Cabinet members and leaders on Capitol Hill have issued similar warnings. Testifying Thursday about the whistleblower allegation that President Trump pushed Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election, acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire called election security his “most fundamental priority.”
Terwilliger said he had heard from an administration official that “their big concern is deepfakes,” or doctored images and videos. But he said he was also worried about the “actual physical infrastructure” of election machines, while cautioning that the issue was outside his purview.
With the “complete decline of ISIS and the caliphate,” Terwilliger said his office is “focused a lot more on state-sponsored cyberattacks.”
His office charged a Russian accountant with involvement in funding disinformation campaigns in 2018. Though Terwilliger said it’s “unlikely” she will ever be extradited, he argued that “we had to tell people this was happening.” If his office were to have a similar case in the run-up to the next election, he said he would “push . . . to get that information to the public.”
Terwilliger declined to say he believed Russia would again be intervening on Trump’s behalf, insisting it was too early to say “if they’ve calculated who would be a better president for their interests.”
He also suggested that some of the anger directed at his office for prosecuting Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, as well as trying to compel Chelsea Manning to testify before a grand jury, was sparked by Russia.
“When I see that comment level get up into the couple hundred thousands, I have to imagine it’s some of the same stuff,” he said, citing media coverage of the cases. “People are just trying to fan the flames.”
Terwilliger obliquely defended the Assange and Snowden cases, both of which involve leaks of classified information. While he said he couldn’t talk about the individual cases, “it actually isn’t that complex — if it’s somebody who is in a position of trust who signed a nondisclosure agreement and got that information and then unilaterally made the decision to leak it, to me that’s not a tough one.”
Referencing the whistleblower complaint made public Thursday, he said, “we’re learning a lot about today about what this whistleblower process looks like . . . there are people on both sides of the aisle who will gladly take this information.”
As for WikiLeaks founder Assange, Terwilliger sought to distinguish his actions from those of traditional journalists.
“There’s a huge difference between somebody who simply gets information, is given information . . . and then writes about it versus somebody who is complicit in its theft . . . sophisticated enough . . . to know what they have and put it out there, who put people in harm’s way,” he said.
By contrast, he suggested a “listicle by BuzzFeed” in which “nobody knew” the sensitivity of the information would be treated differently.
“I do think the public has a right to know to some extent, but the public does not have a right to know because you as an individual unilaterally decided to share the information,” he added.