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Morning News Brief: Fallout From Leaked NSA Document


And this morning we're looking at the fallout from this leaked intelligence document about Russian hacking right before the U.S. presidential election.


Yeah, this story starts with a contractor for the National Security Agency. Reality Leigh Winner is 25. And according to federal authorities, she printed a classified document and sent it to an online news outlet. The contractor is under arrest. The document seems to be what The Intercept published this week. It describes Russian military intelligence trying to hack a company that provides voting software before the presidential election. Russians, it said, also tried to steal information such as passwords from U.S. election officials. Although, it is unclear to what extent they succeeded. Now, this Russian activity was generally known but not in such detail.

MARTIN: One of the reporters who broke this story for The Intercept is Ryan Grim. He joins us now in the studio. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN GRIM: Hi, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Thanks for being here. So what can you tell us about this NSA document? What does it reveal that we didn't know before?

GRIM: Well, a few things - I mean, first of all is the level of detail that Steve talked about. But more importantly, you know, President Obama came out after the election and said that he sat down with Vladimir Putin face to face and told him, you know, we've detected some type of tampering with our election infrastructure over the summer, and I need you to, quote, "cut it out."


GRIM: And as far as President Obama understood or said that he understood at the time, he actually had, in fact, cut it out. What this document shows is that, no, they ramped it up. In August is when they first went after a software company called VR Systems. VR Systems, it works with a lot of states around the country doing their registration rolls.

What they were able to do there was to - they spear phishing VR Systems in order to kind of be able to spoof further emails when they reached out later to election officials. So it looked like they're coming from the contractor.

INSKEEP: Spear phishing, sending messages that get you to give up your own password or whatever.

GRIM: Yeah, you email out and say - this is usually somebody from Google - you know, you need more storage, or somebody is trying to hack you. And so they try to get you to type in your password. And they were successful in doing that to VR Systems.

MARTIN: This is interesting because for many, many months now, we've been hearing the conclusion that the Russians may have hacked the election, tried to interfere. But it was totally unclear whether that had any effect. And what you're saying is that we still don't know...

GRIM: Right.

MARTIN: ...If there was any actual effect of this. But it seems closer. They were closer to the systems that could have changed an election.

GRIM: Right. It is still very much unclear. But right, we do know that they used the information they were able to gather from VR Systems in order to create emails that they then sent to about 122, according to the NSA, election board officials, trying to get into their systems as well, which the NSA concluded it was very likely that they succeeded in doing that. They don't know how successful they were beyond that, unless their aim was to create confusion, in which case, they were - they were entirely successful.

MARTIN: Which does its own kind of harm...

GRIM: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...To people's faith in the election system.

INSKEEP: And this just underlines the stakes, doesn't it? This was more, it seems, than just Russian propaganda efforts about which we've heard a lot. It seems to have been at least an effort to get at the integrity of the voting systems themselves.

MARTIN: Ryan Grim, he's the Washington bureau chief for The Intercept, talking with us about this leaked NSA document that The Intercept got anonymously. Ryan, thanks so much for coming in this morning.

GRIM: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Great story.

MARTIN: Now, this latest leak calls even more attention to questions about links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

INSKEEP: Questions that will be raised when former FBI Director James Comey testifies before Congress on Thursday. Senator Mark Warner of the Senate intelligence committee wants to know if the President pressured Comey to drop his investigation.


MARK WARNER: Clearly, it would be very, very troubling if the president of the United States is interfering in investigations that affect potentially the president and his closest associates.

MARTIN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is with us now to talk about this story and all the implications of the president's tweets this week on a variety of subjects. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: First, this leaked NSA document we've been talking about this morning, it seems in one way good news for the administration - right? - because it does shift the focus from the Russia investigation to the leaks that are informing it, which is what the administration has wanted for a long time.

ELVING: It could make that kind of a conversational shift if the people doing the leaking can be made to seem self-serving in some way, if they prove to be unsympathetic individuals. On the other hand, the existence of real people, now, leaking real documents that describe actual events that cannot be denied means this is a real story. You can't call it fake news.

MARTIN: And, of course, all this comes just days before James Comey is set to testify, the ousted FBI director. That's coming up this week. So there's going to be a lot of attention on the Russia allegations this week.

ELVING: There is, indeed. And also, we have testimony coming on Wednesday from Admiral Mike Rogers, who is the head of the U.S. Cyber Command, and from the director of national intelligence, former Senator Dan Coats. That's going to be interesting, too, before we even get to Comey.

MARTIN: I also want to ask you about the president's tweet storm this week that I referenced. He was weighing in on his travel ban. This happened after the London terrorist attacks. He saw it as an opportunity, I guess, to talk about his travel plan. Is that helping or hurting his case, a case that's now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, it appears?

ELVING: Hard to see how it's helping his case in the legal sense. After all, the travel ban is in the courts, as you say, including the Supreme Court. It does not make sense to be denigrating those same courts, as he has in some of these tweets, calling them slow and political when these courts are weighing the fate of the travel ban. And by the way, calling it a travel ban in the tweets totally undercuts all of the president's various surrogates who have been out there at great pains trying to say it's not a travel ban.

MARTIN: Does that help him, though, with his base, when he says something like, I don't care what the courts call it. I don't care what anyone else calls it; It's a travel ban. Does that play well to a base that says, yeah, this is a guy who's just telling it like it is? He's not playing the Washington game.

ELVING: You bet. And you really have the essence of this entire Twitter campaign, one believes, at this point. Some of these tweets may be hurting the president in many ways. But they are catnip to his most loyal supporters. They want to hear this kind of rhetoric. They want to hear these sentiments. This is straight talk to them. And in that sense, it's quite similar to some of the rhetoric we heard in the Paris climate speech that the president gave last week.


INSKEEP: At the same time, the president's staff has spent so much time saying, pay no attention to the president's tweets. They're just tweets. Why are you paying so much attention? It suggests that they themselves know how very, very damaging many of these messages are.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Hey, thanks so much for being with us this morning, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: London's mayor would prefer that President Trump stay on his side of the pond. Sadiq Khan is repeating his call for Britain to cancel the president's state visit.

INSKEEP: Here's what the mayor told Britain's Channel 4 News last night.


SADIQ KHAN: I don't think we should be rolling out the red carpet to the president of the USA in the circumstances where his policies go against everything we stand for.

INSKEEP: Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, Sadiq Khan is the same official whom President Trump attacked on Twitter over the weekend. The president lifted the mayor's words out of context as Sadiq Khan was urging calm after the weekend attack at London Bridge.

MARTIN: We are joined now by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. She is in London this morning. Hey, Eleanor.


MARTIN: All right, first, any indication that this invitation for President Trump to visit the U.K. could be revoked? Or is this this kind of a symbolic move for London's mayor, who may be feeling like he's been under - under attack?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's the main - one of the main topics of the day today being bandied about on television and in the papers. I don't know yet if it could actually be revoked. We'll see.

MARTIN: Now, all this is happening as the U.K. is bracing for an election Thursday, a general election. How is this likely - if at all - to play into Theresa May's effort to keep her hold on government?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I haven't heard this - I haven't - people I've been talking to, this doesn't seem to have affected her. It's all about Donald Trump. And people are furious at him. Everywhere you go - someone said to me yesterday, can you imagine attacking the mayor of New York City after 9/11? And then when Trump doubled down yesterday on his tweet, calling Sadiq Khan pathetic, that was just, you know, even worse.

Londoners like their mayor. And at the vigil last night, where everyone was out, you know, paying, you know, homage to the victims, this is what London architect Nik Randall (ph) said to me.

NIK RANDALL: You need to get your Donald Trump in order. He would not have said what he said about Sadiq Khan's comments if he had been white, if it had been Boris Johnson still in power. That was an anti-Muslim comment. Donald Trump is trying to drive the same division that the extremists are trying to drive.

MARTIN: So clearly, Donald Trump, not the most popular guy over there right now.

BEARDSLEY: No, not at all.

MARTIN: While we've got you, what is the latest on the investigation? What have British police been saying about the the attackers who killed those seven people Saturday?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, yesterday they released the name of - names of two of the three attackers. And they've also let go 12 of the people they were holding. And there are raids going on this morning in the neighborhood of 27-year-old Brit - Pakistani-born Brit named Khuram Shahzad Butt. He was known to police. And he was so open about his fundamentalism that he actually appeared in a TV documentary last year called "The Jihadis Next Door." Today, newspapers are asking how he was even allowed to walk the streets.

MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in London, giving us the view from there this morning. Hey, Eleanor, thanks for doing it.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Rachel.

MARTIN: And, Steve, it really is remarkable that President Trump - everyone says this is America's longest ally, longest, most important alliance, and we're attacking the mayor of London.

INSKEEP: Well, Eleanor said it, though. She said it's all about Trump, which means the president actually is getting what his communication strategy tends to go for.

MARTIN: And what his voters, perhaps, like in him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Grim
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.