with Tonya Riley

Attorney General William P. Barr held fast to claims that a drastic expansion of mail voting in November could undermine the election amid an often combative hearing with House lawmakers. 

But he provided no concrete evidence for his assertions there's a “high risk” mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud, which have been roundly dismissed by election security experts. He said “common sense” guides his concern that U.S. adversaries might flood the election with phony ballots submitted by mail, even though election officials say safeguards such as bar codes and signature verification prevent this. 

It was the first time a congressional committee scrutinized Barr's claims in person – and Democrats savaged him, contending that he and the president were spreading conspiracy theories and aiding U.S. enemies. 

The FBI and our intelligence services have repeatedly warned that [U.S.] adversaries are actively trying to sow mistrust of our election system and by repeating disinformation about mail-in voting, you and the president are helping them,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), vice chair of the committee.

Barr did break from the president, however, when asked if he believed the election will be rigged. “I have no reason to believe it will be,” Barr said. 

The mail-voting fight is playing out amid a broader partisan battle over how to run the general election. 

Democrats have routinely pushed for a surge in funding to protect the elections from hacking by Russia and other adversaries and more recently to fund voting by mail, expanded early voting and safety measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus at polling places. But they’ve faced stiff opposition from Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Some $400 million was allocated in the first coronavirus relief bill passed in March, which many states insist is not nearly enough to make the changes needed to help voters cast their ballots safely in a pandemic. 

A $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House committed another $3.6 billion for elections – while a $1 trillion bill released by Senate Republicans this week contained no money at all. Republicans have also balked at Democratic efforts to impose new mandates on states including that all voters who want to cast mail ballots in future elections can do so. 

Complicating the argument: Barr acknowledged during the hearing that he has voted by mail himself. 

But he insisted mail voting concerns don’t apply when a smaller number of people who aren’t able to make it to the polls in person vote that way. 

“I’ve made very clear I’m not talking about accommodations to people who have to be out of state or have some particular inability to go and vote,” he said. “What I’m talking about is the wholesale conversion of an election to by mail voting.”

That explanation echoes President Trump, who has repeatedly attacked mail voting even though he also voted by mail this year. 

But the explanation bears little resemblance to the way states actually run their mail-voting programs. Both Virginia, where Barr voted by mail, and Florida, where Trump voted by mail, have long allowed any resident to vote that way without providing any excuse. The only difference this year will be that many more residents will choose to vote by mail because they fear contracting the coronavirus if they vote in person. 

There are no states that have announced plans to convert entirely to mail voting during the general election. Even the five states that ran elections almost entirely by mail before the pandemic — Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii — offer in-person voting options to people who can’t vote by mail because of disabilities that make it impractical or people who are homeless or don’t have a steady address. 

Lawmakers were quick to seize on the contradiction. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is a sponsor of the Senate’s main effort to expand mail voting:

More than a dozen other Trump allies have also voted by mail, including Vice President Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, adviser and daughter Ivanka Trump and first lady Melania Trump. 

Trump has been pushing his party further in the fight over mail voting than many want to go. 

Many Republican state election officials, for example, are eager to expand voting by mail during the pandemic despite Trump’s criticisms and urging constituents to vote that way. 

But primary results suggest Republicans are becoming less likely to vote by mail than Democrats, probably because of the president’s assaults – a trend that risks hurting their own candidates and even Trump in November. 

Trump has also bucked convention by refusing to pledge that he won’t accept dirt from other nations on his political opponents. All the Democratic presidential candidates including presumptive nominee Joe Biden made that pledge last year. 

When Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) asked Barr during the hearing if it would be appropriate for a president to “solicit or accept foreign interference in an election,” Barr first replied, “It depends on what kind of assistance.”

When Cicilline repeated the question, Barr backed down. “No, it’s not appropriate,” he said. 

The keys

Russian operatives are using three English-language websites to spread coronavirus misinformation.

The trio of websites published about 150 articles between late May and early July exploiting the pandemic in the West, U.S. government officials told Eric Tucker at the Associated Press. Some coronavirus-related headlines sought to falsely suggest that Russia was helping the United States fight the pandemic while others stoked tensions with China. 

The sites also capitalized on civil unrest in U.S. cities and perpetuated a conspiracy theory about Joe Biden's dealings with Ukraine. 

Officials did not say whether the effort was related to the November election. Officials identified two Russians as leading InfoRos, the agency behind the disinformation sites. They formerly served in Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, which conducted operations to sow chaos during the 2016 U.S. elections.

Senate Republicans included funding to fight foreign hackers going after coronavirus vaccine research in their relief bill.

The package includes more than $50 million for the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity agency to combat foreign attacks against vaccine development, the Hill reports.  

The United States recently put out a warning that Russian hackers were targeting companies developing a vaccine and previously warned about Chinese hackers targeting such research. DHS received $9.1 million in the last package to address a rise in coronavirus-related cyberattacks.

Meanwhile, a group of 12 Senate Democrats and one independent wrote to Senate leadership yesterday urging them to include legislation that would put guardrails protecting data collected for covid-19 from being used for nonpublic health reasons. They argue that a failure to build public trust in data collection efforts will undermine the government's coronavirus response.

Congress is rushing to get a new relief bill out the door before many provisions expire on Aug. 1.

Rite Aid quietly rolled out a facial recognition system with Chinese ties to hundreds of U.S. stores. 

Records suggest that the company DeepCam relied on help from a Chinese company to build out its technology and for funding, Jeffrey Dastin at Reuters reports.

The technology was deployed in largely lower-income and nonwhite neighborhoods. Rite Aid discontinued the program after questions from Reuters.

Reuters found no evidence that DeepCam shared the facial images of U.S. customers with the Chinese government or companies in Beijing. But the connection poses a troubling possibility that China could have exploited the company for access to U.S. data, some security experts say.

The Chinese Communist Party’s buildup of its Orwellian surveillance state is alarming, and China’s efforts to export its surveillance state to collect data in America would be an unacceptable, serious threat,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a statement.

Both the Chinese government and DeepCam's co-founder called the suspicions about their technology unfounded.

Global Cyberspace

Beijing hackers allegedly penetrated Vatican computers before Chinese talks with the Catholic church.

The attacks began in May as the Vatican and Beijing were preparing for talks to renew a 2018 deal that eased relations, Reuters reports

The attacks targeted both the Vatican itself and the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong, according to the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. 

More global news:

Cyber insecurity

Security flaws left OKCupid users' personal information vulnerable to hackers.

Hackers could have accessed personal addresses and private messages of millions of the dating site's users, researchers at Check Point found.

There's no evidence any users were affected by the flaw and OKCupid fixed the vulnerability within 48 hours after Check Point researchers alerted the company.

Personal customer information is the most commonly breached data – and the most costly.

Breaches caused by nation-state actors were the costliest for companies to recover from, said a new report on industry financial losses from breaches IBM found. While just 13 percent of malicious breaches were believed to be carried out by nation-state hackers, the presumed average costs of the attacks was $200,000 higher than financially motivated hacks.

More news in hacks and breaches:

Chat room

Former DHS cybersecurity official Phil Reitinger and former intelligence community lawyer Susan Hennessey bat around the possibility of making DHS's cybersecurity division an independent agency:

Daybook

  • The House Judiciary will hold a hearing on online platforms and market power with testimony from the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google today at noon.
  • The Brookings Institute will host an event on "Reorienting national security for the AI era" on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Security will hold a hearing to examine the China challenge and how to build resiliency and competitiveness on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the findings and recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission on August 4 at 2:30 p.m.

Secure log off

Don't forget to take a break today. For coffee. Definitely just for coffee and not crying.