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News Brief: Election Security Report, Capital Punishment, Russian Protests

NOEL KING, HOST:

This country still has a lot of work to do to secure its elections from foreign interference.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's the main takeaway from a new report out of the Senate intelligence committee. The report details Russia's targeting of U.S. election systems in the 2016 presidential campaign - efforts that targeted all 50 U.S. states. It was released just a day after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified that Russia continues to work to interfere in U.S. elections even right now.

Here's what Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Mueller's testimony should be a wake-up call to every American - Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative - that the integrity of our elections is at stake.

KING: NPR's Pam Fessler has been looking into this new report. Pam, thanks for coming in.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: So Russian interference in the 2016 elections is something we've been talking about for a couple of years now. Does this report add anything to what we already knew?

FESSLER: Well, we knew most of the specifics already. But what this really drives home by bringing it all together is just how extensive this Russian effort was to undermine our elections. They just had this wide-ranging campaign to just try to hack into these systems and also just to see how vulnerable they were. There only seemed to be about two successful intrusions involving an Illinois voter registration database and emails in some Florida counties.

But that said, the committee said there's no evidence that any votes were changed or that any records were altered. But it's kind of interesting how they characterize it. They characterize this as like almost a reconnaissance effort, that they were, quote - one official said - trying to "establish a presence so you could come back later and actually execute an operation," which is one reason they're so concerned about the future.

KING: Come back later - those are worrying words. Is it any clearer after this report what the Russians actually want to do to the United States?

FESSLER: Well, I think it's not necessarily so much changing the actual votes, but it's sowing discord and confusion, possibly, on Election Day. A lot of these intrusions or efforts to hack involve state election websites, voter registration databases, the kind of things that people rely on information for on Election Day. All they had to do is maybe change some of the records or, you know, where you're supposed to go on Election Day to vote. And that could just, you know, cause a lot of chaos on Election Day.

KING: So a ton at stake. States and the federal government have been doing some things to keep this from happening again. What does the report say about their efforts?

FESSLER: Well, first it said that back in 2016, things were really bad...

KING: OK.

FESSLER: ...That they did not coordinate, they did not communicate very much, but that things have gotten a lot better. There's a lot of coordination with federal and state officials sharing intelligence, trying to beef up cybersecurity. But basically, the committee says that more needs to be done.

KING: More needs to be done. But what is done - what is being done is working. It sounds like some room for optimism?

FESSLER: Yeah. I mean, they're talking all the time now about how to tighten up security and, as I say, sharing intelligence. But one of the things that the committee said was that, you know, a lot more needs to be done as far as buying new equipment, having paper-based voting machines that can be audited and where the votes can be verified. Congress has approved money for this but said that maybe more money is going to be needed.

KING: More money might be needed, and yet one of the problems is it's been hard getting that money to the states, right?

FESSLER: Exactly. And, you know, there's a number of pieces of legislation to try and tighten security that have passed in the House. But it's being stalled in the Senate because there's some reluctance, especially by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who says he doesn't think that the federal government should be too intrusive as far as controlling elections and that we saw in 2018 there weren't that many problems. And he thinks that a lot has already been done and we don't need to do as much.

KING: It'll be interesting to see if this report changes any minds on that. NPR's Pam Fessler. Thanks, Pam.

FESSLER: Thanks.

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KING: All right. No inmate on federal death row has been executed for 16 years. That is going to change soon.

MARTIN: The attorney general, William Barr, announced that the Department of Justice is going to resume capital punishment. And he has ordered the first federal executions since 2003. Five inmates found guilty of murder have been scheduled for execution beginning in December.

KING: NPR's Cheryl Corley has been following this story. Good Morning, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So why did Attorney General Barr move to reinstate the federal death penalty now after all these years?

CORLEY: Well, we can only go by his statement. And he said that he was upholding the rule of law. And he says the Justice Department owes it to the victims and their families to move on these death sentences, especially since the inmates selected have all exhausted all their efforts for appeals of their sentences.

You know, it's also no secret that President Trump favors the death penalty and has called for increasing the use of it. And the Trump administration has really just been laying the groundwork for executions to resume.

KING: Could anything stand in the way of this move?

CORLEY: Sure. There are already folks calling for legal challenges. There will be lots of roadblocks. The ACLU says it will take legal action. The ACLU also says usually any new protocol like this gets reviewed by the courts, by defendants' attorneys, by the public. And that could all take much more time than the timeframe the Justice Department has set for these executions to actually begin.

KING: Right - beginning in December. And we know that there are five people who have been identified. What do we know about those five people? Who are they?

CORLEY: Well, they are people that the attorney general has said are people who tortured and raped society's most vulnerable - children and the elderly. We know one man killed a family of three - including an 8-year-old girl - another stabbed a 63-year-old grandmother and her 9-year-old grandchildren. And there are several other just really awful killings involving both children and elderly people.

KING: OK, so people who have committed some heinous crimes. Cheryl, why have there not been any federal executions over the past 16 years? Why was this - why was - was this a moratorium, a hiatus? What happened?

CORLEY: Well, you know, federal executions are done by lethal injection. And there's been a lot of problems associated with how they were done in the past. There's a three-drug cocktail used over the years. There's been court battles over it, difficulty in obtaining at least one of the drugs. Some pharmaceutical companies didn't want their drugs used toward executions - botched executions. And now the DOJ says it will follow the protocol used in some of the states that are using just one drug.

KING: I see. So there have been logistical challenges. OK. NPR's Cheryl Corley. Thanks, Cheryl.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

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KING: Moscow is having a summer of protests in the street.

MARTIN: Right. So first people turned out in support of this investigative journalist who was arrested on manufactured drug charges. And now protesters are out demanding that opposition political candidates be allowed on the ballot in upcoming city council elections. Last weekend, there were these huge anti-government rallies in downtown Moscow - the biggest in years. And another protest is planned for Saturday.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So how, Lucian, did a city council election galvanize such massive protests?

KIM: The opposition is angry because they followed all the rules. They collected the several thousand signatures needed to register each of their candidates. And the election commission came back to them and said there were too many irregularities. Sorry, you can't run. The opposition in Russia right now has a new strategy. They're focusing on local elections as a way to get political experience and popularity.

Some people say it was a huge mistake by the city not let them run. But that's not how Vladimir Putin's system works. From the logic of the Kremlin, authorities had to bar those candidates because even allowing them to run would have given them legitimacy and been an admission that they even exist.

KING: So you mentioned that even though these are city council elections, Vladimir Putin is very deeply involved. I wonder, when you look out and you see these crowds and you see people taking the risk, how politically dangerous are these protests for Putin? Do they really threaten him?

KIM: Well, Putin's supporters will always remind you that a few hundred or even a few thousand people protesting in a huge metropolis like Moscow is insignificant. But if the opposition is really so marginal, then why did the police put opposition leader Alexei Navalny in jail this week? Or why did they conduct nighttime searches at the homes of some of those opposition candidates? Navalny spoke to reporters at last weekend's rally. This is what he told us.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: So what he's saying is that the only thing that the government understands is people out on the street. And it's true. Civic activists here in Russia have scored several victories this year via protest. They stopped a controversial construction project in one city and had those charges dropped against an investigative journalist here in Moscow back in June. Of course these protests aren't going to overthrow the government, but they are certainly an indicator of how dissatisfied people are in Moscow, where the Kremlin has really invested billions of dollars exactly to keep people happy.

KING: OK. So tomorrow you are expecting big crowds in the city again. What are you going to be looking at specifically?

KIM: Well, tomorrow's protests has not been authorized, which automatically raises the stakes for participants. At last weekend's rally, which was authorized, I asked one woman - she identifies herself as a regular Moscow housewife - if she'd be going to tomorrow's protest. And she said she was uncertain. People are angry, but they're also scared. But at the same time, the government has to be careful. If they show too much force, it could really backfire and bring out even more people onto the street.

KING: So worth noting that in a summer of protests, these protests are still dangerous for the people participating in them. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thanks so much for your time.

KIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "WORKERS OF ART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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