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Mueller's Report Shows All The Ways Russia Interfered In 2016 Presidential Election


The redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report released today gives us the clearest big-picture look at how exactly Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election. It was a multipronged effort that involved a huge amount of planning and resources. NPR's Miles Parks has been combing through it all. He's in the studio now. Hey there, Miles.


CORNISH: So the report starts with a section about Russia's efforts to use social media. What did you learn?

PARKS: So this didn't happen overnight. Russian agents start making covert research visits to the United States all the way back in 2014. They used that information to then begin these social media accounts about different political issues, and they start gaining momentum, getting hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of likes and follows, even gaining legitimacy and reach by getting retweets and engagement from people in President Trump's orbit, people like Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump Jr., engaged with this content.

And then you think back to 2016 when these social media companies were basically saying, we don't have much of a role in election interference. And this report really shows that that's not true. This content was seen by as many as 126 million people on Facebook alone.

CORNISH: Now let's talk about the issue of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign. What does the report say there?

PARKS: So this section got really technical, but the report detailed exactly how these Russian agents ended up getting a hold of these emails that ended up on WikiLeaks. It all starts with a phishing campaign. They're able to break into the account of one account holder with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and they basically leveraged that access into being able to start exploring the entire Democratic national party network between the DNC and the DCCC.

Over the next two months, the report says that Russian agents compromised as many as 59 different computers. They also broke into the network of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. The report also gets into how these attackers communicate with WikiLeaks and how Julian Assange falsely tried to pin these attacks on a DNC staffer and not on Russia.

CORNISH: Another topic the Mueller investigation looked at was the targeting of America's voting system. What did you see there?

PARKS: So we really learned something new here, and it's that these agents - the report says that these agents were actually more successful than we thought at breaking into local governments. We knew that they had sent phishing emails to dozens of local election officials in Florida in an effort to try and break into their systems, but we had no indication that they were ever successful.

The report says that the FBI thinks they were successful in at least one Florida county government. We know nothing yet about which county that was, and no county in the last three years has announced that they were breached. I even talked to the head of the Supervisor of Elections Association in Florida, and he says he hasn't heard anything about a breach. So there's still a lot of details to come. But we did hear something new here.

CORNISH: Right. As you just mentioned, you've been doing some reporting on this topic. How different does the landscape look in terms of how vulnerable these aspects are going forward?

PARKS: I think it's clear that there is much more awareness about cyber security on a whole. Specifically with the social media companies, they say they're doing a lot on their platforms, but we haven't seen any real concrete reforms. Government regulation in the social media space is obviously really difficult. From the campaign side, I think the awareness is the biggest thing. The likelihood that the chairman of the - of a major party nominee clicking a phishing email is just significantly less in 2019 or 2020 than it was three years ago because of this report.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks for your reporting.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks
Miles Parks is a correspondent on NPR's Washington Desk, where he covers voting and election security.