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News Brief: Nevada Caucuses, Intelligence Briefing, Displaced Syrians


Russia is trying to help President Trump win the 2020 election.


Some news outlets are reporting that a U.S. intelligence official told House lawmakers last week in a classified briefing that Russia, indeed, is trying to interfere again in American elections. After learning about the briefing, President Trump replaced his director of national intelligence.

KING: Ellen Nakashima covers national security for The Washington Post. She's been reporting on this story. Good morning, Ellen.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA: Good morning.

KING: So you report that intelligence officials held this classified briefing with members of the House Intelligence Committee last week. What happened there? What did they say?

NAKASHIMA: This was a briefing for House Democrat and Republican members of the intelligence committee on election threats and what the government was doing to counter them, generally. And at the meeting, at the briefing, the election threats executive, Shelby Pierson - she's the intelligence community's representative and a coordinator for election threats in the government - she relayed to lawmakers that there is intelligence that Russia had developed a preference for President Trump, essentially wanted to see him reelected. And that disclosure prompted a lot of pushback and discussion, especially from Republicans on the committee, who were very skeptical that Russia had a preference for Trump.

KING: They're - oh, go ahead, please.

NAKASHIMA: Go ahead.

KING: They're skeptical despite the fact that Shelby Pierson has a long history in intelligence, a very good reputation. I interviewed her last month, and here's what she said then.


SHELBY PIERSON: The Russians, for example, are already engaging in influence operations relative to candidates going into 2020.

KING: OK. So she said Russia is interfering in the election - they are openly trying to. She didn't say at the time who they were interfering on behalf of. Is that the big news - that she is saying they're interfering on behalf of President Trump?

NAKASHIMA: Yeah, that seemed to be the big new disclosure in the briefing last week. I absolutely want to acknowledge that Shelby Pierson is highly respected. She's the former national intelligence manager for Russia. She's a career intelligence professional. And she's been in this job since July of last year, put in by former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in this new position to really try to get a handle on foreign election threats to U.S. democracy and to elections.

KING: So how did President Trump react when he found out about this briefing?

NAKASHIMA: Well, so what happened is one of Trump's allies on the committee, ranking member Devin Nunes, informed Trump of the briefing and told him of the conclusion. This angered President Trump. In a meeting - follow-up briefing on Friday - this was a briefing exclusively for the president on election threats - he got very angry at Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, and wanted to know why he had to hear about the briefing from a congressman and why he hadn't been briefed before the Hill. In fact, he told Maguire that he should not have even let the briefing happen.

KING: And then, of course, a couple days later, he replaced Joseph Maguire. Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post, thank you so much for sharing your reporting.

NAKASHIMA: Thank you for having me.


KING: Democrats in Nevada will caucus tomorrow.

MARTIN: Right, but the state has already been holding early caucusing. That ended on Tuesday. As was the case in Iowa, Nevada is using this new technology to count all the votes, both the early voting and the results that come in on Saturday. Nevada's Democratic Party leaders say they will not allow a repeat of the mess in Iowa.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks is in Las Vegas. He's been covering election security for us. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: How many people voted early in Nevada?

PARKS: So nearly 75,000 people voted over those four days. And the party says the majority of those people were first-time caucusgoers. That almost matches the total amount of people who caucused in all of 2016, which is obviously good from a participation standpoint. But it's also a lot of data that needs to end up in the right place, because all of those early votes need to be sorted and funneled to their correct precincts across the state to be counted on caucus day.

KING: Now, you got to see the technology that they're using in Nevada. What is it, and how does it work? Is it an app like in Iowa?

PARKS: So the party is really adamant that it is not an app.


PARKS: They're trying to differentiate themselves as much as possible from what happened in Iowa. Basically, they're distributing thousands of iPads and having precinct chairs use a set of Google forms that have been customized for this process. This is through the Web browser, not a separate downloadable thing. The tablets integrate the early vote totals in as the precinct chairs go through the process.

Now, with how many precincts there are - more than 2,000 across the state - there are bound to be issues with this that come up. Even though the party says it's held dozens of trainings live and over the Web, this is still a process that was finalized just less than a week ago.

I talked to Paul Gronke, who's a political science professor at Reed College. And he told me just how uncommon it is for new technology to be integrated into the elections process this late in the game.

PAUL GRONKE: Most election officials will tell you that you don't want to put in place new technology even during a competitive election year. Here we have a highly competitive presidential election and technology coming into place just a week or two before the caucuses.

PARKS: It's another reminder that these caucuses are run by the political parties and not election officials who do this for a living.

KING: Yeah, that's interesting. I remember after Iowa, you reported that it was not just that the app was badly designed. It also had security vulnerabilities. Now, again, this is not an app. But are there any security concerns with this technology?

PARKS: So the security experts I've talked to seem to think that this is a better system. We know it's using Google, which is good. It's not the same thing as an unknown company like we had in Iowa just, you know, even days before the caucuses, and we were just kind of hoping this company put the resources in to secure its software.

I talked to Betsy Cooper about this. And she's the executive director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub.

BETSY COOPER: I vastly prefer this solution to others that Nevada could've chosen, but I do worry that the amount of testing that has gone in is minimal. And the amount of time for security professionals to study how this might be made vulnerable has been very limited.

PARKS: Now, it is worth noting that the party says everything that precinct leaders are expected to do with these iPads, including integrating early vote totals, can be done on paper in case of an emergency. Or even if a precinct leader just prefers to do it that way, they can use paper instead of using this tech.

KING: OK, so there is a backup. NPR's Miles Parks in Nevada. Thanks so much, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you.


KING: In northern Syria, nearly 1 million people have left their homes for safety since late last year.

MARTIN: They're from the province of Idlib. And they are trying to escape a Syrian military offensive, an offensive that's backed by Russian airstrikes. The Syrian regime is fighting to claim this last rebel stronghold in the nine-year war that has just ravaged that country. Fighting there has been growing more intense just since December. And in that time, massive tent cities that have been housing these displaced people near the Turkish-Syrian border have just swelled.

KING: NPR's Deborah Amos is on the line from Beirut. Hi, Deb.


KING: You've been talking to people that are living through what sounds like a horrific situation. What are they telling you about what life is like?

AMOS: The Syrian advance has been so rapid that what everybody talks about are the traffic jams. There are trucks, cars, families on foot. Everybody's looking for a safe place because this has been a ferocious campaign. Russian and Syrian regime warplanes have targeted hospitals, bakeries, schools. It's a scorched-earth policy. And it seems that they want to push these civilians towards the Turkish border.

Fouad Sayed Issa - he's the founder of Violet - it's a Syrian nonprofit aid agency - is trying to help in Idlib city.

FOUAD SAYED ISSA: I saw the thousands of families in their car. And they trying to find somewhere, a shelter for their children. We're just at more than 10,000 families still under the trees. The weather is so bad. It's minus 5 in the night.

AMOS: That's 10 million under trees. The scale of need is overwhelming, he says. Volunteers now deliver plastic sheeting because there are no more tents. His group serves hot meals in the Idlib city sports stadium. They've got a dozen other places to do that, but there's only enough to feed about 20% because international donations are short.

ISSA: We are trying to help all the people in the streets, in the road. But there is thousands of families there.

KING: OK. Thousands of people just lying in the streets, in the roads. What are they doing to find some type of shelter? Is there anything they can do to find shelter?

AMOS: Well, it's very tough because there are no more tents, and they are crowding into these camps. Most of these civilians in this rebel-held province - they've been displaced again and again over these nine years of war as the Syrians have retaken towns and cities. For them, this is the last stop, and there is nowhere else to go. There's only about 500 people who've gone back to regime-controlled territory. The rest - more than a million people - are voting with their feet, and they are moving closer to Turkey. But these safe places are shrinking because even some of the civilian convoys, and even the displacement camps, have been hit with bombs.

KING: So you've got a situation where almost no place is safe. I mean, this is all happening in the middle of a war that's gone on for nine years. Is there any sense that the violence is going to end anytime soon?

AMOS: So U.N. officials have long said that Idlib will be the final chapter of this war. It's the last province controlled by rebels. The Syrian regime, backed by the Russians, want to take it back. But to make it even more complicated, this fight is also geopolitical. Russia and Iran back Damascus. The Turks back some of the rebels. They've sent more than 10,000 Turkish troops into Syria. They vow to stop this advance. Fifteen Turkish soldiers have been killed in recent weeks. That's the biggest loss of life for the Turks. It's very volatile. At the same time, there are talks in Moscow over cease-fire, but nothing yet.

KING: NPR's Deborah Amos reporting from Beirut. Deb, thank you so much for your reporting.

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

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.