy McCormick, who masterminded his appointment and later spent years denying the reality of Russian interferencein the 2016 election. They also said that Newby alienated his agency almost immediately by wading into the issue of a citizenship requirement for voter eligibility — and that he has failed to regain their trust ever since. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the lawmakers most focused on election security, told POLITICO that “if these allegations are true, Brian Newby should immediately resign.”
Election security legislation is hitting a wall on Capitol Hill despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report detailing Russia’s attempts to interfere with the nation’s last presidential contest. The standoff is frustrating Democrats, who say President Trump’s remarks to ABC News that he would be open to accepting information on a political opponent invited more interference in the next election. “I can’t believe Senator McConnell is not entertaining election security measures right now. … We don’t have a lot of time left,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. The House passed a sweeping ethics and election reform bill that includes a paper ballot requirement and early voting standards. It also includes unrelated issues like tightening campaign finance laws, requiring a president and vice president to release their tax returns, and tapping independent commissions to draw redistricting maps. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed that it won’t get a vote, referring to it as the “Democratic Politician Protection Act.”
National: Democrats accelerate election security push after Trump comments | Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro/Associated Press
Alarmed by President Donald Trump’s willingness to accept foreign dirt on a political opponent, House Democrats are accelerating their efforts to strengthen election security ahead of the 2020 campaign. Lawmakers had already been compiling a fresh package of bills in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings in the Trump-Russia probe. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats are now pushing ahead with votes because it’s part of “what the American people elected us to do.” It remains to be seen if passage of bills through the House will break the stalemate in Congress over what to do about election security. While Russia interfered in the presidential election more than two years ago, lawmakers have yet to act on legislation — and there is no shortage of proposals. Democrats sped up their efforts after Trump suggested Wednesday in an interview with ABC News that he was open to accepting a foreign power’s help in his 2020 campaign. He appeared to walk those comments back Friday, telling Fox News that “of course” he would go to the FBI or the attorney general if a foreign power offered him dirt about an opponent.
In the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, American officials have sought to implement new cybersecurity measures in preparation for upcoming votes, even at the state and local levels. The electoral landscape has essentially changed, and a newly published white paper outlines the resultant dangers, while also making suggestions for state and local governments on how to take preventative action against potential hackers and bad actors. Securing America’s Elections, published by Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, suggests that more needs to be done to protect electoral infrastructure at all levels of government, while also asking the question: how likely is it that foreign powers — like Russia — will attempt another large-scale intervention in United States elections?
National: Mitch McConnell: Why the Senate leader is rejecting Hill calls on election security | Ted Barrett, Manu Raju and Clare Foran/CNN
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to buckle to the near constant drumbeat from Democrats — and some Republicans — about the need to pass election security legislation in the wake of the report from special counsel Robert Mueller that found Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The Kentucky Republican, who believes strongly that elections should be primarily controlled by state and local authorities and not managed by Washington, argues that the federal government has already responded to the problems raised from the 2016 campaign and more does not need to be done at this time. McConnell thinks Democrats have poisoned the water through their early legislative efforts on election security. Still, moving forward with some of the bills pushed by Democrats — namely to require FBI disclosure for any foreign assistance — would amount to an implicit rebuke of Trump, a fight that Republican leaders are eager to avoid. Behind the scenes, congressional Democrats are finalizing their plans to mount a pressure campaign on McConnell in the weeks ahead to try to shame him for his opposition to these matters.
National: Trump says supporters might ‘demand’ that he serve more than two terms as president | Felicia Sonmez/The Washington Post
President Trump on Sunday floated the possibility of staying in office longer than two terms, suggesting in a morning tweet that his supporters might “demand that I stay longer.” The president, who will kick off his reelection campaign on Tuesday with an event in Orlando, has previously joked about serving more than two terms, including at an event in April, when he told a crowd that he might remain in the Oval Office “at least for 10 or 14 years.” The 22nd Amendment of the Constitution limits the presidency to two terms. In tweets Sunday morning, Trump also voiced dissatisfaction with recent news coverage of his administration, calling both The Washington Post and the New York Times “the Enemy of the People.” He added: “The good news is that at the end of 6 years, after America has been made GREAT again and I leave the beautiful White House (do you think the people would demand that I stay longer? KEEP AMERICA GREAT), both of these horrible papers will quickly go out of business & be forever gone!”
National: FBI faces new hurdle in election interference fight: Donald Trump | Darren Samuelsohn and Natasha Bertrand/Politico
Nearly two years ago, FBI Director Chris Wray set up an office tasked solely with stopping the type of Russian inference efforts that infected the 2016 campaign. On Wednesday night, Trump undercut the whole operation in a matter of seconds. In an ABC News interview, the president first proclaimed he would have no problem accepting dirt on his opponents from a foreign power, then said Wray was “wrong” to suggest the FBI needs to know about such offers. The comments, according to interviews with nearly a dozen law enforcement veterans, have undone months of work, essentially inviting foreign spies to meddle with 2020 presidential campaigns and demoralizing the agents trying to stop them. And it’s backed Wray into a corner, they added, putting him in a position where he might have to either publicly chastise the president and risk getting fired, or resign in protest. America’s enemies will see Trump’s comments and likely “come out of the woodwork like never before to try to influence the president,” said longtime FBI veteran Frank Figliuzzi, who served as the bureau’s assistant director for counterintelligence until 2012. “And it’s going to be more difficult to defend against because they’ll try harder than ever to mask their attempts.”
National: ‘Deepfake’ videos called new election threat, with no easy fix | Susannah George/San Francisco Chronicle
“Deepfake” videos pose a clear and growing threat to America’s national security, lawmakers and experts say. The question is what to do about it, and that’s not easily answered. A House Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday served up a public warning about the deceptive powers of artificial intelligence software and offered a sobering assessment of how fast the technology is outpacing efforts to stop it. With a crudely altered video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco., fresh on everyone’s minds, lawmakers heard from experts how difficult it will be to combat these fakes and prevent them from being used to interfere in the 2020 election. “We don’t have a general solution,” said David Doermann, a former official with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “This is a cat and a mouse game.” As the ability to detect such videos improves, so does the technology used to make them. The videos are made using facial mapping and artificial intelligence. The altered video of Pelosi, which was viewed more than 3 million times on social media, gave only a glimpse of what the technology can do. Experts dismissed the clip, which was slowed down to make it appear that Pelosi was slurring her words, as nothing more than a “cheap fake.”
Editorials: Norway, if you’re listening: Feel free to hack our presidential race | Doyle McManus/Los Angeles Times
Just about every cybersecurity expert agrees that Russia is likely to meddle again in next year’s presidential election — and other governments may try too. And why shouldn’t they? The cost is laughably low, and they face few if any penalties if they’re caught. After all, President Trump says he’d welcome an offer from a foreign government to slip him derogatory information about his opponents. “If somebody called from a country — Norway — [saying,] ‘We have information on your opponent,’ I think I’d want to hear it,” the president told ABC News last week. “It’s not an interference. They have information, I think I’d take it.” Trump had every chance to say he’d reject a backdoor offer from a country more worrisome than Norway — Russia, for example. But he didn’t. Instead, he resorted to one of his favorite schoolyard defenses: Everybody does it; don’t be a chump. That undercut officials in his own administration who have warned foreign powers that messing in our elections will be considered a hostile act. And it distressed at least some Republicans in Congress who don’t relish being branded the Party that Welcomes Help In Elections from Foreign Intelligence Agencies.
Florida: Senators Question FBI’s Response to 2016 Russian Hack of Florida Election Tech | Brandi Vincent/Nextgov
A pair of Democratic lawmakers penned a letter this week grilling the Federal Bureau of Investigations on the steps it’s taking to investigate and protect American election technology vendors from potential Russian-led cyber-hacking. In a correspondence addressed to FBI director Christopher Wray, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., questioned the bureau’s response to the Russian government’s potential hack of the Florida-based manufacturer of voter-registration software and election pollbooks, VR Systems, during the November 2016 election. The senators reference Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, highlighting that about three months ahead of the election, Russian GRU officers “targeted employees of [redacted], a voting technology company that developed software used by numerous U.S. counties to manage voter rolls, and installed malware on the company network.”
New Hampshire: Secretary of State Gardner skips regional election security forum | Paul Briand/SeacoastOnline
Citing concerns about federal security agencies running state elections, N.H. Secretary of State William Gardner declined to attend an election security forum this week in his own back yard, at the University of New Hampshire. The forum’s host, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, said the forum served as an opportunity for New England states and federal agencies to share information about threats to the 2020 election and how to protect against them. Matthew McCann, regional director of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and organizer of the event, called Gardner’s concerns a “misperception” of what the forum was all about. Gardner cited two reasons for not participating in the two-day New England Regional State Election Security Forum organized by CISA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One was the closed-door nature of the forum at UNH, his alma mater, and the other was a concern the forum served as a platform to legitimize federal security agency oversight and control of state elections, something he said should never happen. Invitees included secretaries of state from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as representatives from DHS, U.S. Secret Service, FBI and National Guard.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued a new security directive Tuesday to county board of elections to implement significant security upgrades. Area elections officials are optimistic they’ll stop anything that could disrupt an election. Kathy Meyer, director of the Allen County Board of Elections, said the board wants voters to feel safe and know their votes will count and that the correct information is in the system without someone getting into the system who shouldn’t. Michelle Wilcox, Auglaize County Board of Elections director, said she supports protecting the voting system from any cyber security threats. “Not only did we have mandates put into effect last year, but they are now going into greater depth to be sure everything is in place by Jan. 31, 2020,” Wilcox said. The directive provides Ohio with the opportunity to continue to strengthen the security of the election system and become a best practical leader nationwide in the statewide efforts to make elections safer. It instructs county boards of elections on continuing action and outlines additional requirements that each board must take to enhance its overall elections security and to protect its information technology systems.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea says a contract has been awarded to build a new central voter registration system for the state. The Democrat announced Thursday that Stonewall Solutions, of Pawtucket, was awarded the contract. The computer database, designed in 2005, houses the state’s list of registered voters and acts as Rhode Island’s election management system. Gorbea says a modernized system will help ensure elections are secure and streamline the way election officials process voter records, update the voter list, check ballots and certify mail ballots.
International: Election hacking has never been cheaper, easier or more profitable | Dan Patterson/CNET
Being a professional hacker has never been more straightforward and lucrative than it is today. According to cyberdefense experts at Microsoft, cybercrime will be a $6 trillion industry by 2022. Hacking tools are available on the dark web for as little as $500 dollars, and some are sold with 24-hour support. The ubiquity of low-cost hacking tools means that elections in the United States and all over the world are persistently threatened by a large and diverse set of hackers. Spikes in malware and phishing attacks targeting political campaigns have been detected during recent elections in Russia, Turkey, Colombia, Azerbaijan and Mali; keyloggers and Trojans were detected in key battleground states ahead of the 2018 US midterm election; and according to the Department of Homeland Security, during the 2016 election all 50 states saw some type of attempted cyberintrusion.
In many ways, the European Parliament elections in late May were calmer than expected. The more extreme political players, while gaining strength, did not do as well as many predicted. Cyber aggression and disinformation operations seem to not have been as dramatic as in 2016, when Russian hackers and disinformation campaigns targeted elections in the U.S., France and elsewhere around the world. However, there is no reason to be content. The dangers remain real. For one thing, the target societies might have internalized the cleavages and chaos from information operations or self-sabotaged with divisive political rhetoric. As a reaction, Russia may have scaled back its efforts, seeing an opportunity to benefit from lying low. Disinformation campaigns seek to sow chaos and disorder; in the run-up to the elections, the EU had plenty of that already, without any outside help. In the cybersecurity sphere, the defenders seem to have successfully changed the adversarial calculation for this time around.
Europe: Russia Sought to Use Social Media to Influence EU Vote, Report Finds | Adam Satariano/The New York Times
European authorities blamed Russian groups on Friday for disinformation campaigns designed to depress turnout and sway public opinion in last month’s European Union elections, an official accounting that underscored how Russian interference has not abated and that Facebook and other tech platforms remain vulnerable to meddling. The preliminary review by the European Commission and the bloc’s foreign policy and security arm found that Russian-linked groups and other nonstate actors had worked to undermine credibility in the European Union through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Officials said new regulations might be needed to force internet platforms to do more to stop the spread of deliberately false information. “The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the report said. The report was the first official substantiation by the European Commission of the role that Russians and other groups played in disinformation in the May elections, which many investigators, academics and advocacy groups had warned about. It was a reminder of how active Russians and others continue to be in spreading divisive content online to inflame and stoke electorates all over the world, a strategy that the Kremlin had pioneered in the 2016 American presidential election.