Tanzina Vega: Back now on The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. Earlier this week, Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, released a declassified report on foreign interference threats in the 2020 election. While there's no evidence that any interference altered votes in the election, the report outlines efforts authorized by foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, to influence public opinion about the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Much of the information contained in the report brings to mind a warning that former special counsel Robert Mueller delivered in May 2019 after concluding his own investigation into the 2016 election.
Robert Mueller: I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.
Tanzina Vega: Andrea Bernstein is a WNYC editor, most recently with the Trump, Inc. podcast and the author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power. Andrea, welcome back.
Andrea Bernstein: Hey, great to talk with you.
Tanzina Vega: I also have Suzanne Spaulding, senior advisor for Homeland Security at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Suzanne, I almost didn't get through that title, but welcome to the show.
Suzanne Spaulding: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Tanzina Vega: Thank you. Andrea, we heard Robert Mueller there saying, "Hey, you guys should pay attention. There's some interference in your election happening." Did this report confirm that?
Andrea Bernstein: Yes, it absolutely did. I think what's interesting about this report is that it tells a story about messages that the Russians consistently push from 2014 almost up until the present moment. It was an anti-Biden, pro-Trump, and also a message to undermine confidence in the American electoral system. While I don't think anybody would be shocked to learn this information, I think what is striking is the longevity and the consistency of the message and the way the Russians' message dovetailed with what came from the White House from 2017 to the beginning of 2021.
Tanzina Vega: Suzanne, having been a senior adviser for Homeland Security, what stood out to you most about this report?
Suzanne Spaulding: I agree with Andrea. I think it was very important that the intelligence community confirmed that, in fact, we did see Russia, particularly, predominantly, and other countries as well, trying to influence the public discourse, political discourse in this country, and that it did not end on Election Day. That they continued to push the big lie, that the election was rigged. This is consistent with the narratives that Russia has been pushing. We know this is not just about elections, but about undermining public trust in democracy and about our institutions across the board. I've been looking at the ways in which Russia has been undermining public trust in our justice system, for example. I think it was really important, both those messages.
Tanzina Vega: It feels like folks aren't as excited about this type of news right now, Andrea. Are you feeling that as well? Like, "Why are we even talking about this now?"
Andrea Bernstein: No. I think because we see the Republican Party building both its policy and its political messaging on these messages of no confidence in the electoral system. I think it is still very much present and we need to analyze how to handle it going forward.
Tanzina Vega: Andrea, Russia, no surprise, showed up in this report. How did their meddling efforts, if you will, differ in 2020 compared to what we saw in 2016?
Andrea Bernstein: The intelligence community report pointed out that Russia, unlike in 2016, did not attempt to interfere with the election apparatus. That is one big difference, but in a lot of ways, it was quite similar. I think what jumps out to me about this report is that the Russians were very, very focused on discrediting now President Biden, for a time during this report he was vice president and he was out of office, and his family with respect to his son Hunter's business dealings in Ukraine. I think that what it doesn't say in this report is obviously the entire first impeachment inquiry about then President Trump was over Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, seeking to get this information from the Russians.
This report, if you will, shows the other side. It shows how President Putin directed the kind of interaction that Rudy Giuliani had with Russian intelligence assets who were promoting an anti-Biden narrative. While a lot of this was warned, former intelligence officials said during the election, there were some 50 of them that signed a letter that said these Biden family narratives smack of Russian propaganda, it was striking to see this written in a report that this was the Russian strategy. The Russian strategy was to undermine confidence in the election and taint now President Joe Biden with these narratives. They got so close to President Trump, news officials, and spread this narrative out.
Having said that, I think one huge difference is that President Trump had many, many, many tens of millions of Twitter followers and he was putting out these same messages to undermine confidence in the election and to taint the Biden family. It's hard to untangle how much Russian interference efforts may have affected those US beliefs. This report doesn't actually address that.
Tanzina Vega: Suzanne, initially there were many concerns about not just Russia, but also whether or not Iran and China would also have any significant meddling, if you will, in our election. The report mentions that Chinese officials chose not to attempt to interfere in the 2020 election. Why would they make that choice, Suzanne?
Suzanne Spaulding: It's really very interesting and important to note. What they say is that they assess that China values a stable relationship with the United States. They understood that they were going to have challenges, whether it was Trump or whether it was Biden. The challenges may have been different, but they were going to be challenged in either instance, and that if they were caught trying to interfere in the election, that would further destabilize that relationship. It's important to understand that that notion of getting caught, that valuing a stable relationship, those are points of leverage that we can use and have used in the past to affect China's behavior.
Russia, on the other hand, as clarified in this assessment, assesses that its relationship is already so bad that it has little to lose. Where China can go around the world trying to offer up its system of governance as a model that contrasts with Western democracy, Putin knows he has no model to hold up. His objective is simply to pull us down, to portray us as corrupt and hypocritical and broken as the Russian system. That tells us what leverage we have with Russia as well.
Tanzina Vega: Do we have any leverage? I guess, Suzanne, that would be the question.
Suzanne Spaulding: I think that demonstrates that Putin understands that his public is not particularly happy with the governance or at least a segment of his population. Enough that he cares about. Certainly, he is sensitive to protests that have happened in Russia around corruption allegations. That's an important thing for us to know. Putin and Xi Jinping both place at the top of their list of priorities staying in power. Understanding what they think they need to stay in power is how we're going to be able to determine where we might have some leverage.
Tanzina Vega: Suzanne, what about Iran? What role did they play, if any, in their own attempts at election interference here in 2020?
Suzanne Spaulding: That was interesting as well, although much of this we knew because the Iranian attempts were a little more clumsy and were found and taken down at the time by the platforms. Interesting that Iran has taken a page from the Kremlin playbook and did things like send intimidating emails posing as Proud Boys to potentially democratic voters saying, "You better not vote for the Democrat. You better change your thinking." Rather clumsy, but interesting that they wanted to get involved and, again, were trying to stir up trouble, and in this instance, anti-Trump.
Tanzina Vega: Andréa, just curious, how effective do you think these messaging campaigns were?
Andrea Bernstein: I mean, I think we have to ask ourselves that question. I think one of the things that is interesting, and that the report pointed out was that these Russian messages, the anti US election apparatus messages which coincided with Trump's, were coming after the election, and we know what happened on January 6th. Now, how much did Russian information contribute to that versus what Trump was already putting out? It's hard to say, but it's alarming that those two messages dovetailed so much. The Russian governments and the message that Trump was putting out to his supporters in the days before the insurrection on January 6th.
Tanzina Vega: Suzanne I guess this is a question I'm asking now that we have this report in hand, but how prepared was the intelligence community for these attempts ahead of the 2020 election? We know that under the Trump administration, there was tension between the Trump administration, and many of the national security personnel who were supposed to be in charge of this. Tell us how that affected what we know now.
Suzanne Spaulding: Well, I think the good news is that what we see is the intelligence professionals continued to do their work, and their mission. We were much better prepared for the information operations even in 2018, and certainly by 2020, than we were in 2016. For example, in the report, we see that what appears the government, the intelligence community presumably shared information on a more timely basis with the social media platforms that facilitated their ability to detect these disinformation campaigns and were appropriate to take them down. That's a step forward, I think.
When we see how the election officials were in conversations with my old shop at the department of Homeland security, which is now called CYSA, The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for four years getting ready for this national election, that a big part of what they were training for and preparing for were efforts to undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of the process and therefore the outcome. That was a big part of what was behind the push for paper ballots, so that there would be an audit trail, and you could go back and reassure the public about what happened in the election. I think everyone was better prepared for those information operations this time around.
Tanzina Vega: Andrea, I'm curious in terms of how much attention has been paid to the 2020 election before it actually happened, and election security overall, and then this report emerges, and it doesn't seem to make a big splash. Were you surprised by that?
Andrea Bernstein: No, and the reason is because a lot of different parties have reasons for looking ahead. Biden, President Biden, has made quite clear that he wants to focus on his agenda, not the Trump administration. the Republicans in Congress, some of whom may have pushed similar messages to the Russians, undermining confidence in absentee voting and in the American election system, also don't have an incentive. For those of us who were journalists who covered Trump, I'm certain that there is a feeling on the part of some people that Trump occupied everyone's brains for four years, it's time to move on and deal with other issues.
That said, I think that what is striking, as Suzanne said, is that the Biden administration is issuing this information. This information directly contradicts what some Trump officials were putting out during the election. For example, President Trump and his allies were downplaying the role of the Russians while up playing, if you will, the role of Chinese, even though this report clearly says that China wasn't a major actor in the 2020 elections in the United States. I think that there was certainly going to be clarification. There has been a clarification of the historical record, and I think that there are still open questions about President Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has been reported to still be under investigation for some of his activities in Ukraine.
We will see where that turns up, but I am pleased to see that clear information about the historical record is now being put out, and I hope that this continues to be the case.
Tanzina Vega: One of the things that has stood out to me as we talk about misinformation and disinformation is essentially how successful some of these campaigns have been. We see the rise of conspiracy theories, particularly thinking about things like Qanon and how really they've influenced a lot of the thinking of average Americans. Suzanne, I'm wondering why is the general public in the United States today so susceptible to foreign disinformation campaigns? I know that part of the thinking, at least on the part of Russia, was to tap into the racial tensions that have always existed in the United States. Is that partly why they were so successful?
Suzanne Spaulding: That's a great question, Tanzina, and yes, systemic racism is certainly one of the vulnerabilities that the Kremlin seeks to exploit. As this assessment points out, they are exploiting divisions much broader than that in our society as well. I think they're also taking advantage of the isolation. I think it's exacerbated by COVID, and our inability to interact on a personal basis. It's much easier to demonize people when you're only interacting online. There's been a fear of change for quite some time now that they tap into and exploit. All of these things, I think are channeled into a sense that democracy has failed and cannot be fixed.
That's the narrative, ultimately, the meta narrative, if you will, that Russia is pushing. We've seen a decline in support for democracy. Again, based on weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our own making, but it's definitely exploited and exacerbated by these narratives that the system is rigged, and that it is irrevocably rigged.
Tanzina Vega: I wonder how much of this is also a lack of our own understanding in this country about how our government works, and how democracy works, and the civic education that we might be lacking. Even maybe some critical thinking or media literacy. All of those things have to play into this, right? It's a big question, and I'm only giving you a minute and a half to respond.
Suzanne Spaulding: Well, it's exactly the right question then. I could not agree with you more. I think, ultimately the way to counter these information operations is to build public resilience against the pernicious messaging that our system is irrevocably broken, and civics education is a way to remind people that the beauty of democracy is not that it's perfect, but that it can be changed. That it is susceptible to change unlike totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. We need to teach Americans how to hold our institutions accountable and how to be more effective agents of change.
Tanzina Vega: Suzanne Spaulding is the senior advisor for Homeland Security at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Andrea Bernstein is our WNYC editor and the author of American Oligarchs. Andrea, Suzanne, thanks so much for being with us today.
Andrea Bernstein: Great speaking with you.
Suzanne Spaulding: Thank you.
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