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DOC TALK

The journal of a plague year; threats of election dysfunction

Harri Hursti and Maggie MacAlpine carry voting machines they purchased secondhand, as seen in the HBO documentary "Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections."
Harri Hursti and Maggie MacAlpine carry voting machines they purchased secondhand, as seen in the HBO documentary "Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections."HBO

The current COVID-19 crisis is not unprecedented. In 1918, at the height of the US engagement in World War I, an influenza pandemic swept the world. By the end some 500 million people had been infected, with an estimated death toll of at least 30 million. In the United States alone, 600,000 died, more than in all the nation’s wars combined.

Have we learned much since then? Robert Kenner’s 1998 documentary “Influenza 1918,” originally broadcast on PBS’s “American Experience,” suggests not. Labeled the “Spanish Flu” with a xenophobic impulse echoed by President Trump’s reference to “the Chinese virus,” it actually originated at an Army base in Kansas. The circumstances sound almost biblical: On March 11, 1918, a work detail was burning tons of manure. A windstorm blew up, a cloud of yellow smoke filled the sky, and the sun turned black. Within a week 500 soldiers fell ill, and 48 would die. Then the mysterious malady vanished.

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Many of the surviving soldiers were shipped out to fight in France. The disease reemerged in the troop ships, where the crowded conditions worked like a petri dish. It reached Europe, afflicted the armies of every nation, and then returned to the States as troops came back home. The first outbreak was at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, where young men at the peak of health suddenly fell ill. They developed high fevers, their faces turned blue, and within days or hours their lungs filled and they drowned in their own fluids.

From there it spread everywhere.

The first responses to the disease, like those today, were bewilderment, denial, and defiance of basic precautions. Despite warnings against large gatherings, 200,000 watched a Liberty Bonds parade in Philadelphia. Within a month 11,000 people were dead. A vaccination was developed but failed — at the time the nature of viruses was still a mystery. Folk remedies proliferated; some profited, no one was cured.

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Kenner relates the story briskly and relentlessly with archival material including film, photos, and the written recollections of those who experienced the outbreak. The case of future Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Katherine Anne Porter, then a young newspaper reporter in Denver, is especially tragic. She became so ill that she was left in the hallway of the hospital and given up for dead. Her boyfriend nursed her back to health. He caught the disease himself and did not survive.

Kenner also interviews survivors who were still alive in 1998 when the film was made. One of them recalls playing with his friends on stacks of coffins piled outside the local funeral home. The coffins contained influenza victims, and he and his pals came down with it.

Like today, some officials were at first complacent or dismissive. “The city is in no danger of an epidemic,” claimed the health commissioner of New York. “No need for our people to worry.” But that prognosis would soon change. “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration,” the surgeon general reported, “civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth within a few weeks.”

But then the disease disappeared as quickly as it began. According to an epidemiologist interviewed in the film, it probably just ran out people to infect.

The memory of the pandemic disappeared as well. Now is a good time to remember it.

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“Influenza 1918” can be streamed at www.pbs.org, and is available on DVD at shop.pbs.org and Amazon.

Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/influenza

Chain of fools

While you ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t forget the potential threats to our democracy coming up in the November elections. Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels, and Sarah Teale’s documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” assesses the situation. It is not reassuring.

The film’s guide to the glaring vulnerabilities in our election security is Finnish hacker and cybersecurity expert Harri Hursti. In 2005 Hursti demonstrated how easy it was to hack into a Florida voting machine. Despite this warning, machines like it are still being used in several states. Here he resumes his investigations, uncovering other alarming lapses.

He learns that prior to the 2016 election, the FBI notified election officials that a foreign power had compromised a Florida vendor responsible for voter registration in eight states. Did this have an impact on the result? Nobody can say.

Also prior to the 2016 election, according to cybersecurity expert Andrei Barysevich, the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was hacked by “Rasputin,” a suspected Russian asset.

Again, in Florida, Hursti receives assurances from the manufacturer that machines being used in the 2020 elections are being kept out of the hands of potential hackers. Hursti checks eBay and finds them on sale at bargain prices and travels to a recycling warehouse in Ohio where they are stacked to the ceiling. He purchases three for $225 and finds them easily hackable.

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In 2018 Hursti oversaw Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp, at the time still secretary of state, was in the interesting position of being responsible for the oversight of his own election. He also blocked attempts to replace the state’s obsolete and insecure voting machines. The result was a chaotic situation caused by malfunctioning machines and long waiting times.

Kemp won by fewer than 60,000 votes.

What can be done to prevent a repeat of 2016 when, according to US intelligence agencies, the Russians breached the election systems of all 50 states and potentially accessed voter registration and other databases in 21 states? Using paper ballots would be a start, argue many of the experts and politicians from both parties interviewed in the film. Otherwise the election can be tampered with and there would be no way of finding out. And maybe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could allow a vote on a bipartisan bill securing elections that was presented to him in 2018.

McConnell himself is up for reelection in Kentucky in November.

“Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” premieres March 26 at 9 p.m. on HBO. The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO, and partners’ streaming platforms.

Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/kill-chain-the-cyber-war-on-americas-elections

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.