CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell On Coverage Of Another Aspect Of 2020 Election Anxiety: Foreign Interference

Ted Johnson
·5 min read

As the final days of the 2020 presidential race focus on swing state rallies and the latest batch of polling, a story last week was a reminder of another concern amid all of the anxiousness: foreign interference.

On Thursday, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell interviewed Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence. He told her that while the intelligence community has cited efforts by Iran and China, Russia’s operatives are “the New England Patriots of messing with elections. I think they do it better than anybody else.”

He also said that he was concerned about the “nightmare scenario” of the election’s aftermath, in that people “will draw conclusions or days after will draw conclusions that their candidate has been denied a victory and that public riots will result and violence might result from that.”

In an interview with Deadline, O’Donnell said that “the things that I found most troubling about what Dan Coats said is that those foreign efforts to disrupt our democracy continue. They are stepped up. There are other countries as well that are trying to disrupt our democracy. I mean this can be viewed almost as a full on cyber terrorist attack that’s happening, and most Americans have no idea what’s happening. I find it frightening.”

She said that she had been pursuing Coats, who served as director of national intelligence from 2017 to 2019, for an interview for almost a year and a half.

“He obviously didn’t want to talk when he was in office. He was let go by Trump and didn’t want to speak after that because he didn’t want to be viewed as partisan,” she said.

O’Donnell said that one of the reasons she was anxious to talk to Coats is “because under his leadership, he had put together an entire effort to make sure that our elections are safe and secure, and that is not only gathering the intelligence to find out which countries may be trying to disrupt our democracy, but also counter offensive measures that the U.S. government has been reported about in the 2018 elections and that are undergoing right now in the 2020 elections.. So that is just sort of setting the stage.”

There also has been concern over efforts to inject misinformation in to the media ecosphere. The October surprise was the New York Post’s series of stories on Hunter Biden’s business dealings, based largely on the contents of a laptop that was allegedly retrieved from a repair shop owner.

But some other news outlets have been said that they have pursued the story but have been unable to verify whether the emails are real. The Post story also triggered concerns that it may have been part of Russian disinformation efforts, but that too has not been confirmed.

“I myself don’t have access to the raw intelligence, but I do believe that 50 former intelligence officials who served under Republican and Democratic administrations wrote a letter that said they believe that the Hunter Biden emails are consistent with the type of Russian disinformation,” O’Donnell said. “‘Consistent with’ are the key words. It is really hard to get a definitive answer out of the government right now about what they know, even from the FBI because they are concerned about what happened in the 2016 election.”

She said that based on her own reporting, there has been concerns that the Russians would attempt to do a “hacking dump.”

“So it is the belief — this is not from Dan Coats — I’m just saying based on my own reporting — that it is the view of U.S. intelligence, one of the things that foreign adversaries are doing is monitoring the email communications of all the campaigns,” she said. “And there could be, just like in 2016, another example of a hacking dump type of operation, an easy way for them to be disrupted. So this is something that they know about and said that could happen. I am not saying anything definitive about the Hunter Biden emails. I just don’t know.”

When it comes to her network, O’Donnell said, “We have an extensive group of reporters at CBS News that cover law enforcement, intelligence agencies and our investigative unit. We have been doing our due diligence to report every story out, but we don’t put things that are unverified on the air. That is not specific to the Hunter Biden story. That is on a bunch of different stories. That’s always the case., You heard it said on 60 Minutes the other day about other stuff. We don’t repeat something that we can’t confirm.”

Coats also warned that any post-election unrest would only play into the hands of foreign adversaries anxious to exploit divisions. Trump recently tweeted, “The Election should end on November 3rd., not weeks later!” But it is actually not unusual for vote counting the continue after election night, and that may be even more the case this year.

Networks are all planning to emphasize that the heavy amount of early vote and mail-in voting means that the results may not be known on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.

“We knew with the count, that we would have to have patience on election night,” O’Donnell said. “And so everything that we are doing, and in terms of our preparation for election night, is one, to have patience, two to communicate that to our audience. If the vote comes in slow, it doesn’t mean that the election is rigged or that there is something wrong.”

“And so unless it’s a blowout, we are preparing not just for a long night, but for a week or more.”

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