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News brief: 4th Jan. 6 hearing, eastern Ukraine, cryptocurrency vulnerability

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today we hear the story of a phone call.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's the call former President Trump placed to a Georgia election official after he lost the 2020 election. Trump asked Brad Raffensperger to change the numbers and claim he'd won Georgia by a single vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.

FADEL: The Republican election official refused since, like thousands of other officials, he knew Trump lost. The House committee investigating the January 6 attack today calls on the man who received that call. He's one of several witnesses who will testify about Trump's efforts to snatch the electoral votes of several states.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does Raffensperger fit in with today's witnesses?

WALSH: Well, today's hearing is really all about this pressure campaign in multiple states. Brad Raffensperger is the Georgia secretary of state who we heard on the phone with President Trump. He recently won a primary against a pro-Trump candidate. His deputy, Gabriel Sterling, is also going to appear. Sterling warned about violence or even someone getting killed if that pressure to push false election claims continued.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I remember those public warnings that he gave at the time. Aren't there a lot of officials across the country who received threats?

WALSH: There were, and we're going to hear about it from a couple more. Shaye Moss is a former Georgia election worker from Fulton County. She faced death threats, along with her mother, after Trump called her out by name and accused her of tampering with the election results. She and her mother were forced to go into hiding. We're also going to hear from Rusty Bowers today. He's a Republican who's the Arizona House speaker. Select committee aides note that Trump reached out to him personally, and so did Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. He came under pressure in the run up to January 6 and even in the months since the attack.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Now, what did Trump and his allies do in other states besides Georgia?

WALSH: Well, there was this whole scheme across several swing states to create this slate of fake electors. Congressman Adam Schiff, a member of the panel who's going to lead the questioning, previewed on CNN on Sunday about this direct link to the former president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: We will show evidence of the president's involvement in this scheme. We'll also, again, show evidence about what his own lawyers came to think about this scheme.

WALSH: The panel is going to detail how there was this effort to interfere with the count of the electoral votes in Congress with those fake electors on January 6. We heard a lot about Trump outside legal adviser John Eastman in the last hearing. Today we expect we're going to hear more about White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' role in this effort to push false claims and these false electors, Meadows' role especially in Georgia. Schiff told the Los Angeles Times that text messages show that Meadows pledged to send autographed red MAGA hats to people in Georgia who were involved in the audit of the election results.

INSKEEP: OK, well, free hat if you just overturn an election, I guess. This is characteristic, it seems to me, of the extra details that are coming out of these hearings - the broad outlines of the story, I think we knew, but the details can be new. Where does the investigation go next?

WALSH: Well, Schiff said they're still pushing to get other people to come in. He didn't rule out a subpoena for Vice President Mike Pence. Another member of the panel, Zoe Lofgren, says the panel is going to start sending documents over to the Department of Justice for its own sprawling investigation. And Thursday's hearing is actually going to focus on the pressure campaign at DOJ to pursue false election fraud claims.

INSKEEP: Deirdre, thanks so much.

WALSH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deirdre Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, Russia has captured nearly all of an eastern Ukrainian city.

FADEL: The Russian army is making a destructive advance, even if it's slow. Last week, U.S. General Mark Milley told NPR that Russia has superior firepower, but they're facing resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARK MILLEY: They're gaining ground in very short increments, day to day - 500 meters, 1,000 meters, 2 kilometers. Then they get pushed back. And it's two steps forward, one step back.

FADEL: Now the gains are adding up, and nearly all of a Ukrainian city is under their control.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is following this from Kyiv. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much is left to the Ukrainians of Severodonetsk?

MYRE: Well, they really only have one part of the city. They're holding the Azot chemical plant. It's a big chemical plant in the city. About 500 or so civilians are also holed up with these remaining Ukrainian fighters. The Russians have been hammering this city relentlessly for weeks, slowly advancing, and now they've basically got the Ukrainians down to this plant. The region's governor says Russia is also pressing an offensive in surrounding regions. This is the center of the Donbas region and really the focus of the Russian operations.

INSKEEP: When you talk about a chemical plant as the place for the last stand, this is reminding me of the story of Mariupol, where something quite similar happened, right?

MYRE: Oh, absolutely, very similar in many ways, yes.

INSKEEP: So what would be the significance if Russia takes full control?

MYRE: Well, I think there's really a key takeaway for each side. For the Russians, it again shows that in these head-to-head battles, they have overwhelming firepower and can grind down the Ukrainian forces. So we should expect Russia to continue with this approach. Severodonetsk is on the east bank of a river. Right on the west bank is another city, Lysychansk, that's already come under heavy shelling. So this is the most likely Russian target coming up, and it's part of this broader aim to take over all of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

INSKEEP: What does it mean for the Ukrainians that Russia is gaining but so slowly?

MYRE: Well, the Ukrainians are again showing that they play very tenacious defense. They've defended this relatively small city, which had about 100,000 residents, for almost two months against a very concentrated Russian force. Some military analysts wondered why Ukraine just doesn't retreat, but Ukraine's approach has been to defend as long and as hard as possible, make the Russians pay a very heavy price for men and weapons. Then the hope is that Russia will deplete itself while making these relatively limited gains. We're about four months into the war now, and this trend is very clear - Russia has made advances but very slowly and at a very high cost.

INSKEEP: One other thing to ask you about - isn't the European Union getting close to offering Ukraine candidate status, getting them into the EU?

MYRE: Could happen this week. If they do get this offer at the end of the week, it will be the start of a very long process. Even in normal times, candidate countries have to jump through hoops for years before becoming EU members. A decision doesn't mean you're in; it means you've got a lot of things to do.

INSKEEP: Right.

MYRE: But the signs are looking pretty good. Five separate European leaders visited Kyiv last week to stand side by side with President Zelenskyy. He's calling it a very historic week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: It's been a rough few weeks for cryptocurrencies as prices tank and big crypto services companies lay off workers.

INSKEEP: Now a report due today says the fundamental technology supporting virtual currencies, blockchains, might be more vulnerable to tampering than people thought.

FADEL: NPR's Martin Kaste has been looking at this report, and he joins us. So, Martin, tell us about this report. Is it saying that cryptocurrencies are hackable?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, sort of. What I need to do here is step back and first explain that this report was commissioned by DARPA. You may have heard of them. They may have invented the internet or had a hand in it.

FADEL: (Laughter).

KASTE: They're called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And one of their missions is to avoid unpleasant surprises with technologies that we've come to depend on.

FADEL: OK.

KASTE: And crypto is becoming one of those technologies. So they commissioned this software security company to look at this key question of whether or not the cryptocurrency world is becoming too centralized.

FADEL: OK. Too centralized - is that a problem?

KASTE: Yeah, it is because the whole point of bitcoin and other virtual currencies is that they are decentralized. The whole philosophy here is that there's no bank or company or government in the middle running things.

FADEL: Right.

KASTE: And the accounting for all the buying and spending of cryptocurrencies is done on computerized ledgers. You've heard of them - the blockchain. And those things are spread out in a way where no one person or government is supposed to be able to step in and corrupt things. But this report says, in practice, these systems are becoming more sort of bunched up and centralized in certain ways, and that's becoming something that someone could exploit.

FADEL: OK. Exploit - so what does that mean? Is that - mean somebody could steal people's bitcoin?

KASTE: Well, it was already true that someone could steal your bitcoin if you were sloppy with, say, your password for your online wallet or something like that. But that's not what this is. Here, what we're talking about is somebody finding a way to influence the blockchain itself, that shared ledger, that record of all the transactions that's out on all those computers. They could do that by exploiting one of these points of centralization. For instance, here's one fact that they found - 60% of Bitcoin traffic is handled by just three internet companies. Dan Guido is the CEO of Trail of Bits, which is the software security company that did this study for DARPA, and he sort of envisions this as being a weapon in geopolitics.

DAN GUIDO: For somebody that has top-down control of their country's internet - like China, like Russia - all you really need to do is observe the network for transactions that are being sent, where the destination is, the Ukrainian government wallet, and you simply just don't route those packets; you ignore them.

FADEL: So what's the response been to this report from the cryptocurrency world?

KASTE: Well, so far it's been pretty muted. Big cryptocurrency companies like Coinbase declined to comment. And, you know, they do have some other things on their minds right now with all this market volatility we've seen. I did talk to the owner of a smaller bitcoin company, and he told me that he considers this a paper about theoretical vulnerabilities, not things that are likely to happen in real-world conditions.

I also talked to Christian Catalini. He's involved in crypto as the founder of MIT's Cryptoeconomics Lab. And he says the report lays out some real concerns which somebody may try to exploit in the future. But he also expressed a lot of confidence in the people who run blockchain and cryptocurrency. He thinks, you know, this community - the sort of loose affiliation of core developers, they're called - will keep strengthening the system as it goes. But the key thing to keep in mind here is even though the government commissioned this report, the government can't do anything here because all of this is decentralized. They really have to depend on these volunteers, these code developers, people in this consensus community to wake up to these problems and fix them.

FADEL: NPR's Martin Kaste. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.