MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
National security officials now say that back in 2016, they didn't talk enough about Russian election interference. This go around, they're planning to talk a lot about it privately and publicly. The thinking goes that this is the best way to safeguard the vote, and yet, a classified briefing on Capitol Hill last week has upset President Trump and sparked a debate about what Russia might or might not be planning for this year.
NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So this briefing was scheduled before the House Intelligence Committee, and the plan was - what? - to get the committee up to speed on possible election interference? What happened?
MYRE: Right. This was seen as a fairly routine briefing, and Shelby Pierson is - was the briefer. Now, she's an experienced, respected intelligence professional. She was handpicked for this job of election czar for the director of national intelligence last year, and this is part of the ongoing effort to keep the lawmakers updated - talk, share, communicate, keep everybody in the loop. One example of that is she was just here at NPR a month ago and gave an interview talking about these very same topics. Let's have a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
SHELBY PIERSON: The Russians, for example, are already engaging in influence operations relative to candidates going into 2020, but we do not have evidence at this time that our adversaries are directly looking at interfering with vote counts or the vote tallies.
MYRE: Nothing controversial there - that's the kind of message we've been hearing again and again. But according to some reports at this classified briefing last week - the New York Times and Washington Post reports - the briefing including findings that the Russians have a preference for Trump. We don't have word on the exact details, but we do know this angered Republicans. Trump found out quickly. Today he called it part of a Democratic misinformation campaign and described it somewhat cryptically as hoax No. 7. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported this afternoon that U.S. officials told the Bernie Sanders campaign that Russia is also trying to boost his presidential bid. Sanders responded by saying Russia should stay out of American elections.
KELLY: There is this shakeup underway at the office of the director of national intelligence. How big a shakeup?
MYRE: Well, it's still ongoing. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Maguire is out. He was Shelby Pierson's boss.
MYRE: The new acting director, Richard Grenell, is the ambassador to Germany, a Trump loyalist. He was at headquarters today, so he's on the job. But his appointment is only good until March 11 because it's in this acting capacity. Trump needs to find a replacement. He tweeted today he's considering four people but didn't give any names. All this is putting a big question mark over the department. And these briefings, which were intended to clarify, keep everybody on the same page - are they just going to spark partisan fights?
KELLY: So what does all this mean? In an election year with alarm bells already being sounded about election security, what role does the director of national intelligence play there?
MYRE: Well, in a word, coordination. The director of national intelligence works with all the intelligence agencies, so they're in contact with the CIA and the National Security Agency to see what they're picking up in Russia and other places overseas - and then at home working with the Department of Homeland Security, which is coordinating with state elections officials. So the director of national intelligence is sort of the traffic cop, and they're expecting a wide range of attacks and things to worry about. So here, again, is Shelby Pierson from that NPR interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
PIERSON: This isn't a Russia-only problem. We're still also concerned about China, Iran, non-state actors, hacktivists and, frankly, certainly for DHS and FBI, even Americans that might be looking to undermine confidence in the elections.
MYRE: She even makes the interesting point there that American citizens might wittingly or unwittingly spread bad information.
KELLY: None of which is reassuring; so what is the plan for how national security officials are hoping to protect this year's election?
MYRE: You know, there was a striking op-ed in USA Today just on Wednesday, two days ago. It was co-written by six officials, including Joseph Maguire, who's now out of a job. And they said it needs to be a whole-of-society approach. They're worried that the Russians will be able to divide Americans. And yet, here we are - Republicans and Democrats - very much fighting each other.
KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre - thank you, Greg.
MYRE: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS SONG, "LATE NIGHT TALES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.