The Cybersecurity 202: Trump clings to unfounded ballot claims even when called out at NBC town hall

When the NBC Today Show co-anchor noted that Trump’s own FBI director has said there is no evidence of widespread mail ballot fraud, Trump just pivoted to attacking Christopher Wray. “Oh well, then he’s not doing a very good job,” the president said. 

It’s clear that Trump has no intention of dropping these charges with just three weeks to go before the election – and with more than 14.5 million ballots already cast – and with his own administration against him on the topic. 

And he seems to be using the pervasiveness of misinformation about the ballots – which he’s done perhaps more than anyone to foment – as an argument in his favor

When Guthrie accused Trump of “sowing doubt about our democracy,” he shot back incredulously.

“How can you say that? … All you have to do is pick up the papers every day. Fifty thousand in Ohio, the great state of Ohio. Fifty thousand in another location, I think North Carolina. Five hundred thousand applications in Virginia. No, no. There’s a tremendous problem.”

The misleading claims reflect Trump’s willingness to frequently embrace conspiracy theories and phony news stories. 

When Guthrie asked why he retweeted a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory that the Obama administration may have had Navy SEALs killed to cover up a plot involving an Osama bin Laden body double, he insisted he was merely raising questions and not taking a position.

“That was an opinion of somebody and that was a retweet,” he said. “I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position,” he said.

Guthrie responded, “You’re the president. You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”

Just this morning the president retweeted a satirical news site that suggested last night’s Twitter problems were actually a conspiracy to aid his challenger Joe Biden.

In fact, there has been no evidence of mail ballot fraud in the states Trump listed – as reliable news services have reported. 

What has happened are foul ups that should be expected in a highly complex election held in the midst of a pandemic. But those foul ups have provided enough fodder for Trump to spread phony claims and insinuations that the integrity of the entire election is in danger.  

Here are the real stories:

Voters in North Carolina are often waiting weeks for requested mail ballots to arrive – which is certainly concerning but doesn’t suggest any malfeasance. The delays are most likely the result of slow processing of ballot requests in a state that has historically had low rates of mail voting, an Associated Press analysis found

The 500,000 ballots Trump mentioned in Virginia is likely a reference to 500,000 ballot applications with incorrect return addresses mistakenly mailed in August by The Center for Voter Information, a non-partisan organization that’s not affiliated with Virginia’s Department of Elections. 

As for Trump’s claims about thousands of ballots with his name on them found in a garbage can – it’s likely a reference to just nine ballots found in the Luzerne County, Pa. elections office and promptly reported to federal law enforcement. 

Seven of those ballots, which were opened, included votes for Trump. Authorities have not determined why they were discarded. 

And yet, seen through the lens of Trump’s exaggeration, these minor incidents could be used to justify doubts about the integrity of more than 150 million ballots likely to be cast in the election. 

And Trump is already linking the claims to questions about whether he will accept a peaceful transition of power if he loses. 

Trump told Guthrie he wants a peaceful transfer of power – a slight step back from his position during the first presidential debate with Joe Biden.  But he immediately pivoted back to false claims about ballots. 

“They talked about will you accept peaceful transfer. And the answer is, yes, I will,” he said. ”But I want it to be an honest election. And so does everybody else. When I see thousands of ballots dumped in a garbage can and they happen to have my name on it. I’m not happy about that.”

Joe Biden’s competing town hall on ABC was far less contentious and it didn’t touch on the integrity of the election. 

Biden did grab a chance to tout one of the Obama administration’s lesser known cybersecurity initiatives as he answered a question about why Black Americans should vote for him. 

The former vice president described a $25 million federal grant for cybersecurity education the administration gave to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, crowing that those schools “now will be able to produce young Black women and men who are going to go into a field of the future that’s burgeoning: cybersecurity.”

If he’s elected, Biden said, he plans to provide an additional $70 billion to HBCUs. 

The keys

Intelligence agencies warned Trump last year that Russian intelligence targeted Rudy Giuliani to feed him misinformation. 

The officials feared Giuliani was being used to feed misinformation to the president, Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Josh Dawsey report. The warnings were based on multiple sources including intercepted communications between Giuliani and people tied to Russian intelligence. Giuliani spoke with the individuals during a December 2019 trip to Ukraine during which he attempted to gather information on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. 

The communications prompted national security adviser Robert O’Brien to caution Trump against any information Giuliani gained from the Russian assets. Attorney General William P. Barr, FBI Director Wray and White Counsel Pat Cipollone were also aware of the warnings, a former official told The Post. 

Trump shrugged his shoulders at the warnings, a former official said. 

The revelation, first reported by The Post, comes after Giuliani helped facilitate the release of emails allegedly from Hunter Biden that experts fear may be part of a disinformation operation. The Washington Post was unable to verify the authenticity of the emails, which were reported by the New York Post.

A National Security Council spokesman disputed the characterization of the meeting. O’Brien “can say that the president always treats such briefings with the utmost seriousness,” spokesman John Ullyot said in a written statement

Twitter is overhauling its policies on hacked materials amid political fallout. 

Twitter blocked links to the New York Post story because of that ban but faced intense backlash from conservatives. “The link to the New York Post story will still be blocked under a policy that prohibits sharing people’s personal information, the company said,” Elizabeth Dwoskin reported

The ban resulted in temporarily suspending several leading conservative accounts including those for Trump’s campaign and White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany.

Vijaya Gade, Twitter’s legal, policy, trust and safety lead, said last night that the company would be overhauling the hacked materials policy in response to criticism. Going forward, it will only remove material directly shared by hackers and those working with them, and it will label tweets rather than banning links from being shared on Twitter. 

C-SPAN suspended a host for lying about a Twitter hack.

C-SPAN host Steve Scully claimed that a tweet he sent to former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci last week had been the result of a hack after the tweet stirred controversy, Elahe Izadi reports.  “@Scaramucci should I respond to trump, Scully tweeted at Scaramucci in the now deleted message.

Scully, who was set to host yesterday’s canceled debate, now says he sent the tweet out of frustration with Trump’s barrage of attacks against him ahead of the debate.

Trump jumped on debacle to justify his criticism.

Scully told C-SPAN and the Presidential Commission on Debates late Wednesday about the deception.

“By not being immediately forthcoming to C-SPAN and the Commission about his tweet, he understands that he made a serious mistake,” C-SPAN said in a statement. “We were very saddened by this news and do not condone his actions.”

C-SPAN expects to reinstate Scully after a period of absence.

Government scan

The Pentagon has designated a new top official as its chief adviser on information operations. 

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has designated acting undersecretary of defense for policy James Anderson to serve also as the secretary’s “principal information operations adviser,” a Pentagon spokesman tells our colleague Ellen Nakashima. The new role was mandated by this year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, a major defense policy bill, and places oversight of policy, planning and strategy for all military information operations under one person.

The designation took place last week, said people familiar with the matter.

The move comes as the Pentagon debates how best to organize for information operations as major adversaries, including Russia and China, are increasingly active in the information realm to seek to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.

Democratic lawmakers are urging a government watchdog to look into allegations of federal surveillance of protests against police brutality.

They say the surveillance could have a chilling effect on peaceful protests and raises concerns government agencies could be circumventing rules for using surveillance technology. 

The act of protesting has played a central role in advancing civil rights in our country, and our Constitution protects the right of Americans to engage in peaceful protest unencumbered by government interference,” Reps. Anna G. Eshoo  (D-Calif.) and Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)  wrote in a letter to members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. 

The independent oversight board is focused on the government’s response to terrorism threats, which the trio says is appropriate given Trump’s labeling of Black Lives Matters protesters as terrorists

The letter is the latest in an ongoing push for oversight of federal agencies spying on peaceful protesters

Cyber insecurity

U.S. and European law enforcement charged fourteen individuals for laundering money stolen by a cybercriminal group.

“The criminal gangs behind some of the world’s most harmful malware families are among those cybercriminal groups that benefited from the services provided by QQAAZZ,” the Justice Department said in a news release

Chat room

This is how to NOT do a practice disinformation campaign:


  • Pitt Cyber and CMU CyLab are hosting the Cyberspace Solarium Commission for a conversation on a Strategic Approach to US Cybersecurity on Monday 1:30-3:30 pm.
  • New America will host an event “Will We Ever Vote on Our Phones” on Thursday at noon.
  • The USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative will host a final workshop on the lessons from the workshops its hosted in 50 states leading up to the election on October 28 at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC on November 17-18, from 11:00am-3:00pm ET.

In honor of last night’s West Wing reunion on HBO, here’s an interview with the cast.

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