In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Franklin Foer, journalist and staff writer for The Atlantic, about America's preparedness for potential Russian election interference in 2020. Foer, whose latest piece, "Putin Is Well on his Way to Stealing the Next Election," examined the lingering vulnerabilities in U.S. election systems, explains where weaknesses still exist and how Russian operatives may be altering their tactics ahead of the presidential election. He also discusses the potential effects of widespread civil unrest in the U.S. and global turbulence related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how Putin's own domestic standing may affect his approach.
- Effects on U.S. intelligence: "One of one of the most chilling things that I heard in the course of my reporting is that the various analysts who had been detailed to the ODNI to work on Russia and Russian interference were all asking to get transferred, or a lot of them were asking to get transferred out because they didn't believe that their – they believed that there would be such political pressure coming to bear on their assessments that they didn't think that they would be able to produce credible works that they could stand behind."
- Deterring Russia: "I think the extent to which Russia has been punished for what it did in 2016 has been quite minimal. When it comes to sowing distrust of authoritative information and distrust of American institutions, Trump has been instrumental in in in denigrating those, which makes it easier for Russian misinformation to spread. Even the question of Russian interference itself has become this partisan issue. And when the intelligence community wants to relay information about an attack, it's now questioned as being a partial, partisan actor in it, not a credible re-teller of a narrative. And I think Putin and when he surveys the scene, has got to be incredibly pleased [...]"
- Putin's domestic vulnerabilities: "Russia has been hit really badly by coronavirus, and Putin's response has not been wonderful. Putin is not somebody who thrives in crises. And so he's weak right now. And so the question is, does that weakness cause him to want to lash out and to do something that will assert himself in a very prominent sort of way for the sake of his own ego and for the sake of domestic audiences and for the sake of trying to prove his relevance on a global stage?"
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – FRANKLIN FOER
MICHAEL MORELL: Frank, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show. It's great to have you as a part of our series on foreign interference in the 2020 election. I should say, I'm always interested in what led my guests to their respective careers. So let me just take a minute or two to start by asking you, how did you end up as a journalist?
FRANKLIN FOER: So I started as a journalist right out of my senior year in college. I went to work at Slate in the summer that Slate was getting started up. So it was hailed as the first real Internet magazine, and so I drove out to Seattle because Microsoft then owned Slate and Microsoft was in the process of assembling what was going to be a massive media empire that never quite took hold.
But I was kind of at Microsoft at the moment when it was the evil empire, when it was the kind of force that was dominating the world. And ever since then, I've been convinced that I would never quite make it as a journalist. So I'm always, even now, decades later, I'm kind of pleasantly surprised by every time an article of mine ends up in print. And it's really -- I just got to say, it's a great, great career because you're always able to follow your curiosity. And so I feel very, very blessed to have a career that's as interesting as journalism permits.
MICHAEL MORELL: I would imagine, like so many of my former colleagues at CIA, that being a journalist is something that for you has meaning that goes well beyond just a paycheck.
FRANKLIN FOER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for me, it's almost -- it's not just the sense of mission, which is really wonderful. I love taking on subjects where I feel a sense of just justice or outrage or or passion about the subject. I mean, it really is a lifestyle. Because you are able to ask people questions all the time, which is kind of a wonderful way of engaging our fellow human beings, to come to them in that spirit of curiosity.
And it's also for me, it's just the form of intellectual engagement that the profession permits means that not only do I think I get to get to give my values, but it's like I just can't really think of anything that would be more satisfying to my brain than than the career that I have.
MICHAEL MORELL: That's cool. So, Frank, your your piece in the Atlantic recently on Russia and the 2020 election, why did you write that?
FRANKLIN FOER: Well, this is a saga that I feel like I've been involved with since it began. So I -- in the 2016 campaign I wrote a long profile about Paul Manafort, and because of Paul Manafort, worked in Ukraine and his tangled business interests led me to start thinking about all the reasons why Donald Trump was praising Vladimir Putin and also led me to pay attention to all the very explicit things that the Russians were saying about American politics.
And there was so much that was just sitting out there in the open during the 2016 campaign about the hacks on the DNC and and the relationship to WikiLeaks. And I wrote a piece in July of 2016 called "Putin's Puppet" about Donald Trump and about Russian plans for interfering in that election. And so this is a subject that I've always cared about. And it just struck me as we were moving into this election season that there's so much that's going on in the world that -- we had this kind of politics of distraction where it's very hard for us to focus on any given problem.
And I just felt like I'd started working on this narrative four years ago. We knew, based on some of the intelligence community's reporting to the Hill, that the Russians were interfering -- intended to interfere in our elections again. And I felt like it was almost my duty to the narrative to look into what was happening and to examine really how our system responded to the events of 2016. And much of my story is not really about what's going on in Moscow. It's about what's going on, what's happened here in Washington and in the States and how we've prepared or failed to prepare ourselves for what seems inevitable.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, so long form journalism is is one of my favorite ways to to stay informed. And I'm just wondering, the piece you wrote, the kind of piece you wrote, how long does it take to do that? You know, what's the process? Are you working on more than one piece at a time? How long is the editing take? You know, how does all this work for somebody who is not used to the business?
FRANKLIN FOER: So I began this piece in January and it appeared on The Atlantic's website I think on May 11th. And so what I did was I spent the first -- starting in the middle of January. I started to set up meetings with experts in the field. And I just wanted to talk to the generalists first and just try to really get my mind wrapped around kind of what the problem is to figure out how I was going to report this story.
And it's kind of a form of ubiquitous capture where I just I order as many books as I can. I look for as many other long form pieces of journalism as I can. I start to compile congressional testimony. I start looking at that at court documents, because in this instance, I knew that there were some really great primary sources, that there was the Mueller report, which I'd read at the time, but I wanted to kind of reread extremely carefully. There were all the indictments that Robert Mueller brought, which were incredible primary documents, which the press kind of picks apart only a very little bit.
As somebody working on a long form story, my assumption is that if I go back to the original documents and the original sources, there's always a next level of detail that I can find in those documents. There was a series, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a series of great reports, which were very important for me as I was going about doing this. So I tried to figure out the problem. And then as I started to figure out the problem, I started to break it down into its component parts. So I knew that the Russians were interested in our electoral systems. I knew that they were interested in using social media for disinformation. I knew that they were going to hack documents. And so then I started to kind, as I got a feel for what the broad outlines of the story were, I started to kind of burrow down and figure out who the best experts were in those areas in particular, who could help serve as my guides.
And so then I booked a whole other set of interviews based on that. And as I go through this process, I'm starting to think to myself, 'All right. As I understand the problem, how can I best convert that understanding to storytelling?' So I'm starting to look for narratives and characters that I can use.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Frank, your piece starts with the story of a young man named Jack Cable. Can you tell us his story?
FRANKLIN FOER: Right, so a guy who worked on the Hill said you need to talk to this kid at Stanford because he's a real expert in voter registration databases. And I thought to myself, 'Am I going to really call a college kid, too?' I've got this long list of experts I need to talk to. And I've had senators I need to talk to. I'm going to talk to this college kid? And just kind of for the heck of it, I sent him an email and we set up time to talk.
And I asked him, 'How did you get interested in this, in voter registration databases? You're a sophomore at Stanford.' And he started to tell me this incredible story. But out when he registered to vote, registered to get an absentee ballot at Stanford, he filled out a form on the Chicago Board of Elections website and it returned an error message to him. And it turned out that he had entered in an extra quotation mark in his address field. And Jack Cable happened to be a white hat hacker -- an ethical hacker who is working with companies and and governments to try to find vulnerabilities in their websites. And he just got interested in trying to figure out what vulnerabilities remained after the 2016 election, because we now know that the Russians probed the websites, electoral systems of 50 different states.
And he had the expertise to go and do this and so he did. And he found that in some instances, the exact same vulnerabilities remain that the Russians exploited in 2016. And so we set about trying to get people to pay attention to these vulnerabilities; he found it exceedingly hard.
And Jack Cable is now, many, many, many months later, is now interning with the Department of Homeland Security as part of a team of Stanford kids who've volunteered to help them at the last minute to try to see if there are any vulnerabilities in the system that can be patched before the Russians try to exploit them.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, it's interesting that after several years of trying to fix problems, that he stumbles on a vulnerability and then they end up hiring him, right, to find more here just five months before the election. It's a little scary.
So tell us about the hashtag #DemocracyRIP and how that is, at least, I think a really powerful symbol for the theme of your piece.
FRANKLIN FOER: Right. So we know the Russians, like the rest of the world, thought that Hillary Clinton was going to prevail in the 2016 election. And in the event of her winning, they had a whole campaign locked and ready to go to try to dispute the credibility of her election. And so they tried to get diplomats from the the Russian embassy in Washington to go work as poll observers across the country. They wanted embed their people in voting locations so that they could then go out later and talk about all the fraudulent things that they'd said.
But #DemocracyRIP was a hashtag that they had all set up, ready to go, to question the legitimacy of the Clinton election. And so to me, this signifies is that the 2016 election was never really about electing Trump. It was about a much larger project that the Russians had in mind with the intention of DemocracyRIP, of making our democracy as illegitimate as possible. One expert put it to me, 'the Russians export their own domestic model to the rest of the world.' And what Putin has done with the Russian polity is that he's created such a degree of cynicism that it's ultimately led to mass apathy and the degradation of Russian civil society. And if you want to discredit America and the American model to its core, the thing you do is you would create the same sort of cynicism that would lead to the same sort of apathy that you have in Russia.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Frank, now we can sort of move to how we have, over the last three and a half years, prepared ourselves or not prepared ourselves for this onslaught by Putin. You write that our vulnerabilities have actually widened, not narrowed, over the last three and a half years. That's a pretty powerful statement. Can you kind of walk us through your thinking on that?
FRANKLIN FOER: Well, so, some of this is incredibly evident, which is that as a society, we've become much more fractured than we were four years ago. We're much more gullible when it comes to fake news and disinformation, that if you want to plant something into our informational ecosystem in order to trigger a desired result, it's just easier to do now because our faith in authority has whittled away even even further than that.
Part of the problem is, is the guy who presides over our entire system, which is if you looked at the bureaucracy, you would see that in the Department of Homeland Security in in the intelligence agencies, there's a high degree of of enthusiasm, of willingness, of a deep desire to address the the problem of Russian interference. And there are lots of great plans that that have been hashed across the government to deal with the problem. And there's some bureaucrats who've made real progress in doing it.
But every time there's been an effort to try to create the coordination and the centralization that's truly required to address the problem, it's been undermined by the president. And the president, of course, fired the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joe Maguire and his deputy, after he raised the subject of Russian interference in a congressional briefing and it just had a chilling effect.
One of one of the most chilling things that I heard in the course of my reporting is that the various analysts who had been detailed to the ODNI to work on Russia and Russian interference were all asking to get transferred, or a lot of them were asking to get transferred out because they didn't believe that their – they believed that there would be such political pressure coming to bear on their assessments that they didn't think that they would be able to produce credible works that they could stand behind.
And when I asked Senator Mark Warner, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, if he felt confident that he would know about Russian interference if it was happening, he said he didn't. He couldn't be sure that factual, comprehensive accounts of Russian interference would work their way through the system to the point that they'd arrive at his desk. So the public policymakers might not even know the full extent of Russian interference in this next campaign.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Frank, you also write that the Russians are innovating and finding new ways to poison our politics. Talk about that a little bit.
FRANKLIN FOER: I mean, so you can look at each of these specific areas that I'm talking about and you can see how their tactics have evolved over time. We were so focused on the 2016 election that we kind of looked at that as a self-contained narrative, whereas what happens in American elections are part of a broader strategy that involves elections all over the world.
And if we look at what's happened in European elections we'd see that the Russians had intervened in or tried to interfere in most every significant European election since 2016, and you take something like the hacking of campaign documents and you can see how their sophistication has grown over time.
We see how -- I'll give you a couple examples. One is that the public has come to trust hacked and leaked emails as the most authentic expression of what happens in a campaign. And so the Russians, at least in France, started to exploit that trust in hacked documents to introduce falsified documents into the broader mix of authentically hacked documents. So they're exploiting our trust in that. And that's something that can happen in the last minute of a campaign, which is when these things tend to happen, and cause a great deal of chaos.
I mean, we've seen since this is 2016, they've shown their determination to hack. So there are, in Holland, there was an instance where -- this is not a campaign -- but to hack an antiproliferation organization, they sent their agents to sit in the parking lot outside outside the agency in The Hague and used all sorts of equipment to kind of to intercept Wi-Fi signals. I mean, the Russians, compared to some of the other adversaries that we face, are not -- they're talented and they're inventive, but they also just happen to be the most determined of the bunch.
MICHAEL MORELL: So this is not something that they did in 2016, right, put out fake documents. So if they did that, that would be something new.
FRANKLIN FOER: That would be an innovation. And I talked to I talked to various people at cybersecurity firms, one of whom is the guy who runs cybersecurity for Microsoft. And he told me one of the things that he was concerned about is that synthetic audio has evolved so that it's possible to really persuasively and effectively mimic someone's voice.
And so I could leave a voicemail for you as if I was your boss, leaving you instructions to send an e-mail or to drop something into a folder on the Cloud that would then give me access to all of your documents. And so I thought that was that was clever.
One of the things that we see is that the various branches of Russian organized crime execute schemes and they become this laboratory through which the Russian military intelligence kind of borrows techniques over time.
MICHAEL MORELL: So in your piece, you have three sections; one is called Hack the Vote. One is called the Big Phish and one is called Disinformation 2.0. Walk us through what you tried to do in each of those sections.
FRANKLIN FOER; So in Hack the Vote, I mentioned earlier that the Russians had kind of probed the voting systems of all 50 states. And it was a real question, I think, that the intelligence community faced coming out of 2016, which is, 'What did the Russians want from that exploratory mission?' It seemed as if they could have done much more damage. They could have caused much more chaos than they actually did in 2016. But they kind of stayed their hand. And it seems like they acquired this topography of the digital infrastructure of American campaigns. And so the question is, what can they do to act on that now?
And we know that from various Ukrainian examples that they're quite capable of of doing relatively – they can do big chaos and knock out systems, or they could do small things that would have big impact. So if they wanted to cast in elections legitimacy into doubt, they could they could alter a voter registration database so that one number and people's addresses were flipped, which caused confusion, which would then produce long lines at a voting station and people might turn away from the polls if they saw long lines or at the very least, it would create this -- they did it at a couple of stations -- it would create this air of suspicion.
And the air of suspicion is maybe just enough to cause severe damage to us. One scenario that I speculated about would be kind of based on what the Russians did in Ukraine, which is. what if on election night in Wisconsin they managed to post fake results on the Wisconsin Board of Elections website? You can imagine how the president or his allies or anybody could seize on that fake information in order to say that something funny had happened and that this whole election should be considered illegitimate and discredited.
I looked at the Russian tactic of hacking campaign databases and the possibility of leaking them. And I went back and I revisited the Podesta leaks from the 2016 campaign. John Podesta was Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, and his email was hacked. And I wanted to try to show the precise toll that that takes. I mean, we're well aware how the information that comes from hacked emails can distort the politics of a campaign. I think that the Democratic National Committee's hacked emails were unfurled in the middle of the Democratic National Convention, and they did a lot to sow suspicion among Bernie Sanders supporters, some of whom never came into the fold and never voted in November.
But it also -- I was really interested in some of the mundane implications of hacking for a campaign. So Podesta told me that in the middle of the last month of this campaign, he was busy dealing with identity thefts, who were who were taking his information from these hacks and setting up credit cards in their names and trying to get his Social Security benefits.
Most comically of all spending down loyalty points that he'd acquired on the bus that he took back and forth from Washington to campaign headquarters in New York. And, you know, it took it takes your eye off the ball. And there are lots of resources that need to get poured into responding to this. And so it's it's really a time consuming, emotionally exhausting thing to have to deal with.
Then I looked at disinformation and were were well aware of the way in which the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg put all sorts of of disinformation into the campaign. And I was interested in the ways in which Russian manipulation has shifted over time. And there's a lot that we've done well here. I mean, I think that the social media companies, for all the flak that they rightfully take -- you know, they've been kicked all over the place and deservedly so. But I think that they've done a lot to try to clamp down on inauthentic accounts, on the bot nets and accounts that are clearly attributable to the Internet Research Agency or other Russian assets.
But at the same time, the Russians keep evolving their approach. And one of the things that they've tried to do is they've tried to enlist others to do their business for them. So, for instance, after the hateful riots in Charlottesville, there were attempts by the left to organize counter rallies. And so what the Russians have tried to do was try to set up Facebook pages where they kind of seeded ideas, brought people together and then had authentic Americans do the work for them. So on their anti-Unite the Right protest page, they set it up and suddenly the Russian page on Facebook became a magnet for American activists who were authentically interested in what the Russians were talking about. And fake Russians then began communicating with the Americans, who then went about organizing their rally.
And so it creates a real complicated issue for the platform companies. I mean, just because the Russians instigate something, you do have authentic Americans using those pages as a way to express authentic opinions and organize rallies that are attended by authentic people. But we see the Russians kind of pushing and prodding and instigating.
And one other issue that I was very interested in that I feel like gets no attention is that there are now around the world close to one hundred examples of the Russians spending money on foreign campaigns. So illegally siphoning money into political systems around the world. And they tried to do that -- they did do that here. And when Rudy Giuliani's associates Fruman and Parnas were indicted -- I think it was last year when they were indicted -- there was evidence that the Russians were funneling money to congressional campaigns and into political action committees, and that's what we know.
But so much of our political system is just ill equipped now; there's nobody who's investigating foreign money coming into the American political system unless there is a specific lead for them to follow. We have nobody really monitoring the system, and the Federal Elections Commission, which should be investigating these things, really hasn't done it. In fact, hasn't had a quorum for much of the last year.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Frank, your last section in the piece is called 'An Uncoordinated Response,' and it keeps the theme going about that we're not as prepared as we should be. And in that section, you write that Vladimir Putin could have no better friend than Donald Trump when it comes to Putin's attacking our democracy. What did you mean by that?
FRANKLIN FOER: Well, I mean, it's been pretty clear since 2016 that every time Putin attacked, Trump either denies their attack or declines to investigate it. I think the extent to which Russia has been punished for what it did in 2016 has been quite minimal. When it comes to sowing distrust of authoritative information and distrust of American institutions, Trump has been instrumental in in in denigrating those, which makes it easier for Russian misinformation to spread. Even the question of Russian interference itself has become this partisan issue. And when the intelligence community wants to relay information about an attack, it's now questioned as being a partial, partisan actor in it, not a credible re-teller of a narrative. And I think Putin and when he surveys the scene, has got to be incredibly pleased with what he wants.
And, you know, in the end, the thing that struck me about where we stand now relative to 2016 is that the Russians don't even need to aggressively intervene in this election in order to have a meaningful impact on it. That we're so we're so fractured, we're so vulnerable that a feather push from Moscow could result in toppling us. I mean, there's -- as we see now, we look into the streets where we're a society that's unwinding and we have a president who seems indifferent to that unwinding or seems to gleefully try to hasten that unwinding. These are all circumstances where a foreign actor who wants to cause us harm can cause enormous harm.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you do you have a theory? This is the great unanswered question in Washington, right. But do you have a theory as to why the president has behaved the way he has toward Russia?
FRANKLIN FOER: You know, I think a lot of it has to do with his ego. And I think the idea that he didn't earn everything in 2016 on his own, that he was somehow helped from abroad means that he didn't achieve the glorious victory, he didn't receive the mass adulation that his ego demands that he does.
You know, there are these other questions which I think – let me put it this way. The Mueller Report never proved the sort of collusion that maximalists alleged when it comes to cooperation between the Trump campaign and and the Russians. And yet, buried in that report are still suggestions that there's something almost kind of pathologically sympathetic, that Trump has not only this real soft spot for Putin and for Russia, but there are all sorts of hints that he's got commercial interests. I still think when the fact that we didn't know about the construction of the plans for the Moscow Trump Tower and that the Moscow Trump Tower plans were going on simultaneous to the campaign and that there was a way in which he viewed the campaign as kind of an infomercial with Russia as its audience is still a very, very significant detail. And so I don't think we really know what this is all about. I think that it's possible that some of the less nefarious explanations are the truest explanations. And yet we can't conclusively, I think, dismiss some of the more nefarious explanations.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Frank, we have just a couple of minutes left here. And I'd love to finish by asking you two questions. What's your best case outcome for the 2020 election based on your research and what's your worst case outcome? I know there's a little bit unfair, but, go for it.
FRANKLIN FOER: We've got to keep a couple of things in the foreground. The first is that Putin is, that Russia has been hit really badly by coronavirus, and Putin's response has not been wonderful. Putin is not somebody who thrives in crises. And so he's weak right now. And so the question is, does that weakness cause him to want to lash out and to do something that will assert himself in a very prominent sort of way for the sake of his own ego and for the sake of domestic audiences and for the sake of trying to prove his relevance on a global stage? That's one question.
And then the other thing that I think we just have to foreground is that given the unrest in American cities, given coronavirus, you know, we're doing a lot to achieve Putin's objectives well on our own. And so you take something like the unrest in cities. Yes, there's some evidence that the Russia and Russian camps are happy about it and would like to see it happening.
Yet to impute any sort of causation there seems to me to really stretch things much, much too far, that whatever is happening on the streets of American cities now, you know, entirely has to do with conditions in our own country.
So I think the best case scenario is that the Russians repeat a lot of the tactics that they used in 2016. And, you know, we just get lucky again that he decides that it's not worth his while to manipulate the access that he has to American voting systems, that they maybe hack emails and we're inured to the impact of hacks because they've happened so often in the past and maybe conditions are just, like, there's too much else going on for a hack to actually matter.
I think the worst case scenario is that with with a really well designed, really well targeted, really well disguised, almost anonymous sort of attack, he does something that causes us to doubt the outcome of the election. And then we have between November and January, more months of really terrible strife where Americans are debating in a violent – or violently contesting the legitimacy of the election.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, that would be a bad outcome. Frank, thank you very much for that. Thank you very much for joining us today. I think everyone should go to the Atlantic website and read your piece. I think it's very important. Thanks for being with us today.
FRANKLIN FOER: My pleasure.