The U.S. president’s attempts to roil the election are helping Russia and other foreign actors, homeland security and intelligence officials say, by providing ready-made fodder for infowar campaigns and inviting cyberattacks, ransomware, and other attempts to sow chaos.
That’s a national security bottom line of two sweeping reports by the New York Times describing how Trump and his political allies are trying to a) suppress the votes of citizens who might vote against him, and b) cast doubt upon the electoral process so that the result can be decided by the courts or by Congress instead of by the popular vote.
Let’s take vote suppression first: “In recent years, Americans have faced a growing variety of obstacles put up by Republican officials to fight voter fraud, a problem that is largely nonexistent,” Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times Magazine. You probably know about many of them: tightening voter ID requirements, closing hundreds of polling places, aggressively purging voter-registration rolls, and more.
Now “it is becoming clear that the Trump administration and the Republican Party are not just looking at but heavily investing in the largely nonexistent problem of voter fraud,” Rutenberg writes. His investigation, “based on a review of thousands of pages of court records and interviews with more than 100 key players — lawyers, activists and current and former government officials — found an extensive effort to gain partisan advantage by aggressively promoting the false claim that voter fraud is a pervasive problem.” Read on, here.
Second: Laying the groundwork to ignore the vote. Writes NYT’s David Sanger: “President Trump’s angry insistence in the last minutes of Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud amounted to an extraordinary declaration by a sitting American president that he would try to throw any outcome into the courts, Congress or the streets if he was not re-elected.”
For more than four years, Trump has been issuing baseless claims of voter fraud and threatening to ignore results he doesn’t like. “But he had never before put it all together in front of such a large audience as he did on Tuesday night,” Sanger writes.
Trump’s words help Russia sow division and distrust among Americans, Sanger writes: “Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to say he would abide by the result, and his disinformation campaign about the integrity of the American electoral system, went beyond anything President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could have imagined. All Mr. Putin has to do now is amplify the president’s message, which he has already begun to do.” What worries American intelligence and homeland security officials is not just the fodder for Russia’s infowar trolls, but “that over the next 34 days, the country may begin to see disruptive cyberoperations, especially ransomware, intended to create just enough chaos to prove the president’s point.” Read on, here.
More examples: D Brief readers may recall our recent short list of ways White House and GOP officials have introduced doubt about the upcoming election while downplaying recognized threats to it.
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Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Kevin Baron with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. OTD2017: Stephen Paddock opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel room with semi-automatic rifles on an outdoor concert crowd, killing 58 people and wounding 700. Yesterday, a judge approved an $800 million settlement with Mandalay Bay’s parent company for victims.
LIVE TODAY: State of the Space Force. Join Defense One’s exclusive interview with Space Force vice commander Lt. Gen. David Thompson, followed by an expert panel moderated by Technology Editor Patrick Tucker. It’s the 4th installment of our State of Defense series with the Joint Chiefs. Register here; show time is 3 p.m. ET.
Related: Space Force will actually go to space. “At some point, yes, we will be putting humans into space,” said Maj. Gen. John E. Shaw, of Space Force’s Space Operations Command. It’s news because in February Thompson had said there was virtually zero chance for a Space Force member to actually be an astronaut. Why? This isn’t NASA, the purpose of the new service branch is “not because we’re battling for control of the moon or Mars, but because we have to ensure space capabilities.” Air Force Magazine has more, here.
Polls: more Americans say violence is justified if their candidate loses. A bipartisan group of pollsters, noticing a yearslong rise in such sentiment, pooled their data and wrote in Politico: “All together, about 1 in 5 Americans with a strong political affiliation says they are quite willing to endorse violence if the other party wins the presidency.” The YouGov and Voter Study Group surveys by margins of error between 1.5 to 3 percentage points; those by Nationscape, between 2 and 2.1 percentage points.
“How seriously should we take these expressions of violence? Both history and social psychology warn us to take them very seriously,” they write, here.
25,000 veterans of the military and law enforcement are members of the armed, extremist anti-government group Oath Keepers. The Atlantic’s Mike Giglio has just posted a long feature profile of the group, after spending “months” researching and talking to its members, of which two-thirds were counted as military or LEO from small towns to the FBI, and 10 percent “active duty.” Giglio writes, “There were members of the Special Forces, private military contractors, an Army psyops sergeant major, a cavalry scout instructor in Texas, a grunt in Afghanistan. There were Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, a 20-year special agent in the Secret Service, and two people who said they were in the FBI.”
What do they do? Like an unofficial goon squad, they show up for everything from the border with Mexico to BLM protests to Trump’s political rallies. Founder Stewart Rhodes “sent members to ‘protect’ Trump supporters from the protesters at his rallies and appeared in the VIP section at one of them, standing in the front row in a black Oath Keepers shirt.”
They bring a certain set of skills… Oath Keepers prides its success and survival on members keeping their mouths shut, but Giglio found: “A soldier with a U.S. Army email address detailed a background in battlefield intelligence, writing, ‘I am willing to use any skills you identify as helpful,’ and an Iraq War veteran pledged ‘any talents available to a former infantry team leader.’ Still others listed skills in marksmanship, SWAT tactics, interrogation.”
Why do they do it? “Rhodes had tapped into a deep current of anxiety, one that could cause a surprisingly large contingent of people with real police and military experience to consider armed political violence.” Giglio spoke to several of them. At a protest in Richmond, the veteran war correspondent summed up what he saw. “To me they had the aspect of children playing at war, only their guns were real.” Read on, here.
Meanwhile, Trump passed up another chance to disavow right-wing extremists. After even some GOP lawmakers expressed concern, his team tried to walk back the president’s Tuesday callout to the Proud Boys, which is designated by the FBI as a far-right extremist group. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” the president told reporters Wednesday. “I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
But: “Asked plainly if he welcomed the support of white supremacists who ‘clearly love you,’ Trump did not register the problem with that supposition. In fact, he bobbed his head in a seemingly knowing yes motion.” Daily Beast, here.
Team Biden doesn’t want the National Guard out on Election Day. Speaking of armed folks patrolling political activity in our streets… “I think going right to the National Guard on voting day would be – I don’t think that’s a healthy thing for our democracy,” said Michele Flournoy on Wednesday. “I would hate to see a situation where we have to inject the military and the Guard into our democratic elections,” she said in an interview with Defense News. The question came because Tuesday night Trump called for his own “poll watchers” and supporters have showed up to block early voting locations, and so on Wednesday morning Council on Foreign Relations was among many to call for governors to ready their Guard troops — just in case.
Who is Michèle Flournoy? Come on, you should know by now. She was the defense undersecretary for policy — the Pentagon’s policy chief — under Obama and almost definitely would have been Hillary Clinton’s defense secretary. Instead, she’s been sitting atop her lucrative consulting firm, WestExec Advisors, with a roster of former Obama administration officials singing the praises of emerging technologies. In recent weeks, Flournoy has ramped up her public appearances, making the case for a new approach to liberal national security (or, at least a new brand of it) that spins global engagement as good for the American middle class. She endorsed Biden in a Defense One op-ed in early June, and if he wins, her name still tops the SecDef list.
McChrystal endorses Biden. What a difference a decade makes. "I think he would set a tone in which he brings out the best in people... you have to believe that your commander in chief, at the end of the day, is someone that you can trust — and I can trust Joe Biden," said former Afghanistan War commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, on Thursday. Of course, you recall the “runaway general” was fired by Biden’s boss, President Barack Obama, after the legendary Rolling Stone piece by the late Michael Hastings in 2010. In that piece, McChrystal reportedly scoffs at then-Vice President Biden (“Who’s that?”)…. The general later publicly took responsibility for what was reported and said he offered his resignation unprompted. Noteworthy: in the primary, the good general backed a different horse, fellow retired Marine Corps officer Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.
Flournoy, McChrystal, and Moutlon actually all sat on the same Aspen Institute panel five years ago to promote the idea of a national service initiative that McChrystal was backing, at the time. Your D Briefer Kevin Baron moderated the talk. It’s an idea that keeps popping up, worth a watch if you like, here.
About those nine tossed military ballots for Trump… “This was not intentional fraud,” said Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, about one Trump allegation he blurted in Tuesday night’s presidential debate. Officials said it was just “a bad error” by an under trained election worker who has since been fired. “Jonathan Marks, the Pennsylvania deputy secretary for elections, said that in some cases, military and overseas ballots arrived in Luzerne County inside envelopes that do not clearly mark them as ballots,” reports AP.
Trump is the largest driver of misinformation about COVID, according to a Cornell University study that is the “first comprehensive examination of coronavirus misinformation in traditional and online media,” the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Surprised? “To those who have been watching Mr. Trump’s statements, the idea that he is responsible for spreading or amplifying misinformation might not come as a huge shock,” the Times wrote. “The president has also been feeding disinformation campaigns around the presidential election and mail-in voting that Russian actors have amplified — and his own government has tried to stop. But in interviews, the Cornell researchers said they expected to find more mentions of conspiracy theories, and not so many articles involving Mr. Trump.” Read on, here.
Also hiding COVID truth: Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erodgan’s health minister let slip on Wednesday that the government has been reporting only the number of people being treated in hospitals, not the actual count of positive cases. “Since the pandemic began, Turkey says 318,000 residents have been infected and 8,195 have died.” Turkish Medical Association says that’s wrong and opposition leaders say the true count is higher — “19 times higher.” (AP)
Congress to spy agencies: Focus more on China. A new report by the House Intelligence Committee’s Democrats calls on the spooks to beef up their China ops with a “significant realignment of resources.” That’s not too unexpected. It follows a separate Republican report calling for essentially the same. What’s really notable, writes NYT’s Julian Barnes: “While there is a bipartisan consensus on China, the failure of Democrats and Republicans in the House to work together on the issue was another sign of the partisan dysfunction that has gripped Washington and that could be a hurdle to revising American policy on China despite the agreement.” Read more on Congress’ recommended actions in this NBC News report.
“Putin is behind the crime,” said Aleksei A. Navalny, “Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, who was poisoned in August in Siberia. Navalny gave an interview to Der Spiegel, recounted here in english. Sprechen sie Deutsch? Then, here.
A void in the Middle East. The death of Kuwait’s 91-year old emir, Sheikh Saba Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, which follows the death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, leaves the Gulf without “two of its most prolific peacemakers,” according to the Soufan Center. In a brief but insightful explainer, they write “...many wonder if [Kuwait] Sheikh Sabah’s replacement will be as shrewd or skillful in positioning Kuwait as a neutral party and one capable of orchestrating mediation efforts between bickering neighbors.” Read that, here.
Four journalists wounded in Armenia-Azerbaijan fighting. Two from Le Monde and two Armenian television journalist were wounded in shelling, as this week’s eruption of fighting continues. (AP)
And finally: AP: “A team of Polish divers say they have found almost intact the wreckage of German World War II steamer Karlsruhe, which was bombed by Soviet planes and sunk in the Baltic Sea in April 1945, with the loss of hundreds of civilian and military lives.” Have a good Thursday, mates.