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News Brief: Election Intimidation, Presidential Debate, DOJ's Opioid Deal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have some details of foreign interference in the 2020 election.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The information comes from U.S. intelligence agencies and the source is John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence. He blames Iran for an operation to identify American voters and then send them threatening emails. He says Iran used voter information that is either public or available for purchase.

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JOHN RATCLIFFE: This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy.

INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security, and he joins us. Miles, good morning.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve, good morning.

INSKEEP: So if you were one of the recipients in a couple of different states of these emails, what did you receive?

PARKS: Sure. I'll just read you one. This was obtained by Alaska Public Radio, and it came from an email address that basically made it seem like it was coming from this far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys. So, quote, "You are currently registered as a Democrat. And we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply." Now, these messages included party registration data, and in some cases, they also included people's addresses or phone numbers, which really gave people the impression that someone actually was watching them. Google says the emails were sent to about 25,000 of its Gmail users, according to CNN, but that spam blockers seem to have blocked about 90% of those.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So most of them did not reach the intended recipients, but some did.

PARKS: At least with the Google ones, yes.

INSKEEP: All right. That's what the email said. According to the U.S. government, what was actually going on?

PARKS: So the U.S. government says these emails actually came from Iran. Officials say cyber actors accessed voter rolls, which, again, are generally public records, but they used them for nefarious purposes. And separately, Iran was circulating a video as well that seemed to indicate that foreign actors could somehow commit election fraud using mail ballots. So they were kind of pushing this false narrative while at the same time sending these emails to American voters, all with an effort to kind of influence the minds of American voters.

INSKEEP: OK. So this press conference by U.S. officials focused mainly on Iran, but we know Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that U.S. officials have said Russia is at it again. So what is the bigger picture here?

PARKS: Yeah. The bigger picture is that all of these American adversaries, whether it's Russia, Iran or China in some cases, have an interest in trying to affect American elections. And that's probably not going to change. It hasn't changed over the last four years. You know, election officials have basically said constantly that just because we aren't talking about it, the threat of election interference remains. And that's because all of these adversaries see their status in the world as directly tied to the status of American democracy. You know, if they can increase polarization in any way that's easy and efficient for them, they're going to do it because when we're divided, basically, they see their standing in the world as increased.

INSKEEP: Obviously, it's a free society. You're not going to necessarily stop people from sending threatening emails. So what can the United States do to counter this kind of disinformation?

PARKS: Right. This sort of messaging campaign, this press conference yesterday, is basically all they can do since these sorts of attacks are notoriously so hard to investigate and prosecute. The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, said this much yesterday. He said, basically, truth is their biggest weapon to fight back. The problem is they're putting this information out there, trying to combat some of this misinformation. But some of these same narratives are some of the same narratives that President Trump and other members of his administration have tried to push around voting. So we are getting kind of contradictory messages about the security of America's elections at this point.

INSKEEP: Miles, thanks for the update.

PARKS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Miles Parks.

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INSKEEP: Both men contending for president this fall have a particular connection to a former president. Joe Biden served as vice president to Barack Obama. Donald Trump rose to political prominence with false claims about Obama's birthplace. Last night in Philadelphia, Obama gave a speech in support of Biden and critical of Trump.

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BARACK OBAMA: The thing is, this is not a reality show. This is reality. And the rest of us have had to live with the consequences of him proving himself incapable of taking the job seriously.

KING: Tonight, the current president gets the stage. He'll share it, of course, with Joe Biden. The rules are different this time after President Trump turned the last debate into an omnishambles with his constant interruptions. Tonight, each candidate's microphone will sometimes be shut off while the other one is talking, which the president said yesterday he does not like.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think the mute is very unfair, and I think it's very bad that they're not talking about foreign affairs.

INSKEEP: NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro is with us. Hey there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is this debate important?

MONTANARO: Because there are no more big events of this magnitude left, really. I mean, there are no more opportunities for the candidates to talk directly to such a large audience until their victory or concession speeches on election night or beyond. Let's hope it's not too far beyond. After this, it's really all about getting out your voters. And because of that, there are big potential consequences for both candidates tonight.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention polling averages show the president pretty far behind at this point.

MONTANARO: Yeah, they certainly do. But that's why President Trump, certainly tonight, this is his - for him, it's his last, best chance to try and claw back any momentum. I mean, he had a disastrous first debate performance. It was chaos. He constantly interrupted and didn't get into an actual debate. And as a result, like you note, he took a hit in the polls. You know, notably tonight because of that performance, the debate commission, as you guys talked about, has instituted a new rule where at the beginning of the debate, during opening statements, the candidates will have two minutes uninterrupted and the other candidate's microphone will be muted. But that's to say nothing of the rest of the debate when - you know, when a candidate is down, certainly, it can lead to desperation. And Trump is expected to go after Biden and his son Hunter in an effort to drag Biden down. But he doesn't - but Biden, you know, can't afford to get dragged into the quicksand. Let's put it that way.

INSKEEP: How has Biden been preparing? He's been out of sight for the last several days, for the most part.

MONTANARO: Yeah, he's been off the campaign trail for days, which is pretty traditional for a candidate to take a few days off to prepare for a debate. That tells you how important that his team feels this debate is. You know, he needs to close the deal. We saw President Obama model some of what a closing argument can sound like in his speech in Philadelphia last night, which was a searing indictment of the Trump presidency. And Biden needs to be able to handle the attacks that come at him, parry them without getting flustered, you know, first to be able to get to focus on that closing argument. You know, all he needs to do is have a solid debate performance, handle everything Trump throws at him and seal the deal with wavering voters - certainly not the easiest tasks.

INSKEEP: What will you be looking for in the week afterward?

MONTANARO: Well, look, we're in the final stretch. One Republican strategist I talked to this week said that this feedback loop during campaigns can really lend to a distortion of reality - campaigns that are losing convince themselves they're going to win; campaigns that are winning tie themselves in anxious knots wondering if it's all a mirage and they're really going to lose. And I think it's safe to say we're seeing a lot of that right now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK. The Justice Department announced an $8.3 billion settlement yesterday with Purdue Pharma.

KING: That company makes OxyContin, which is one of the prescription drugs at the center of the overdose crisis that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead and continues. Federal prosecutors say the deal shows that they are serious about holding the drug industry accountable for its role in the opioid epidemic. But does this deal actually go far enough?

INSKEEP: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is on the line. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How's the settlement work?

MANN: Well, if it's approved by a federal bankruptcy judge, Purdue Pharma is going to admit to three felony charges for criminal practices that include a scheme to mislead doctors about the safety of these medications like OxyContin. Over time, the company would then pay out billions of dollars in civil and criminal penalties. And the Sackler family, who've become notorious because of this epidemic, they'll be forced to give up control of Purdue. Now, that sounds like a lot, Steve, but critics are pointing to the fact that Purdue Pharma was already in bankruptcy, flooded with thousands of lawsuits tied to the improper marketing of opioids. And now under this deal, the Sacklers are going to walk away with most of their personal fortune intact. By some estimates, they're worth as much as $10 billion because of opioid profits. They'll pay a fraction of that in penalties, only about $225 million out of their own pockets, no criminal charges against them. And the Sacklers in this deal admit no personal wrongdoing.

INSKEEP: Wow. But there are $8.3 billion going out as part of the settlement. Where does it go?

MANN: Yeah. Well, this is another detail that's sparking a lot of anger and outrage. It turns out Purdue Pharma doesn't actually have enough money left to pay out the billions of dollars agreed to in this Justice Department settlement. So the plan is for the government to reorganize Purdue into what's known as a public benefit company. That means profits from future sales of opioids like OxyContin would be used to pay for drug treatments and rehabilitation programs around the country. I spoke yesterday with Greg McNeil, who lives in Ohio. That's one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. He lost his son Sam to an overdose five years ago. He says this idea of the government getting into the opioid business now after it's caused so much havoc, he says, it just feels wrong.

GREG MCNEIL: It just seems ill advised having the government enter into that business. Gosh, there's something about that that just doesn't add up to me at all.

MANN: Yeah. And a lot of state attorneys general agree, Steve. They signed a letter last week sent to Attorney General William Barr arguing that this arrangement is ethically wrong.

INSKEEP: What can be done with whatever money is scraped up through this settlement?

MANN: Yeah. U.S. attorneys say if this deal is finalized, it would mean extraordinary new resources for states and cities, as well as tribal governments. Remember, Steve, they're desperate for money. Thousands of people are still dying every year from opioid overdoses. But everyone NPR talked to agrees this problem is so big, affecting so many Americans. Eight billion dollars is really just a drop in the bucket.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Brian Mann, NPR's addiction correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.