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Treasury Department Sanctions Ukrainian Lawmaker Over Alleged Election Interference


Lately, the big story around elections has been the pandemic and the efforts to increase voting by mail. But this week, foreign interference, the topic we had been hearing so much about the past four years, is back in the spotlight. Today, the Treasury Department announced sanctions for a Ukrainian lawmaker for interfering in the 2020 race. Separately, the company Microsoft disclosed a number of foreign cyberattacks. NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security, and he joins us now.

Hey, Miles.


CHANG: So tell us more about this Ukrainian lawmaker. Like, who is he?

PARKS: His name is Andriy Derkach, and he's a member of Ukraine's Parliament. And now the Treasury Department today says he's been working as a Russian agent pushing Russian interests for more than the last decade. What he's being punished for today, as you mentioned, is interfering in the 2020 election, the U.S. election. He spent the past year pushing these debunked conspiracy theories about former Vice President Joe Biden. He published edited tapes of Biden talking with a former president of Ukraine to try and undermine Biden's campaign. And he even met with President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, last year to try and get more of a spotlight on these claims about corruption, all of which have been debunked and which the Treasury Department says are false.

CHANG: Wait. Is this the same narrative that President Trump has been pushing about Joe Biden? Because President Trump's whole impeachment trial had hinged on the president hoping for Ukraine to investigate corruption claims against Biden's son, right?

PARKS: Right. These are the same exact claims. President Trump even retweeted something as recently as last month which contained the audio that we're talking about from these edited tapes that the Treasury Department is now calling propaganda. It's obviously sort of a stark contrast to the statement that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin put out today that went along with these sanctions. He says the U.S. will use all the tools at its disposal to counter these Russian disinformation campaigns.

Obviously, Democrats immediately jumped on that, are coming out and basically saying this is hypocrisy when you have the president amplifying some of these claims on his Twitter account. We'll see now if Trump continues to repeat them or if this forces him to sort of change course.

CHANG: OK. And then separate from these sanctions, today Microsoft made an announcement about cyberattacks. What exactly did the company say?

PARKS: Basically, they said Russia, China and Iran are still at it, still trying to break into the accounts of Americans who are either important to the election or important in some way indirectly to American foreign policy. The company, Microsoft, says they've observed the group that actually broke into the Clinton campaign in 2016, this group that's commonly known as Fancy Bear. They've been observed trying to break into the accounts of campaign consultants on both sides of the aisle, as well as a think tank that monitors election interference. And then Microsoft says Chinese and Iranian groups were also detected trying to break into the email accounts of Biden campaign staffers, at least one prominent former Trump administration official and Trump campaign staff.

So these cyberattack attempts have not stopped after 2016. They've continued over the last couple years. And Microsoft says the groups are also developing new tactics. This isn't the same game plan that they used four years ago.

CHANG: This is really disturbing. What do you think we should expect, then, in terms of cyberattacks over the next two months?

PARKS: More of the same, it sounds like. I talked to Betsy Cooper, who's the executive director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub. And she said basically she expects to hear more - about more attacks. All of these countries, Russia, Iran and China, just have very advanced cyberattack capabilities.

BETSY COOPER: The actors that have the capability to execute them are also the ones that have the greatest stake in the outcome of the election.

PARKS: The only question at this point, as Cooper puts it, is how effective they will be in affecting the outcome.

CHANG: That is NPR's Miles Parks.

Thank you, Miles.

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

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.