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Director Of National Intelligence Dan Coats Appoints New Election Security Czar

Jul 19, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 11:18 am

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has installed a new czar to oversee election security efforts across the spy world, he announced on Friday.

A veteran agency leader, Shelby Pierson, has been appointed to serve as the first election threats executive within the intelligence community, or IC, Coats said.

"Election security is an enduring challenge and a top priority for the IC," said Coats.

"In order to build on our successful approach to the 2018 elections, the IC must properly align its resources to bring the strongest level of support to this critical issue. There is no one more qualified to serve as the very first election threats executive than Shelby Pierson, whose knowledge and experience make her the right person to lead this critical mission."

Pierson has served within the intelligence world for more than 20 years. She was "crisis manager" for election security for the 2018 election within the office of the DNI and also has served in top roles in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, according to one official biography.

Her appointment isn't the only change Coats announced on Friday. He also is directing other agencies within the extended family of spy services to appoint their own executives responsible for election security efforts.

"These agency leads will work with the [election threats executive] to help ensure IC efforts on election security are coordinated and prioritized across all IC elements," Coats said.

Many responsibilities, many letters

The different agencies in the alphabet soup have different responsibilities for gathering, analyzing and acting upon the information they bring in.

The FBI was responsible for much of the investigation of the Russian interference in the 2016 election, for example; the CIA runs human agents overseas; the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command focus on the global information grid, and so on.

The intelligence community was not structured to handle the breadth of threats to American elections, which can range from sophisticated cyberattacks against political targets to widespread threats against state and local elections infrastructure, to targeted agitation on social media platforms.

A given agency such as the Department of Homeland Security may take the lead in one area — like helping local elections officials better safeguard their systems — but not be involved closely with another area such as online agitation.

Uncertain standing for the DNI

The headlines on Friday about Coats' efforts within the intelligence community also provided a reminder about what could be his perilous position within the administration.

Anonymous sources told correspondents for several news organizations earlier this month that Trump has been considering firing Coats, who has never appeared to mesh well with the president.

One reason is ongoing tension between the intelligence community and Trump over its findings versus his wishes.

Earlier this year, for example, the spy bosses told members of Congress they didn't believe North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un would ever surrender his nuclear weapons, even as Trump pursued a charm offensive with the dictator predicated upon a denuclearization program by the North.

And election security itself has been described as a sore point between Trump and much of the national security leadership.

The president goes back and forth as to what he accepts about it and what he doesn't, along with what should be done to protect elections. Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly complained that she was told to keep her efforts on election security "below his level."

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Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, has announced he's created a new position to help coordinate government efforts to protect U.S. elections from outside interference. Intelligence officials have warned that the 2020 elections are still susceptible to attacks from foreign governments. NPR's Pam Fessler covers the issue and joins us in our studios. Pam, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: How does this position change what the government has already been doing?

FESSLER: Well, Coats created this new position. It's called election threats executive. And a longtime intelligence official - her name is Shelby Pierson - is going to do the job. She's going to oversee and coordinate all the efforts in the intelligence community, gather information about what kind of threats are out there. But quite frankly, she did something very similar to this during the 2018 elections, but that was part-time; this is going to be full-time. And this really elevates the position.

And I think mostly what it's doing is it's designed to send out a message that the government really takes this issue very, very seriously, and also to counter some concerns that the Trump administration hasn't been doing enough. It's worth noting that on multiple occasions, the president has expressed doubts about the conclusion by Dan Coats, the intelligence director, and the entire community, that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win.

SIMON: Can you tell what kind of security threats they'll be on the lookout for?

FESSLER: Well, there's been a lot of focus on the kind of thing that happened in 2016 when Russian intelligence tried to hack into state voter rolls. They also broke into the DNC's email system. And also, we had this massive disinformation campaign on social media. So it's a lot of concern about a repeat of that.

But they're also worried about other bad actors in other countries. The Iranians, the North Koreans, the Chinese are all seen as potential threats, or it could even be somebody domestically. Earlier this week, interestingly, Microsoft said that it detected almost 800 cyberattack attempts over the past year against think tanks and U.S. political organizations. And that might be the sign of the kind of things that we're going to be seeing in 2020. And then this new intelligence effort - the whole purpose is to try and gather that information.

SIMON: You often remind us in your reporting that elections, actually, are run on the state and local level, not the federal level. How is this new position, if it is, going to affect what they do to protect against interference?

FESSLER: Well, it's interesting, actually. Ever since 2016, the Department of Homeland Security has been working really closely with state and local election officials to try and figure out, you know, how they can beef up their security. So that's going to continue. But, you know, they need intelligence to know what they should be doing and where the threat is coming from. So if the process works, this intelligence that's all being gathered will be shared with the state and local officials.

Interestingly, they say, though, that they really need more money. Congress approved about $380 million last year for election security, but they say it's not enough. They're still using a lot of old voting equipment that's more vulnerable to attacks. A lot of them don't have IT professionals to help them with security. They say, well, it's great if we have all this intelligence about potential threats, but if we don't have the money to fix the problem, what good is it?

SIMON: NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks so much.

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