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Russia Aims To Meddle In State Elections, Sen. King Says


It is hard to tell if this is two superpowers who are just asserting themselves or if there's real growing tension between the United States and Russia. This week, Russia said it would not hesitate to target U.S. warplanes over Syria. And we're trying to figure out what happened this morning. Reports from Russia say NATO fighter jets buzzed a plane that was carrying Russia's defense minister over the Baltic Sea. All this is happening as the U.S. slapped new sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

And, oh, yeah, there was that election. Russia's accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential race. How did they do that? And will they keep doing it? Well, those are questions that will be asked today in a Senate intelligence committee hearing. And one person asking the questions will be Senator Angus King, an Independent from Maine, who is with us. And, Senator, I've been warned that you're in a pretty echoey spot in your Senate office building. Is that right?

ANGUS KING: Well, we're in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, which is a little bit echoey. But it gives you that kind of feeling of action around here.

GREENE: That's (laughter) we like that for radio, as opposed to you just sitting behind your desk I guess. You know, I want to ask you. You used some bold words recently. You said that this attack on the United States election was the most serious in our country since 9/11.

KING: Absolutely, and I think that's true. I mean, nobody died, but this was a direct attack on our democracy. The intention was to destabilize our democratic system, to cast doubt on it, to undermine it. And ultimately, it looks like their intention was to tip the election one way or the other. And this is the - this is sort of who we are. And, you know, the good news is we're the most open, free democratic country in the world. The bad news is we're disproportionately vulnerable to the kind of attack the Russians were pushing in that election.

And today's hearing, David, is particularly important because it's an aspect of this thing that really hasn't gotten much attention. All the drama is about Comey and Trump and who said what and whether there were relationships with - between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But I'm interested in what the problem is going forward. And today we're talking about Russian attempts to get into state election systems. And...

GREENE: Well, and I want to ask you, Senator, if I can, before we move on to what, you know...

KING: Sure.

GREENE: ...The government might be able to do about this, I was just in Russia and had so many people tell us that this just didn't happen. It is a fabrication from the United States government. Obviously, there's a consensus in the intelligence community that Russia hacked into the presidential election. But can you tell me here this morning, like, I mean, give me an example of a smoking gun that just makes it abundantly clear of what happened?

KING: Well, I think one of the smoking guns is that this is what the Russians have been doing in Eastern Europe for years. I was over - I was in Poland and the Ukraine last spring. And the first thing their politicians wanted to talk about was, look out for the Russians. They mess around in your elections, and they're going to try to undermine any Western democracy. They've tried to - they were involved in the French elections that just took place. So there's no - number one, it's what they do. Number two - and I can't reveal the intelligence - but there is very good what they call forensic intelligence as to where this attack came from.

GREENE: You've seen smoking guns. You just can't talk about them. But you have seen what you would call a smoking gun.

KING: That's correct. Let me just say, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Russians were behind this. It was sophisticated. It was long-term. And they knew exactly what they were doing - and that they intend to keep doing it.

GREENE: Well, you mentioned state election systems. Are we going to begin to get a glimpse of a so-called smoking gun or smoking guns in this hearing today? I mean, what happened? How were these state election systems in our country vulnerable?

KING: Well, let me first back up and say why we can't talk about some of the smoking guns. And that is the term you use - you hear in the intelligence community is sources and methods. We - if we reveal how we know things, that tips the other side off to shore it up or close it down. Or it might even talk - you know, it might endanger somebody's life. So...


KING: ...That's why you have to be careful about what you reveal about how you know things. But we do - we - there's ample evidence of the Russians trying to get into state election systems. And this is one of the aspects that really worries me. I mean, imagine for a moment - and by the way, all the intelligence is that no votes were changed. No tallies were changed. So that should give us a - you know, a sigh of relief.

But imagine for a moment if two days after the election, we started to find irregularities around the country, a couple of hundred thousand votes were changed. And - it would have been a true constitutional crisis as to how we decide this kind of thing. So they were trying to do that. And the point I keep making is they weren't doing this for fun. They were practicing. They were getting ready to try to do it again. They're - they - as James Comey said the other day, they will be back.

GREENE: Well, if that's true, if they will be back, if you have seen evidence that they were meddling in state election systems, if you believe they might have the capability to actually change vote counts, what is the U.S. government going to do about it?

KING: Well, I think there are three things. One is to do just what we're doing today and have an open hearing. And by the way, I'm urging the intelligence community to declassify absolutely as much as they possibly can so the public, and particularly state and local election officials, understand that this is for real.

So number one is information - you're at risk. Number two is to provide guidance, not control - we're not talking about federal taking over elections but guidance as to how to avoid this. For example, always have a paper backup. Don't have a voting system that is ever connected online, and have a paper backup. And third, I think the federal government can supply some funds to state and local election systems to change their systems in order to make them more resilient.

GREENE: Independent Senator Angus King from the state of Maine, who is going to be taking part in a hearing today specifically focused on Russian meddling in U.S. elections in the past and also potentially in the future. Senator, thanks so much for your time, as always.

KING: Thank you, David - pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 20, 2017 at 9:00 PM PDT
Earlier audio incorrectly linked new sanctions to Russian attempts to meddle in the American election. They are actually related to Russian actions in Ukraine. In addition, the Web description incorrectly said the interview was conducted by Steve Inskeep. It was done by David Greene.