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As Russia Meddles, Trump Shrugs

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The Editorial Board
, New York Times
As Russia Meddles, Trump Shrugs

With less than 100 days to go until the midterms, the evidence continues to pile up that America’s electoral system remains a hot target for hackers, most notably agents of the Russian government.

Last Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat up for re-election this year, confirmed she was one of two or possibly three congressional candidates whose computer networks had been unsuccessfully targeted by the Russians last year. The phishing attack, which occurred last August, was thwarted by Microsoft, which subsequently alerted her to the attempt. “While this attack was not successful, it is outrageous that they think they can get away with this,” said McCaskill in a statement.

Three days later, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., acknowledged that, in an unrelated episode, her office also had been a target of multiple spear-phishing attacks, the origins of which have yet to be officially determined. The effort bears similarities to Russia’s handiwork, but the matter is still under investigation. Shaheen said she had been told that this problem “is widespread, with political parties across the country, as well as with members of the Senate.” (Shaheen, a staunch critic of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, also received a phone call in November from someone impersonating a Latvian official and hoping to gain inside information on U.S. sanctions against Russia. The FBI is looking into that episode as well.)

Attempts to disrupt America’s government and electoral system are widespread and multifaceted. This week, in fact, Facebook announced it had identified and removed dozens of pages and accounts linked to a coordinated effort aimed at influencing the November elections.

But it’s no mystery why Russia and other bad actors would assume they could get away with such incursions. Despite repeated warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies regarding the nation’s vulnerabilities, there remains no focused, coordinated plan by the White House for dealing with this crucial security issue. Nor does President Donald Trump seem comfortable criticizing, much less holding accountable, the baddest of bad actors identified by U.S. intelligence agencies — Putin. Quite the opposite: When it comes to cyberattacks on U.S. democracy, the message coming from this president reeks of confusion, equivocation and weakness.

After the humiliating Trump-Putin cuddlefest in Helsinki, one might have expected Trump to clarify America’s displeasure regarding Moscow’s meddling. Instead, the president continues to dither and blow smoke. One minute he’s insisting he supports the findings of American intelligence, the next he’s tweeting that the notion of Russian meddling is “all a big hoax.”

No matter how many members of his own team warn that the Russian president is not to be trusted, Trump simply can’t quit Putin. First he invited him for a White House visit this fall. A few days later, after receiving no response from Putin — who is the much cooler character in this relationship — Trump decided to postpone the visit until, as his national security adviser, John Bolton, so trenchantly put it, “after the Russia witch hunt.” When Putin then floated the possibility of Trump’s calling on him in Moscow, it took Trump just a few hours to proclaim himself “open” to the idea — assuming he receives a proper invitation, of course.

More broadly, Trump cannot seem to muster much interest in making cybersecurity a priority. The White House made a big to-do last week about the president’s convening the first-ever meeting of his National Security Council specifically dedicated to election security. Afterward, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, trumpeted that Trump had “made it clear that his administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state or other malicious actors.”

But “made it clear” is a matter of opinion. The high-level, closed-door meeting clocked in at well under an hour and, according to officials, was not a strategy session but rather a basic review of measures already adopted by various agencies absent direction from the White House. No coordinated plan was discussed, nor were any new steps for countering or deterring future attacks.

For all of Trump’s tough-guy bluster, his message to Putin — and whoever else might be interested in hijacking America’s electoral system — continues to be:Eh, whatever.

Fortunately, plenty of administration officials are less sanguine, with various agencies working to shore up the system; the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have formed task forces to that end. And up on Capitol Hill, senators are pushing bipartisan bills aimed at tackling this problem from multiple angles. (Legislation being championed by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., received a mini-lift when Trump’s performance in Helsinki nudged a few more members, including two Republicans and an independent, into signing on as co-sponsors.) But without the clear backing of the president, it will be tough to rally enough Republican support to drag any of these measures over the finish line.

At the very least, Trump could stop being so squishy about Russia. Putin is a coldly calculating politician. If he draws the lesson that his country’s bad behavior will go largely unpunished — and thus far, why wouldn’t he? — what’s to stop him from pushing the envelope even further next time?

At this point, pretty much everyone in Washington aside from Trump — and a smattering of his congressional toadies — acknowledges the threat Russia poses. Post-Helsinki, even Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security and one of the president’s most reliable water carriers, felt compelled to note that “Russia was absolutely attempting to interfere in our election systems” in 2016 and that it would be “foolish” to assume it wouldn’t try again. “They have capability. They have the will. We’ve got to be prepared,” she said. Likewise, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, asserted that Moscow’s efforts to infiltrate our electoral system “are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy.”

The biggest hurdle to combating this threat seems to be America’s president.

Mars Close Up

Mars, the Red Planet named after the Roman god of war, is currently closer to the Earth than it’s been in 15 years, and the millions of people gazing at the bright red dot will once again be wondering, is there life out there?

Over the years, the answer has gone from an unconditional “yes” — a century ago Mars was often perceived as a teeming alien world crisscrossed by canals, with advanced creatures sending strong signals to Earth — to an equally certain “no”: Space missions reported an arid, rusty globe with a thin atmosphere that couldn’t sustain even a germ. The intriguing current answer is “maybe.” Scientists working on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission reported last week that their orbiting radars may have found a briny subterranean sea beneath a Martian ice cap, which could mean that some form of life once existed there. Or still exists.

A petri dish of Martian bacteria may not quite measure up to Ray Bradbury’s copper-colored creatures with telepathic skills (“The Martian Chronicles”), but it’s more than enough to sustain Mars as the most explored planet after Earth, with about 45 flybys, orbits and landings since the 1960s, and many to come.

It’s also certain to maintain Mars as the most explored celestial body in science fiction. Possibly in a reflection on us earthlings, the Martians in many books and films appear as supersmart invaders. H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” prompted a panic in 1938 when many listeners mistook a radio version of the novel as a real report of an attack by aliens armed with ray guns.

In the interest of full disclosure, The New York Times had a front-page article on Sept. 2, 1921, in which a colleague of Guglielmo (then translated as William) Marconi, the pioneer of wireless transmission, reported that Marconi was convinced he had intercepted Martian radio messages. The article contained no skepticism about that claim, nor about another by the same source saying the time was approaching when it would be possible to send photographs wirelessly across the Atlantic.

At least the vision described by J.H.C. Macbeth, the London manager of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd., was one of optimism. His “material-minded” friends, he said, were asking what might be the practical advantage of communicating with aliens. “I say that the result would be the advancement of scientific knowledge, science that has wrought such miracles in the past quarter of a century, by at least 200 years,” he said.

That is considerably cheerier than the vision of Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, who has said we need to get to Mars to preserve our species after we finish destroying our current planet.

Luckily, we don’t seem to need such extreme stimulus to continue exploring our red neighbor, and we’ll eventually get there through the same extraordinary curiosity and ingenuity that has fired exploration from the dawn of time. And we may even find some form of life, requiring, as The Times’ Dennis Overbye writes, “a kind of spiritual and intellectual reckoning.”

These are all things to ponder as we gaze at the red spot now a mere 35.8 million miles away. Don’t miss the chance — Mars won’t come any closer until 2035.

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