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Microsoft: Russians Targeted Senate & Conservative Groups; Former Intelligence Leaders Criticize Trump over Yanking Brennan's Security Clearance; Brett Kavanaugh Weighs in on Roe v. Wade. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired August 21, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How they did it was they set up six different Web sites that are designed to carry out what are called spear-phishing attacks. They're designed to look like official sites for different groups, for different people. Usually, there's one letter, one digit that is slightly off so that people are lulled into a sense of security and share personal information. They'll be sent a phony link, people will follow that link and put in important information like their e-mail passwords, which the hackers will then use to get inside.

Now, in the case of these six different Web sites, one of the key words that was used was "Senate," an indication that these hackers were likely targeting Senators. There's different Senate offices. This is something that we've actually seen before. We heard this last month when an almost identical attack was revealed to have been carried out against Senator Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, who's one of the most vulnerable Senators in this midterm election.

Now, Microsoft has said the hackers are broadening, expanding their targets. That's because now they're not just going after Democrats as they have in the past. They're going after Republicans. Most notably these two groups, the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. Those are two conservative think tanks. They're notably anti-Russian, vociferously against President Putin. The IRI has board members who are very vocal in their anti-Putin stance. Those include Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney, and many others.

Now, we have to note we have not heard a response from the White House today, but we have heard from the Kremlin. We got this rather interesting statement from them, which says, "From the U.S., we hear that there was not any meddling in the elections. Whom exactly they're talking about, what is the proof, and on what grounds are they reaching such conclusions?"

So, Wolf, they are saying they don't know anything about this hacking, they don't know anything about these hacking groups. But look at that. "From the U.S. we hear there was not any meddling until the elections." Who are they hearing that from? The highest levels of the U.S. government are saying the Russians did hack into the 2016 elections. The only person who's waffling on that, Wolf, is the president.

BLITZER: Including that interview with Reuters yesterday when he said if, if the Russians did it. Once again raising a serious question.

Alex, good report. Thank you very much.

The president is silent so far on the new hacking attempt by Russia. So how will Congress respond? The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued this warning just over a month ago. Listen.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018.


BLITZER: All right. Let's get some insight now from former CIA director, former defense secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

So what's your reaction, first of all, to the news from Microsoft that it blocked a hacking attempt by Russian military intelligence targeting the U.S. Senate as well as these conservative Republican think tanks?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR & FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, there's no question that the Russians are again engaged in a very broad and directed cyberattack against the United States and against our election systems. They are going after not only Democrats, they're going after Republicans who for one reason or another have raised concerns about Russia. So it's a very broad attack here. The good news is that Microsoft was able to discover these sites and report them. And hopefully, other companies will do the same. But there's no question that I think all of us have to be vigilant that the Russians are continuing to try to influence American viewpoints when it comes to this election.

BLITZER: As you know, President Trump once again, as recently as yesterday, questioning Russia's role in the attack on the 2016 presidential elections here in the United States. Why this back and forth when the U.S. Intelligence Community, including those leaders nominated, confirmed during the Trump administration, say without a doubt it was Russia?

PANETTA: We've been asking that question for a long time now because this president seems to have a real blind sight when it comes to the role the Russians are engaged in. He rejects what everyone else believes is the truth, that the Russians are engaged in this effort. Our intelligence agencies have made clear that that's the case. Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, as we heard Senator McConnell say, are aware that the Russians are engaged in this effort. It continues, I think, to raise concerns for all of us, why the president continues to ignore the facts.

BLITZER: Why do you think he does? [13:35:00] PANETTA: I think this president has shown that when it

comes to Russia and Russian attacks and Russian influence on our system, he has shown a willingness to accept their view point that they are not engaged. He did that at the summit with Putin. He basically said he accepted what the Russians were saying as opposed to what our intelligence agencies were saying. So it's very clear that, for some reason here, the president believes the Russians more than he believes our own intelligence and law enforcement officials.

BLITZER: You signed on to that initial letter from more than a dozen former intelligence leaders here in the United States criticizing the president's decision to revoke John Brennan's security clearance. John Brennan, the former CIA director during the Obama administration, a man you worked very closely with. Tell us, first of all, why you signed that letter.

PANETTA: Well, as you saw from all of those that signed that letter, there were some 15 of us, Republicans and Democrats, who served in the intelligence area. And our concern is that this is about our national security interests. When you talk about security clearances, security clearances are used in order to help protect our national security. There are four million security clearances out there, largely in our Intelligence Community, our military community, and others that are serving our national security and trying to protect this country. To use our security clearance process, which is related to national security, to use that now as a political weapon, to go after people whose political views you may not like, whose speech you may not like, whose support for investigations you may not like, turns our national security interests into a political weapon. I think this is kind of Trump's approach of wag the dog, where he is using national security issues to divert attention. And I feel that that undermines not only our national security, I think it undermines the office of the presidency.

BLITZER: There's an article, an important article in the new issue of the "New Yorker" magazine that says that President Trump even once considered denying intelligence briefings to former President Barack Obama. The president fired back, tweeting this, and I'll read what he just tweeted today: "The very vile 'New Yorker' falsely reported I was going to take the extraordinary step of denying intelligence briefings to President Obama. Never discussed or thought of."

Explain why, first of all, former presidents get regular intelligence briefings. And what would happen if they were denied those kinds of intelligence briefings, if for some reason President Obama were denied a serious intelligence briefing before he left on a foreign trip, for example?

PANETTA: Well, it's critical to provide former presidents with an intelligence briefing so they're aware of the issues that are impacting on our country when they go abroad, when they speak, because presidents carry a lot of weight wherever they go and people pay attention to them. You want presidents to be informed about our national security threats. You want them to be totally informed about what our intelligence agencies are saying about that. And to even threaten not to provide those briefings, again, what that does is it undermines our national security in this country. I mean, the reason we have former directors is so that if the CIA director or the secretary of state wants to be able to get their opinions, they can provide them with the information that would help get their guidance and advice. That's the way we've operated when it comes to national security, that we seek the advice of those who have served and have experience. And to suddenly pretend that you can deny that and walk away from that is to weaken this country.

BLITZER: Since leaving the government, have you been asked for advice by current -- either a CIA director or secretary of defense or other high-level national security personnel? Have they called you and said, Leon, I need some help?

[13:40:52] PANETTA: I've been asked for advice, and I've always been prepared to give it because I think that all of us have a duty to this country and to its interests, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats. I think the most important thing is to try to make sure that we do everything possible to protect the United States of America. So when somebody in the administration calls and wants my advice, I'm happy to give it.

BLITZER: And they have called you, and you still have your security clearances?

PANETTA: I think the security clearance is one of those that are provided on the basis that if I was ever to go back to Washington to a CIA director's meeting, that they could reinstate that security clearance for purposes of getting the information I would need to give that advice. I think that's the only way that security clearance operates.

BLITZER: But they have -- people in the Trump administration have called you? I just want to be precise on that point.

PANETTA: They've called. It hasn't always involved classified information, but they have called. You know, I've been willing to provide that advice when they call.

I think it's important for all of us to recognize that no one knows all the answers. When I was in office, I called my predecessors. I convened former directors of the CIA at Langley to be able to brief them on classified information so I could get their views and opinions as to what needs to be done. You know, the important thing about people in office, whether they're president or CIA director, is that we don't know everything. It is helpful to reach out to people to get their guidance and advice. I think the president needs to do more of that.

BLITZER: Leon Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

PANETTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, there's more breaking news coming into CNN right now. President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, weighing in directly on his view on the future of Roe v. Wade. What he said. Stand by. We'll share. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:46:41] BLITZER: There's breaking news coming in to CNN right now. President Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, now weighing in directly on his view on the future of Roe v. Wade, abortion rights for women here in the United States.

Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is joining us from Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, what are you learning? What is he saying?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is certainly a big meeting for the Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, today. He may have indeed taken a small step towards winning over a key Republican swing vote, that of Senator Susan Collins, of Maine. They met for a little over two hours. While the Senator left that meeting saying she will not yet reveal how she intends to vote, she certainly spoke complimentary of him, saying the meeting was excellent, very productive, very informative, in her words. She says the meeting was devoted significantly -- a significant portion of the time was devoted to abortion, a key issue for the moderate Republican. She said specifically that she asked Kavanaugh whether he believed that Roe v. Wade is settled as law. In that meeting, Kavanaugh, she says, told her he agreed with Justice Roberts what he said in his own nomination hearing, that, yes, it is settled as law. That could be key in potentially winning over Senator Susan Collins' vote. Although, she won't reveal it just yet.

Certainly Kavanaugh has another big meeting on the Hill. He's right now meeting with Senator Claire McCaskill. Later today Senator Leahy, also Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris. And a big meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democrat who is leading the charge to get more documents released from his time in the Bush White House. Of course, Wolf, this is only two weeks away from that big confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary on September 4th -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Starts on September 4th and then goes for several days afterwards.

Sunlen, thank you very much for that update. Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill.

We're following two major developments right now. The first one on Paul Manafort's trial. The federal judge telling jurors to keep deliberating after they appear to be stuck on one of 18 counts.

And more breaking news. President Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, who's facing possible criminal charges, is now in serious talks with prosecutors for a potential plea deal. We'll have the latest on that as well.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:53:23] BLITZER: In the cross hairs of Russian hackers. Microsoft now says it disrupted an attempt by Russia to hack the U.S. Senate as well as two major conservative think tanks here in Washington ahead of the 2018 midterm elections in November. One of the think tanks is Hudson Institute.

Joining us now, the president and CEO of Hudson, Kenneth -- I should say Ken, Ken Weinstein.

Ken, thank you for joining us.

A very important think tank in Washington. Tell us why you think you were targeted by the Russians.

KENNETH WEINSTEIN, PRESIDENT & CEO, HUDSON INSTITUTE: We do an awful lot of work on Russia. We do work on the Baltics. We do work on Ukraine. We do work on missile defense, national security. In particularly, we have a kleptocracy initiative that's gone out to expose the pernicious impact of the immediate circle of Vladimir Putin and his cronies, who have robbed his country of wealth and tried to store it overseas in the West and we have done a lot of work. And this kind of work we're doing is having a direct impact. People in Moscow see it. They know we have been big backers of the Magnitsky Act and know that -- see the impact of the work we have done.

BLITZER: Tell us how it came to your attention. Microsoft, you have to give Microsoft a lot of credit. They were discovering this and then what happened? How did they inform you of what they learned?

WEINSTEIN: Sure. I was enjoying my last day of vacation on Sunday and I got an e-mail from Microsoft saying that it was urgent and that they needed to speak to me and they needed to speak to the top cyber security expert. Got on the phone. I had no idea what it was about at all. I was surprised but not shocked to learn about this attempted spear phishing expedition by Fancy Bear, this unit close to the Russian military intelligence and the GRU to try to mimic our Web site, to try to get our friends to try to log in and to pass their contact information on and so that their computers essentially could be taken over by the GRU.

[13:55:11] BLITZER: Was the FBI, law enforcement involved? Did Microsoft inform them of what was going on?

WEINSTEIN: Microsoft had been in touch with law enforcement. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have been in touch with us over time. They haven't been in touch with us immediately over this case, but we have been in touch with them because there's other foreign governments trying to get in, whether the Chinese, the Iranians, and there's probably a longer list as well.

BLITZER: What was the damage, if any, that was done as far as you know?

WEINSTEIN: None damage whatsoever.

BLITZER: Tell us how come? You would think that -- how long has this been going on, this spear phishing?

WEINSTEIN: Well, Microsoft caught this. They saw that somebody tried to register a mirror Web site that looked like our Web site and Microsoft caught it in advance, prevented any damage to us, and we're deeply grateful.

BLITZER: So -- but you have to assume this has been going on. Others have been targeted, as well. Microsoft or maybe other institutions have not discovered this.

WEINSTEIN: Sure. Look, we have been on high alert for some time. The Chinese tried to take down our Web site about a year ago and failed, and hackers of Shanghai. We have been on high alert. We told our team to be very careful and very alert to suspicious e-mails, the spelling errors, to attempts to ask for login I.D.s. And we told our friends, also, who deal with us to be aware, as well.

BLITZER: What advice do you have for other think tanks in Washington and around the country and around the world?

WEINSTEIN: Be immensely suspicious of attachments from people you don't know. Even e-mail addresses that look like e-mail addresses of people you know, e-mails of people you know, double check. Click on the e-mail, the sender name to be sure it's the right e-mail address. And even if you have some suspicion, send it to your security person. Send it to your director of operations. They'll tell you whether it's real or worth opening the attachment or not.

BLITZER: Are you surprised the president has not responded on Twitter or else to this Microsoft development?

WEINSTEIN: I'm sure he will. He hasn't -- I'm not surprised. There's a lot going on today.

BLITZER: Even yesterday in the interview with Reuters he was saying if the Russians did try to hack in to the 2016 presidential -- he's still raising questions about that.

WEINSTEIN: Well, they clearly tried to hack into our us. They clearly tried to hack into IRI and to U.S. Senate offices. And it's something to keep an eye on.

BLITZER: The IRI, the International Republican Institution. Like the National Democratic Institute, they work closely together and they both have been very critical of the Russians.

Ken, good luck over there. Thank you for the important work you do.

WEINSTEIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Monitoring several news breaking stories in New York. Michael Cohen in talks with prosecutors for a potential plea deal.

And in Virginia, right outside of Washington, the federal jury for Paul Manafort still deliberating after revealing they may be stuck on at least one of 18 charges.

Stand by.