Efforts to protect U.S. elections from disinformation are proceeding amid reports that the head of the agency in the Department of Homeland Security that oversees election security expects to be fired soon by the White House.
Christopher Krebs, director of DHS' Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, spearheaded an agency campaign to counter rumors about voter fraud and election irregularities.
It was intended primarily to target foreign disinformation but has ended up instead rebutting many of the rumors and baseless allegations about the election being spread by President Trump and his campaign, and it has apparently drawn the ire of the White House.
As of Friday, Krebs was still on the job, and CISA officials held a regularly scheduled meeting with private sector members of a coordinating council set up after the 2016 election to work with the agency to protect U.S. elections against cyberattacks and other disruptions.
That council, along with a separate one representing state and local elections officials, put out a joint statement Thursday calling the 2020 election "the most secure in American history." It added, in boldface, that "there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised."
According to one council member, the statement, which CISA released, was a direct response to the president's tweet Thursday morning citing a baseless claim that voting equipment provided by Dominion Voting Systems had "deleted 2.7 million Trump votes nationwide" and switched hundreds of thousands of other Trump votes to Joe Biden.
Trump on Friday added to the confusion by tweeting that the election was indeed the most secure ever but that it was also "rigged."
Concerns that Krebs could be pushed out came after Trump fired several top national security officials, and two Homeland Security officials, including one from CISA, were removed from their posts.
Security officials have said that, even after Election Day, the nation's voting system remains vulnerable as states continue to count ballots and certify the results.
The coordinating council member said the biggest threat at this point is disinformation about that process, much of which the Trump campaign is putting forward in its effort to challenge the results.
The individual, who spoke on background, said Krebs' removal would be "very concerning" but that it's difficult to say how disruptive it would be in the short term because others at the agency have been working closely with state and local officials to secure the elections.
"There are a lot of good people at CISA who hopefully would still be there and would continue to do their jobs," the individual said.
In the long term, though, it could have a huge impact on what has been seen as a largely successful government effort. CISA was created in 2018 following Russia's active measures campaign that disrupted the 2016 election.
Krebs, the agency's first director, has worked to build stronger partnerships between the federal government and the states — a tall task after Russia's interference laid bare the wide differences in how various states run their elections. After 2016, it took months, sometimes years, before the federal government shared intelligence about Russia's activities with all the relevant state officials.
Those relationships have completely transformed under Krebs, as evidenced on Election Day, when CISA erected a war room for communication between the states, voting machine vendors, social media companies and political parties.
A DHS official who has worked with Krebs but spoke on background for fear of retaliation told NPR that Krebs being fired would "rock CISA."
"Chris has earned the trust of staff all across the agency," the official said. "He's easily been the most competent and able of any political appointee I've worked with."
He has also drawn great praise and support from outside the agency.
In response to reports Thursday afternoon that Krebs expected to be fired, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., tweeted: "There is no possible justification to remove [Krebs] from office. None."
Chris Krebs has done a great job protecting our elections. He is one of the few people in this Administration respected by everyone on both sides of the aisle. There is no possible justification to remove him from office. None. https://t.co/WaOEiIlzKi— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) November 12, 2020
Getting ready for 2020
Ahead of the 2020 election, CISA focused on helping local governments harden their cybersecurity systems. But the agency has consistently said misinformation about the election's legitimacy is just as big of a problem as hacking into computers.
To that end, the agency recently set up a website called Rumor Control, which was meant to debunk false election information throughout the voting season.
Making sure Americans have facts, Krebs told reporters, is "one of the best tactics and techniques we have right now to counteract these disinformation operations and influence ops."
But it was immediately clear that those facts would also contradict the president.
Trump has telegraphed for months, if not years, he would work to undermine confidence in the results should he lose. Leadership within CISA knew that eventually there could come a time where the content on the Rumor Control site would be at odds with Trump's words, according to a person familiar with the matter, which could mean professional consequences for Krebs and others at the agency.
"This is the only person I've ever seen question his own election [victory]," the person said, speaking about 2016 when Trump spread conspiracies about millions of illegal votes being cast after he lost the popular vote despite winning the Electoral College.
Still, Krebs never called out Trump by name.
"It's not our job to fact-check the president," Krebs told reporters in early November when pushed on whether the agency's Rumor Control site would directly cite the sources of disinformation, as opposed just to debunking the content.
That position became increasingly blurry though, because Trump and his campaign have been among the most prominent amplifiers of false information since Election Day.
Krebs as well as state and local government officials have been adamant that the 2020 election has been a success: historic turnout with no major disruptions so far from foreign interference — all in the midst of a pandemic.
"We should be talking about how well the system worked and increasing people's confidence and trust in the process," said Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, a federal agency tasked with improving the administration of elections. "Instead, we're talking about conspiracy theories about the election being rigged."
Since Election Day, Krebs has been active on Twitter, continuing to post "Rumor Control updates" that link back to CISA's website offering factual information about the election process that often contradicted the claims Trump and his campaign have made about voter fraud allegations.
🚨Rumor Control Update🚨 New content in our “results accuracy” entry that expands on the controls elex officials use before, during, and after an election to ensure election-related software/hardware aren’t single points of failure. https://t.co/ePI3KBH87C #Protect2020 pic.twitter.com/ogZLUkqxMs— Chris Krebs #Protect2020 (@CISAKrebs) November 12, 2020
The site lists a bright red "X" in front of the word "rumor," reading: "If results as reported on election night change over the ensuing days or weeks, the process is hacked or compromised, so I can't trust the results."
Instead, it directs the viewer to the "reality," marked with a green check mark.
"Election results reporting may occur more slowly than prior years. This does not indicate there is any problem with the counting process or results. Official results are not certified until all validly cast ballots have been counted, including ballots that are counted after election night," the site reads.
The site also refutes the conspiracy spread by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that dead people cast ballots in the general election.
The Trump campaign even filed a lawsuit based on a rumor that some ballots in Arizona were rejected because voters had used Sharpies to fill them out.
"Don't promote disinfo! Stop spreading #SharpieGate claims," Krebs tweeted.
The official familiar with the matter said Thursday they had no idea how likely it was that Krebs would be fired.
"Trying to predict what the president will do is damn near impossible," the official said.
Latest White House firing
Krebs' firing would be the latest staff shakeup in the Trump administration after the president lost his reelection bid to Biden.
On Monday, Trump tweeted that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had been "terminated" and would be replaced by Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
As NPR's Tom Bowman reported, sources said Esper already had a resignation letter at the ready, seeing as Trump threatened to fire him in June over a disagreement about using active-duty troops to quell street protests.
Since then, three other top Pentagon officials have been replaced with Trump loyalists.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said two officials from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had been removed from their posts recently. Only one of the two Department of Homeland Security officials removed from their posts this past week had been at CISA.