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The Cybersecurity 202: Chris Krebs found another way to defend election after his firing: Suing the Trump campaign

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with Tonya Riley

Chris Krebs’s defamation lawsuit against President Trump's campaign marks the most significant effort yet to hold the president and his allies accountable for their violent rhetoric and baseless attacks on the election’s outcome that have led to threats against dozens of election officials.

Such threats – targeting everyone from Krebs to top state officials and frontline poll workers – have continued to mount even as the president's legal options to dispute the election dwindle

The former federal election security chief may not prevail in his suit— defamation cases are notoriously difficult to win — but he will draw attention to the fear spreading throughout state election offices that the verbal assaults could lead to real-world violence and make it far tougher to run future elections. 

It's also a way for the lifelong Republican fired by Trump for publicly vouching for the 2020 election's integrity to continue his quest to knock back the campaign's increasingly outlandish fraud claims in a court venue. 

“It’s good that somebody fights back against this intemperate rhetoric that the president’s defenders deploy,” Paul Rosenzweig, an attorney and former senior cybersecurity official during the George W. Bush administration, told me. “Even as a statement suit where he doesn’t intend to win, it looks like a good thing.”

Krebs became a prominent target of the campaign’s attacks Nov. 17 when Trump's campaign attorney Joseph diGenova said during a Newsmax TV interview that he should be “drawn and quartered” and “shot at dawn” for defending the election’s integrity — punishments typically associated with treason. 

He also called Krebs an “idiot” and “class-A moron” during the segment. Newsmax and diGenova are also defendants in the suit. 

The comments led to a barrage of social media attacks that left Krebs and his family fearing for their lives, the lawsuit states. Chillingly, Krebs’s 10-year-old child asked at one point, “Daddy’s going to get executed?”

The lawsuit, which was filed in Maryland state court in Montgomery County where diGenova lives, calls the lawyer's comments part of a conspiracy to falsely claim the election was stolen, to attack Republicans who dispute those claims and to raise political donations from people who buy into the claims, Spencer S. Hsu and Dan Morse report.

Krebs is seeking money, punitive damages and an injunction ordering Newsmax to remove video of the incident.

Chris Krebs, the former CISA director, spoke to “60 Minutes” about the 2020 vote in an interview that aired on Nov. 29. Here are some highlights. (Video: The Washington Post)

Chris Krebs, the former CISA director, spoke to “60 Minutes” about the 2020 vote in an interview that aired on Nov. 29. Here are some highlights. (The Washington Post)

Even if Krebs doesn’t win his suit, he could force diGenova to offer a more full-throated apology. 

So far, the attorney has only said his comments were sarcastic and described them as “hyperbole in a political discourse.” Newsmax called the lawsuit “a threat to free speech” and said it “endangers all media organizations that seek an open discourse of ideas and news.”

The suit might also force the campaign to provide any evidence that supports diGenova's claims that the election wasn't conducted fairly and that Krebs's defense of it was unjustified — something it’s been unable to do in a series of other lawsuits challenging state election results.

But it will still be an uphill battle. Under Maryland law, he would have to show diGenova made comments that were knowingly or recklessly false, my colleagues report. Yet, some courts have found that falsely accusing a person of treason clearly damages their reputation and livelihood, lowering the bar to a jury trial or damages, they report.

“On its face, [the suit] is a bit weak, especially in this day and age with all the incredible hyperbole and insults being thrown around. But I like the idea of having some accountability,” Shanlon Wu, a Justice Department official during the Clinton administration, told me. 

Rosenzweig described the lawsuit as “not a slam dunk winner, but certainly a lot less outrageous than Sidney Powell’s Kraken suits,” a reference to a series of error-ridden lawsuits from a Trump-allied lawyer alleging widespread electoral fraud, several of which have been thrown out of court. Rosenzweig, who's also a Republican and frequent critic of Trump, is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute think tank

The lawsuit could burnish Krebs's own celebrity as it draws attention to the plight of other election officials. 

Since Trump fired him, Krebs has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, exposing him to a far broader public microphone than he enjoyed as the director of a little known cybersecurity agency within the Department of Homeland Security. He’s also earned praise from celebrities including movie star and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). 

“Krebs is world famous now so this suit is generating attention,” Rosenzweig said.  

Krebs's personal reputation has soared since his firing, particularly among Democrats. 

The Biden campaign denounced his firing and top officials have urged the president-elect to ask Krebs to return to his role leading the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Krebs has said he'd consider such a post if it's offered. 

But the lawsuit didn’t win universal praise. 

Kenneth P. White, a former Justice Department attorney during the Clinton administration who focuses on First Amendment issues, argued the case was irresponsible and aimed at making a point rather than winning in court – almost a Trumpian tactic. 

“There’s a huge fad in the last few years of performative litigation that’s meant to appeal to the base and make a point but not really to win,” he told me. “This conduct (by diGenova) is certainly despicable, but defamation doesn’t just mean despicable conduct.”

White also feared the suit could end up backfiring and becoming a venue for the Trump campaign to make the election fraud case it's failed to prove in other court battles. 

“I very much sympathize with Krebs, but performative lawsuits aren’t a good thing, even for the good guys to do,” he said. 

The keys

Top cybersecurity firm FireEye was breached by hackers likely tied to Russia.

FireEye says the hackers stole valuable hacking tools it uses to test customers' cyber defenses for weaknesses, Ellen Nakashima and I report

Russia’s SVR intelligence service appears to be behind the attack, according to a person familiar with the matter. That's the same group that penetrated the White House and State Department several years ago and has attempted to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

“We are witnessing an attack by a nation with top-tier offensive capabilities,” FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia said in a blog post that said a nation state was likely responsible for the breach but didn’t name Russia as the culprit. 

FireEye disclosed the breach to ensure customers and other members of the cybersecurity community aren't attacked with the stolen tools

The firm has seen no evidence that hackers removed customer information or have used the tools so far, Mandia said. The hackers also sought information on certain government customers, though the motive for the breach is unclear. 

“The primary goals of these operations are typically to get access to capabilities that would make it easier for them to hack companies all over the world, said Dmitri Alperovitch, who previously co-founded the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike and is now chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank.

The FBI is investigating the incident and Microsoft is assisting. 

The House passed a cybersecurity-heavy billion dollar defense bill with a veto-proof margin. 

The next challenge for Trump, who has threatened to veto the bill, is whether the Senate will pass the bill by a similar margin, Karoun Demirjian reports. If both those margins hold, there's a strong chance Congress would vote tooverride the president's veto.

The success or failure of the bill puts millions of dollars in funding toward cybersecurity on the line. The bill also mandates a new White House cyber director responsible for leading governmentwide cybersecurity policy. 

Trump yesterday renewed his threats to veto the bill over a provision renaming military installations commemorating Confederate figures and the absence of a provision repealing a major liability shield for social media companies. 

Former NSA leaker Reality Winner lost her appeal to be released from prison during the pandemic.

An appeals court upheld a previous ruling denying Winner compassionate release from prison due to covid-19 conditions, Joe Warminsky at CyberScoop reports. The judge agreed that Winner had not shown sufficient evidence to back her claims that the pandemic lockdown worsened her depression and justified release. The court rejected the motion for appeal without a hearing.

Winner was sentenced to more than five years in prison after leaking to the Intercept classified information about the Russian government's attempts to hack a Florida-based voting software supplier.

Chat room

Here's what Twitter had to say about the FireEye attack.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.):

Cybersecurity journalist and author Kim Zetter:

Reuters's Chris Bing:

Bloomberg's William Turton:

Securing the ballot

The Supreme Court denied an attempt by Trump allies to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania. 

The high court's brief did not give a reason for denying the request or note any dissenting votes, Robert Barnes and Elise Viebeck report. 

Before the order, Trump has called on the court to back his last-ditch effort to overturn Biden's victory. “Now, let’s see whether or not somebody has the courage, whether it’s a legislator or legislatures, or whether it’s a justice of the Supreme Court, or a number of justices of the Supreme Court — let’s see if they have the courage to do what everybody in this country knows is right,” Trump said. 

In a separate action, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) yesterday filed a complaint that asked the court to overturn Biden’s wins in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. The Supreme Court told the four states to respond by Thursday afternoon.

Global cyberspace

Huawei helped develop tech that would allow Chinese police to track Uighur Muslims.

The firm worked with facial recognition start-up Megvii to test an artificial camera in 2018 that would have included a “Uighur alarm,” documents obtained by the surveillance research firm IPVM show, Drew Harwell and Eva Dou report. The alarm could have flagged members of the mostly Muslim-minority to police. China has been accused of human rights abuses against the group. 

This is the first time the embattled Chinese tech giant Huawei is known to have been involved in the development of such a tool. Huawei already faces national security scrutiny from the U.S. government over concerns its telecommunication systems could aid Chinese government spying. Megvii was one of eight companies sanctioned by the Commerce Department last year for aiding the Chinese government in human rights violations.

Both companies acknowledged the document is real after publication. Huawei spokesman Glenn Schloss said the report “is simply a test and it has not seen real-world application. Huawei only supplies general-purpose products for this kind of testing. We do not provide custom algorithms or applications.”

A Megvii spokesman said the company’s systems are not designed to target or label ethnic groups.

More cybersecurity news:

Exclusive: How a suspected Chinese spy gained access to California politics (Axios)

Foxconn says internet connection back to normal after ransomware attacks (Reuters)

Researchers say hardcoded passwords in GE medical imaging devices could put patient data at risk (TechCrunch)

Daybook

  • The Atlantic Council will hold an event on the incoming U.S. administration and the future of supply chains in the Americas on Dec. 9 at 2 p.m.

Secure log off

A fascinating look at the race to produce vaccines.

Pfizer, partnering with BioNTech, and Moderna have created effective coronavirus vaccines that scientists hope will lead to medical breakthroughs using mRNA. (Video: The Washington Post)
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