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Behind The Scenes: Newsweek On McCain In The Dark, Obama Threats, And More

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Newsweek has released highlights of its Special Election Project, which allowed reporters to gather behind-the-scenes information on the presidential campaigns with an agreement that none of their reporting would be published until after Election Day.

You can read a summary of their report here, and the first chapter of their book here.

Below, some key excerpts -- including news about a cyber attack from an "unknown entity" that hit the presidential campaigns' computers in the summer, prompting an FBI investigation; McCain's advisers fuming at Palin's shopping spree, which was apparently far more extensive than originally reported; and Palin being blocked from speaking on election night by top McCain aide Steve Schmidt.

From Newsweek's press release:

New York--The computer systems of both the Obama and McCain campaigns were victims of a sophisticated cyber attack by an unknown "foreign entity," prompting a federal investigation, Newsweek reports in its exclusive special election issue, "President Obama" on newsstands Thursday, Nov. 6.

At the Obama headquarters in midsummer, technology experts detected what they initially thought was a computer virus, a case of "phishing"--a form of hacking often employed to steal passwords or credit card numbers. But by the next day, both the FBI and the Secret Service came to the campaign with an ominous warning: "You have a problem way bigger than what you understand," an agent told them. "You have been compromised, and a serious amount of files have been loaded off your system." The following day, Obama campaign chief David Plouffe heard from White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, to the same effect: "You have a real problem... and you have to deal with it." The Feds told the Obama campaign in late August that the McCain campaign's computer system had been similarly compromised (a top McCain official confirmed to Newsweek that the campaign's computer system had been hacked and the FBI was had become involved).

As Editor-at-Large Evan Thomas writes, FBI and White House officials told the Obama campaign that they believed that a foreign entity or organization sought to gather information on the evolution of both camps' policy issues--information that might be useful in negotiations with a future administration. The Feds assured the Obama team that it had not been hacked by its political opponents (Obama technical experts later speculated that the hackers were Russian or Chinese). A security firm retained by the Obama campaign took steps to secure its computer system and end the intrusion. White House and FBI officials had no comment earlier this week.

Newsweek's 2008 Special Election Issue marks the magazine's seventh consecutive installment of providing a behind-the-scenes account of the entire presidential campaign. It will be on newsstands Nov. 6-16. The exclusive narrative of the campaign is reported by a separate Newsweek Special Project team that worked for more than a year on this historic campaign. The text of the nearly 50,000-word project will be posted in chapters on Newsweek.com Nov. 5-Nov. 7.

Other highlights from the report:

-- McCain himself rarely spoke to Palin during the campaign and aides kept him in the dark about the details of her spending on clothes because they were sure he would be offended. Palin asked to speak along with McCain at his Arizona concession speech but campaign strategist Steve Schmidt vetoed the request.

-- The Obama campaign was provided with reports from the Secret Service showing a sharp and very disturbing increase in threats to Obama in September and early October, at the same time that the crowds at Palin rallies became more frenzied. Michelle Obama was shaken by the vituperative crowds and the hot rhetoric from the GOP candidates. "Why would they try to make people hate us?" Michelle Obama said to a top campaign aide.

-- On the Sunday night before the last debate, McCain's core group of advisers--Steve Schmidt, Rick Davis, adman Fred Davis, strategist Greg Strimple, pollster Bill McInturff and strategy director Sarah Simmons -- met to decide whether or not to tell McCain that the race was effectively over, that he no longer had a chance to win. The consensus in the room was no, not yet, not while he still had "a pulse."

-- The Obama campaign's "New Media" experts created a computer program that would allow a "flusher"--the term for a volunteer who rounds up nonvoters on Election Day--to know exactly who had, and had not, voted in real time. They dubbed it Project Houdini, because of the way names disappear off the list instantly once people are identified as they wait in line at their local polling station.

-- Palin launched her attack on Obama's association with William Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber, before the campaign had finalized a plan to raise the issue. McCain's advisers were working on a strategy that they hoped to unveil the following week, but McCain had not signed off on it, and top adviser Mark Salter was resisting.

-- McCain also was reluctant to use Obama's incendiary pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a campaign issue. He had set firm boundaries: no Jeremiah Wright; no attacking Michelle Obama; no attacking Obama for not serving in the military. McCain balked at an ad using images of children that suggested that Obama might not protect them from terrorism; Schmidt vetoed ads suggesting that Obama was soft on crime (no Willie Hortons); and before word even got to McCain, Schmidt and Salter scuttled a "celebrity" ad of Obama dancing with talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (the sight of a black man dancing with a lesbian was deemed too provocative).

-- Obama was never inclined to choose Sen. Hillary Clinton as his running mate, not so much because she had been his sometime bitter rival on the campaign trail, but because of her husband. Still, as Hillary's name came up in veep discussions, and Obama's advisers gave all the reasons why she should be kept off the ticket, Obama would stop and ask, "Are we sure?" He needed to be convinced one more time that the Clintons would do more harm than good. McCain, on the other hand, was relieved to face Biden as the veep choice, and not Hillary Clinton, whom the McCain camp had truly feared.

-- McCain was dumbfounded when Congressman John Lewis, a civil-rights hero, issued a press release comparing McCain with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a segregationist infamous for stirring racial fears. McCain had devoted a chapter to Lewis in one of his books, "Why Courage Matters" and had so admired Lewis that he had once taken his children to meet him.

-- The debates unnerved both candidates. When he was preparing for the Democratic primary debates, Obama was recorded saying, "I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me ... answer it.' So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."