with Tonya Riley

Joe Biden drew a firm line on Russian election interference during the final presidential debate, while President Trump continued to misstate and mislead about that threat. 

The disparity was especially stark as U.S. officials say the presidential race is being increasingly rocked by foreign interference from both Russia and Iran. 

The former vice president called it “overwhelmingly clear” that not only Russia but also China and Iran are interfering in the current election. “They will pay a price if I’m elected,” he pledged.

Trump not only made no such pledge, but he also fundamentally mischaracterized the public statements of his own intelligence community by claiming Russia does not want him to be reelected. 

Debate moderator Kristen Welker asked Trump about intelligence community allegations this week that Russia and Iran have both obtained U.S. voter data and that Iran has already used it to harass and mislead Democratic voters. Trump replied that Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told him “the one thing that’s common to both of them, they both want you to lose because there has been nobody tougher to Russia … There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”

In fact, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers Trump's reelection, while China and Iran favor his defeat. 

That was just the latest mischaracterization after four years during which Trump has repeatedly wavered on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election and evaded the topic of election security, which he appears to view as undermining the legitimacy of his 2016 victory.

Biden, meanwhile, correctly stated the intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin does not want him to win: “Everything [that] is going on here about Russia is wanting to make sure that I do not get elected the next president of the United States because they know I know them and they know me,” he said. 

Indeed, Trump spent most of the election security portion of the debate not talking about election security at all. 

Instead, he leveled a series of unsubstantiated charges about Biden’s family, most of them based on unverified documents reported by the New York Post that may be part of a Russian disinformation operation. 

Biden pointed out that dozens of former national security officials signed a letter saying those documents, which were allegedly discovered on a laptop left in a Delaware computer repair shop, have “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” 

But Trump mocked the notion: “You mean the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia hoax? he said. “You have to be kidding. Here we go again with Russia.”

The Washington Post has not been able to verify the authenticity of any of the documents reported by the New York Post. Ratcliffe has disputed that Russia played a role in producing the documents, which were supplied by Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani. The FBI told lawmakers it has “nothing to add at this time” to Ratcliffe’s claims. 

Biden called Trump’s claims “garbage.” 

Nobody believes it except him and his good friend Rudy Giuliani,” he said.  

National security pros slammed Trump for his apparent disinterest in Russian efforts to undermine the election. 

Here’s political scientist and author David Rothkopf:

Philip J. Crowley, a top State Department official during the Obama administration:

Samantha Vinograd, an Obama White House official:

The debate came as concern about election interference is at a peak. 

Just the night before, Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said Iran was behind thousands of threatening emails sent to Democratic voters that claimed to be from the Proud Boys, a far-right group that supports Trump.

The emails, which purported to have voters’ addresses and other personal information, threatened, “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.” They were sent to voters in Florida, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Russia might have even bigger plans. 

Russian hackers have compromised state and local computer networks in recent days, which could be a steppingstone to operations on Election Day and its immediate aftermath, aimed at sowing disputes about the results, Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Devlin Barrett report

The hackers have compromised computer systems in at least two counties, one in California and the other in Indiana. In one case they stole a small sample of publicly available voter data, my colleagues report.

“Officials remain concerned that the Kremlin poses the greater threat of election interference — and they fear that Moscow might still try to pull off a surprise,” my colleagues report. 

There’s no evidence Russian hackers have the capability to change vote tallies or voter rolls. But far simpler operations, such as manipulating election reporting sites, or releasing information creating the false impression of an election system breach, could be enough to sow distrust in the election and aid Trump’s claims that the election results will be “rigged.”

The keys

A ransomware attack hit election infrastructure for the first known time this cycle. 

The attack on Hall County, Ga., was first disclosed earlier this month, but the link to election systems is only now being revealed. Affected systems included a voter signature database and a voting precinct map hosted on the countys website, CNNs Brian Fung reports

The attack, which locks up user systems unless they pay a ransom, did not affect voting. 

We are currently bringing various programs back online, and those two items are included in that process, said Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley. However, the voting process for our citizens has not been impacted due to the network issues.

A surge of ransomware attacks has hit state and local government systems in recent years, sparking fears that such attacks could creep into election systems and prevent voting. 

At least 18 county or municipal bodies have been impacted by ransomware since the beginning of September — about three per week — so its very likely that other bodies will be hit in the run-up to the election, Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the security firm Emsisoft, told Brian.

More than 1,000 West Virginia voters have cast their ballots using a mobile app so far this election.

The state has been at the forefront of expanding Internet-based voting even as election experts warn such systems are more vulnerable to being hacked undetected because there’s no physical record of votes.

As of this week, 921 military and overseas voters had cast votes in West Virginia using the voting app provided by the company Democracy Live, plus 132 people with disabilities that make it difficult to vote by mail, Secretary of State Mac Warner told me.

West Virginia was one of three states that piloted such apps for voters with disabilities during primaries this year, though the other states have not continued the practice during the general election.

Many states allow Internet-based voting for military and overseas voters, often by voting with email attachments. Many experts oppose overseas voters casting ballots that way but acknowledge there are sometimes few other good options because of poor mail service.

Explicit tweets sent from Fort Bragg accounts that were previously blamed on a hack were actually sent by an employee, the Army confirms. 

A civilian employee admitted on Thursday that the tweets were his, Alex Horton reports.

The stream of tweets included sexual comments replying to tweets from sex workers. A commander at the base initially suspected the account had been hacked after determining personnel that had access to the account weren't culpable.

The responsible employee says he meant to tweet from his personal account. He is now under investigation. The account, which was taken offline, will be restored in the coming days, command spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said in a statement.

Global cyberspace

The U.K. imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agents for a 2015 cyberattack on the German parliament. 

The action followed sanctions imposed by the European Union, Politico Europe reports. Russia has denied responsibility for the hack.

More cybersecurity news:

Daybook

  • The USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative will host a final workshop on the lessons from the workshops it has hosted in 50 states leading up to the election on Oct. 28 at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC on Nov. 17-18, starting at 11 a.m.

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