Threats to U.S. elections this year could be broader and more diverse than before, warns the spy world's boss for election security — and she also acknowledged the limits of her ability to tackle them.
Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community's election threats executive, told NPR in an exclusive interview that more nations may attempt more types of interference in the United States given the extensive lessons that have since been drawn about the Russian attack on the 2016 presidential election.
"This isn't a Russia-only problem," she told Noel King on Morning Edition. "We're still also concerned about China, Iran, non-state actors, 'hacktivists.' And frankly ... even Americans might be looking to undermine confidence in the elections."
But the U.S. intelligence community isn't standing still, Pierson said. It, too, has been working since 2016 to learn what lessons it can from that year and also adapt in real time as others do to the way officials at every level plan for this year's presidential race.
"I do think it is broader and more diverse simply because we might have more actors than we had in 2016 and we might be looking at different inroads — not just necessarily capitalizing on social media, but also interfering in networks or the vote count," she said. "So you really have a broader waterfront than you might have had in 2016."
Pierson said that the intelligence community is expanding its technical capabilities and trying to develop more human sources to alert it to interference efforts, but there are two major factors that complicate both what it can achieve and the efficacy of foreign interference.
First is the tension over what spies should reveal about what they know, how much and when. Second, the reality that each person forms her or his own perceptions about democracy, whether an election is "rigged" or whether a fact is reliable.
Critics faulted the administration of President Barack Obama for keeping quiet through much of 2016 about what it was uncovering about the campaign of active measures that Russia waged that year, including via cyberattacks and with online agitation.
Pierson said the intelligence community today is conscious about that lesson and appreciates the possibility that it may need to work quicker to decide how and when to reveal information about potential threats. But these decisions aren't simple.
Intelligence officials need to preserve sources and methods and don't want to needlessly sow more mistrust in democracy, she said.
"Some of my colleagues have said, 'maybe we shouldn't necessarily spook the herd and share all this information ... Maybe people go, 'You know what, this is all rigged. That's so much disinformation. I'm not going to vote.' That would be worst case scenario. And frankly, doing the work of our adversaries for them."
At the same time, the intelligence community says it wants to do more to work with officials at every level. The FBI, for example, recently expanded its policy for making notifications when it detects a cyberattack.
Pierson also told NPR that it may sometimes be valid to expose a foreign interference operation in the interest of educating voters and, she hopes, prompting Americans not to become cynical but just the opposite — to lean forward and engage.
"I've really taken some some very important suggestions to heart that transparency enables resilience and, potentially, sunlight is the best disinfectant," she said.
Continued Pierson: "The more that we talk about the threat, potentially more we empower voters to understand this as merely a reality of today's landscape. And that despite all of those challenges, we're managing them or countering them. And [people] should vote."
View from within ODNI
Pierson was appointed election threats executive under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in one of the final acts of then-DNI Dan Coats before he was hustled out of the Trump administration last year.
That position has been empty since and the vacant DNI has come to symbolize the lingering antipathy between President Trump and the spy bureaucracy.
Trump not only has never appeared simpatico with much of the intelligence world, he has reserved particular scorn for election security itself. Trump goes back and forth as to what he accepts about the events of 2016 and also has adopted conspiracy theories about it, including one which forms the basis of the ongoing impeachment saga in the Senate.
None of the political backdrop in Washington affects Pierson and her work, she told NPR. ODNI and the intelligence community have the funding they need, the authorities they need from Congress — and Trump also plays ball when asked, she said.
For example, intelligence and foreign policy specialists asked Trump to warn Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov against interfering in the 2020 election, Pierson said — and he agreed. Lavrov, however, later denied it came up.
The bottom line, as NPR's King asked Pierson, was this: "You don't feel yourself having to work around President Trump?"
"Not at all," Pierson said.
There are limits to what the intelligence community can do to address a problem that ultimately manifests itself in the hearts of Americans.
One objective of active measures is simply to spread chaos and sow doubt, and Pierson said she hoped the coming year would bring a focus on confronting that by citizens, news organizations and beyond.
"This is where it's not only a whole of government effort, but frankly a whole of society effort," Pierson said.
"Not only do we want to improve media literacy so that Americans know where to find accurate information to inform their vote and how to spot disinformation if it's coming through on their own media feeds ..."
She continued: "... I think combating that type of activity, again, is a full spectrum of opportunities, which can include technical operations sponsored by the intelligence community, working in close partnership with tech firms and social media firms, and as well as coupled with media literacy. I think that frankly creates our best chance at societal resilience against these threats."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Will the 2020 elections be secure from interference either foreign or domestic? Yesterday, I asked Shelby Pierson. She is the first ever intelligence community election threats executive. She was appointed by then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in July of 2019. Her job is to work with intelligence agencies like the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security to identify and fight actors that are trying to interfere with our voting process.
SHELBY PIERSON: The Russians, for example, are already engaging in influence operations relative to candidates going into 2020. But we do not have evidence at this time that our adversaries are directly looking at interfering with vote counts or the vote tallies.
KING: Is it fair to say we don't know what Russia is going to do yet?
PIERSON: I think that is a fair characterization. And I would also say that this isn't a Russia-only problem. We're still also concerned about China, Iran, non-state actors, hacktivists and frankly - certainly for DHS and FBI - even Americans that might be looking to undermine confidence in the elections.
KING: After Russia interfered in the 2016 election, there was this push for transparency about attempts to influence our elections. Pierson told me she's walking a line between not wanting to frighten people, but also wanting to keep them informed.
PIERSON: Transparency enables resilience. And sunlight is the best disinfectant. So the more that we talk about the threat, potentially more we empower voters to understand this as merely a reality of today's landscape - and that despite all of those challenges, we're managing them or countering them. And they should vote.
KING: You are constantly doing the calculus on this...
KING: ...You are constantly trying to figure out, is it worth saying it now? Is it worth waiting and seeing how much of a threat it is?
KING: Would you say that's a daily occurrence?
PIERSON: The challenge for us is that for anyone who has any tenure in the intelligence community, we're in the business of threats...
KING: Sure. Sure.
PIERSON: ...So we're seeing information day in and day out. And I think the challenge is, to your point, when does that mature enough to the point where it's either actionable, where the target can take meaningful countermeasures so that it is stopped in its tracks, so to speak - all the way to are we going to reveal this because it'll help raise awareness and sensitize people?
KING: This sounds like a very difficult balancing act. The U.S. intelligence community agrees that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit President Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. President Trump has openly joked about Russia interfering in the 2016 election. In fact, he appeared to joke with Vladimir Putin about it. At times, he doesn't appear to take this threat seriously. That has to make your job harder.
PIERSON: We are looking at the spectrum of information that comes into us day in and day out to enable all the missions. And that can continue, frankly, unencumbered by any of the comments or political discourse that you hear globally about this topic. I will say that the intelligence community has the authorities it needs. It has the resources it needs. And when we have needed the president to relay warnings - for example, most recently to Mr. Lavrov in Russia - he has done so.
KING: Sergey Lavrov?
KING: Would you just explain what you mean there, if you would?
PIERSON: Sure. I think the interagency process, not just the intelligence community, has strongly encouraged leaders - whether that includes President Trump or Secretary of State Pompeo or Secretary of Defense Mr. Esper - to relay information to our international colleagues that interfering in the U.S. elections is unacceptable to the United States. And that type of messaging is very important in terms of ensuring the global cognizance that this is activity that will not be tolerated in any way, shape or form.
KING: You don't feel yourself having to work around President Trump?
PIERSON: Not at all.
KING: Here are some things that we're learning now. Last week, a private American company, Area 1 Security, reported that it had discovered that Russia had successfully compromised a Ukrainian energy conglomerate, which includes Burisma, the company at the center of the impeachment.
This is a private company saying it detected interference in Ukraine, which could indicate interference in the U.S. election. The method by which Russia interfered with this conglomerate was the same thing that they did in 2016 to us. Why was it not the U.S. government that told us about what happened, about Russia hacking Burisma?
PIERSON: I think this is a really important point, because frankly there is a whole consortium of players in this landscape, which include private security firms and, in fact, not just international infrastructure organizations like Burisma, but frankly even some of our state and local elections. Their cybersecurity comes from private security firms. So those organizations will actually have deeper and technical insight into those networks before the intelligence community will.
KING: These private companies, do they share information with the U.S. intelligence community?
PIERSON: Well, I think many of these firms, particularly larger ones, will sell reports based upon the information that they have access to. And some of that's very important to complement the holdings that we have in the intelligence community.
KING: Are you saying those private security companies are also selling intelligence to the United States government?
PIERSON: Yes. They can sell their services. And some of the most common firms - FireEye and CrowdStrike. And, in fact, I think those two firms, for example, have done really good work where, based upon the analysis and expertise and information analysis that they do resident within those firms, those are products and services that they can sell to the U.S. government.
KING: I am surprised to hear that private companies are selling information to the U.S. intelligence community, information that the U.S. intelligence community itself does not have. Am I being naive?
PIERSON: Well, it's not necessarily naivete. I think it really needs to be an open discussion about, why is the landscape the way it is? And frankly, I think many Americans might have concerns about the U.S. federal government or Big Brother having technical access to a full spectrum of networks. I think there really needs to be an open debate about that before people presume that the intelligence community should have a presence on everyone's network.
KING: Do you see that debate happening?
PIERSON: I think it's one that's burgeoning, certainly, because sometimes, Noel, I feel that the intelligence community is held accountable for a lot of information that it's not necessarily - doesn't have access to or isn't part of its mission and purview.
KING: We know that Americans are spreading misinformation. Sometimes they're doing it deliberately, sometimes they're not at all doing it deliberately. It can be a post on social media that we don't know is fake. Is that a bigger threat to the election than foreign interference?
PIERSON: Well, I think there's two aspects of that. You know, let's be very clear that of course the federal government encourages and wants as broad and free speech as possible. That is a principle of our country, and it's probably one of the most valuable cornerstones of our society. So we want people to engage in public exchange, political exchange and to have that freedom unfettered from foreign interference.
But at the same time, I think we also want to make sure that if we or the firms involved are aware that this information is foreign-sponsored and is covert in terms of its sponsorship to the user, we want to do everything we can to manage that information.
KING: You say that the American public needs to be cognizant that misinformation is out there. We also know that Americans increasingly live in very partisan spaces, that much of the media that they are looking at takes one position or another. Is there anything at all that you can do to deal with the fact that, more than ever, we are a bifurcated nation, we are people who believe different things?
PIERSON: I would ask that all press outlets be introspective about their role, frankly, in civil society in terms of journalistic ethics and where they fit into providing nonpartisan information, factually-based information. And I think that's part of this issue that the intelligence community doesn't necessarily have a direct role in this, but I think we're trying to raise cognizance and awareness across all of these constituencies that we all, frankly, have a role, in a variety of capacities, in countering this threat.
KING: What about the president of the United States making false or misleading statements?
PIERSON: Well, I think the challenge is whether or not that's being promulgated or deliberately fomented by a foreign intelligence service or a foreign government. And I think that's the type of information that if we have holdings within the intelligence community, we're going to certainly look to share that information as broadly as needed to stop it.
KING: It sounds like what you're saying is if the president says something false, other countries can use that to their advantage.
PIERSON: I think the challenge for us is not necessarily the accuracy of an individual statement, but as I mentioned, this issue of whether or not an intelligence service, a foreign government is using it for manipulative purposes, particularly purposes that are covert, here in the United States. And that's where we want to step in.
KING: Shelby Pierson, intelligence community election threats executive. Ms. Pierson, thank you so much for coming in.
PIERSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.