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The Cybersecurity 202: Trump's intel chiefs fight Russia's election interference -- with or without him

with Bastien Inzaurralde


President Trump's top intelligence and national security officials are forging ahead with plans to disrupt any Russian interference ahead of the 2018 midterms. But they may be going it alone following Trump's performance this week at the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Just hours after Trump cast doubt on his own country's conclusions about Moscow's 2016 election interference at Monday's presser, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said the intelligence community “will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."  And on Tuesday, the day after Trump suggested he believed Putin's denials, my colleague Ellen Nakashima reported that the National Security Agency is partnering with the military’s cyberwarfare arm to counter threats from Moscow going into November. 

“Trump will keep waffling on Russia’s role in the 2016 election. If Russia interferes again, the national security agencies will have no problem running their past playbook: Name and shame, indict, and sanction,” said Stewart Baker, a former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary and former general counsel for the NSA. But, he added, “the agencies are going to have to get White House approval for anything more, and I’m guessing the president won’t grant it.”

Trump is indeed making his own administration's push to confront Russian cyber aggression more difficult with his contradictory statements. 

Yesterday Trump tried to walk back his comments, saying he accepted the intelligence findings and vowing that his administration would “do everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018.” But it's still not clear whether Trump intends to uphold his end of that promise. And the intelligence community apparently feels it has no choice but to move ahead with its agenda -- even if Trump continues to undecut it. 

As Ellen reported, NSA Director Paul Nakasone's announcement that the NSA and Cyber Command would coordinate to counter potential Russian interference came without any direction from the White House. 

“Nakasone wants to better coordinate NSA intelligence gathering on Russian cyberactivities and CyberCom’s plans to thwart Kremlin operations. When directed by the president or defense secretary, the military unit ... may also take offensive action such as disrupting an adversary’s computer networks,” Ellen writes.

“The joint CyberCom-NSA Russia group is working with the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, each of which has its own initiative to detect and deter Russian influence operations. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray last year set up the foreign influence task force to counter such attempts. It works closely with [the Department of Homeland Security], which has its own task force focused on election security — with an eye to the midterms — and has worked with state and local authorities on the issue.”

Coats, too, has taken a notably tough public line on Russian interference recently. Before Trump and Putin met, he compared Russian cyberthreats to the warning signs before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And he doubled down after Trump's extraordinary news conference in Helsinki, saying in his statement that intelligence agencies had been “clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.” Coats reportedly issued his statement without the White House's approval.

DHS officials have also been hard at work helping state election administrators share information about cyberthreats and bolster their election systems against cyberattacks. Those efforts were on display over the weekend at a conference of secretaries of state in Philadelphia, where Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned Russia and other adversaries continued to view elections as a target.

Still, agencies are limited in the actions they can take without full-fledged support from the White House. 

“The president could pull the national security agencies back from any dramatic action,” Baker told me. “Anything other than a few sanctions would probably require presidential approval, which means that big, risky responses to Russian hacking are going to face great White House skepticism and probably aren’t in the cards.”

After his Helsinki comments, President Trump said he accepts U.S intelligence findings on Russia's election interference, but it "could be other people also." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

PINGED: When Trump amended his comments on Russian interference, he only sided with U.S. intelligence agencies with a caveat. He first said: “I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place." But then added: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” 

Trump also chalked up the doubts he expressed on Russia's involvement in election interference to a mistake. “I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave and I realized that there is need for some clarification,” he said. Here's his explanation: 

“It should have been obvious I thought it would be obvious  but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn't. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't.' The sentence should have been: 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't' — or why it wouldn't be Russia. So just to repeat it, I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't.' And the sentence should have been  and I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video  the sentence should have been: 'I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia.' Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself." 

“But Trump’s remarks in Helsinki went much further than his Tuesday explanation suggested,” The Washington Post's Ashley Parker, Robert Costa and Felicia Sonmez wrote. “'I have confidence in both parties,' he said Monday, referring to the United States and Russia, and he spoke approvingly of Putin’s suggestion to allow Russian investigators to question Americans they suspected of spying in a quid pro quo.” Additionally, The Post's Philip Bump reported that Trump struck a line from his written remarks about bringing hackers to justice.

Shortly after Trump said he did believe the U.S. intelligence assessment that Putin meddled in the 2016 election, Schumer said it's too little too late. (Video: The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to weigh in. “I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Trump “tried to squirm away” from his previous comments. “It's 24 hours too late and in the wrong place,” Schumer said. “If the president can't say directly to President Putin that he is wrong and we are right  and our intelligence agencies are right  it's ineffective, and worse, another sign of weakness.”

The National Association of Secretaries of States also defended the work that states carry out to help secure elections. “Secretaries of State, 40 of whom are their state’s chief election official, across the nation are working hard each day to safeguard the elections process with their own IT teams, private sector security companies, and the federal government, among others,” the association said in a statement released Tuesday. “We will continue to do this as we approach the 2018 general election and beyond. We ask, however, the White House and others help us rebuild voter confidence in our election systems by promoting these efforts and providing clear, accurate assessments moving forward.”

PATCHED: “Facebook, Google and Twitter on Tuesday sought to defend themselves against accusations from Republican lawmakers who said the tech giants censor conservative news and views during a congressional hearing that devolved into a political sniping match,” The Post's Tony Romm reported. “Lawmakers had convened the nearly three-hour session before the House Judiciary Committee to explore the 'filtering' practices of major social media companies, where a mix of human reviewers and powerful yet secret algorithms review online content — a process meant to stifle offensive speech that even tech giants admit is not perfect.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said the House Judiciary Committee looking into bias in social media filtering practices was "stupid." (Video: House Judiciary Committee)

The witnesses representing the three companies defended their record of upholding the expression of diverse points of view on their platforms, my colleague reported. “'Our success as a company depends on making Twitter a safe space for free expression,' said Nick Pickles, a policy aide who testified on behalf of Twitter,” according to Romm. “'We have a natural and long-term incentive to make sure our products work for users of all viewpoints,' said Juniper Downs, who handles policy issues for Google-owned YouTube.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) questioned the entire premise of what he called a “ridiculous hearing.” “It's stupid because there's this thing called the First Amendment,” he said. “We can't regulate content.”

PWNED: Voting systems vendor Election Systems and Software said in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that it sold election-management systems containing remote-access software from 2000 to 2006, thus creating a possible way in for hackers seeking to break into the systems, Kim Zetter reported Tuesday in Motherboard. The company had previously said the piece of software, called pcAnywhere, had never been added to the election-management systems that it sells, according to Motherboard. But in its letter to Wyden in April, ES&S said pcAnywhere was in fact present on systems that it sold to “a small number of customers” back then, Zetter reported.

“The presence of such software makes a system more vulnerable to attack from hackers, especially if the remote-access software itself contains security vulnerabilities,” Zetter wrote. “If an attacker can gain remote access to an election-management system through the modem and take control of it using the pcAnywhere software installed on it, he can introduce malicious code that gets passed to voting machines to disrupt an election or alter results.”

Wyden told Zetter that ES&S has not yet answered all the questions he asked in March of the company. “When a corporation that makes half of America’s voting machines refuses to answer the most basic cyber security questions, you have to ask what it is hiding,” Wyden said, as quoted by Motherboard.

— More cybersecurity news:

Exclusive: Trump's defense chief open to first talks with Russian counterpart - sources (Reuters)

National Security Council’s Intelligence Chief Is Leaving as John Bolton Cleans House (The Daily Beast)

‘She was like a novelty’: How alleged Russian agent Maria Butina gained access to elite conservative circles (Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris and Carol D. Leonnig)


— Sens. Wyden and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked and Google’s parent company Alphabet to “reconsider” their decisions to put an end to domain fronting. In a letter released Tuesday, Wyden and Rubio told Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos and Alphabet chief executive Larry Page that banning domain fronting — a practice that can allow to bypass censorship — threatens “human rights and internet freedom around the world.” The senators also said Amazon and Google should oppose foreign states’ attempts at curtailing online liberties. “Governments with anti-democratic agendas may put significant pressures on technology companies to help enable their censorship and surveillance of the internet,” Wyden and Rubio said. “American technology companies, which have flourished in our free and open society, must join in the effort to resist such pressure.” (Bezos is the owner of The Post.)

— The state of Maine has requested federal funds made available by Congress to help secure elections but needs additional time to draw up a strategy for spending the money, Maine Public’s Steve Mistler reported on Monday. “Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has said Maine's voting system is considered relatively secure because it is low-tech, relying primarily on paper ballots and counting machines that are not connected to the internet,” Mistler wrote. “Additionally, those registering to vote cannot do so online, but in person at their local town clerk's office.”

— More cybersecurity news from the public sector:

Pentagon Wants to Move Some Cyber Defense Operations to the Cloud (Nextgov)

US Air Force Wants More Commercial Companies Working AI Projects (Defense One)

Bill to save net neutrality gets first Republican vote in US House (Ars Technica)


— The mass collection of personal data by health insurers raises concerns that they could use such information to discriminate against patients, ProPublica reported. “With little public scrutiny, the health insurance industry has joined forces with data brokers to vacuum up personal details about hundreds of millions of Americans,” ProPublica’s Marshall Allen writes. “Patient advocates warn that using unverified, error-prone ‘lifestyle’ data to make medical assumptions could lead insurers to improperly price plans — for instance raising rates based on false information — or discriminate against anyone tagged as high cost. And, they say, the use of the data raises thorny questions that should be debated publicly, such as: Should a person’s rates be raised because algorithms say they are more likely to run up medical bills?"

— More cybersecurity news from the private sector:

Twitter suspended 58 million accounts in 4Q (Associated Press)

Schools Can Now Get Facial Recognition Tech for Free. Should They? (Wired)


LabCorp, one of the largest blood testing labs in the US, hacked (


— “The European Union’s security chief has urged the bloc’s 28 members to work together to combat illegal extremist content on the internet, saying there is ‘far too much’ of it online,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday. “Security Commissioner Julian King says each attack in Europe over the last year ‘had a link with online terrorist content.’”

— More international cybersecurity news:

India’s Supreme Court warns of ‘mobocracy,’ urges government to pass anti-lynching law after deadly attacks (Annie Gowen)



  • The American Enterprise Institute hosts Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, for a discussion about U.S. competition with China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
  • DFRWS USA 2018 conference in Providence, R.I.
  • The opening of CyberGym NYC will include several discussions on cybersecurity in New York.

Coming soon

  • House Appropriations subcommittee markup of the Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal 2019 tomorrow.
  • House Intelligence Committee hearing on “China’s threat to American government and private sector research and innovation leadership” tomorrow.
  • The Heritage Foundation hosts a speech by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a panel discussion on deepfakes tomorrow.
  • The Brookings Institution hosts Sophie in 't Veld, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, for an event on human rights and data tomorrow.
  • The Cyber 202 Live event featuring several guests including Christopher C. Krebs, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate, on July 20.
  • Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York on July 20 through July 22.

Former president Barack Obama warns against “strongman” politics:

Former president Barack Obama marked the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth in Johannesburg by giving a July 17 speech about the “politics of fear." (Video: The Washington Post)

The Kilauea volcano has created a tiny new island:

A tiny new island off the coast of Hawaii has formed from lava flowing from the Kilauea volcano. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

CEO gifts employee car who walked 20 miles for the first day of work:

Luke Marklin, Bellhops moving company chief executive, gifted his car to employee Walter Carr in Birmingham, Ala., on July 16. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)