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Russia is already meddling in U.S. midterm elections, senators warn

“We saw the advent of a serious offensive weapon in 2016, ...and we don’t have a strategy.”

by Taylor Dolven
Mar 21 2018, 5:45pm

Senators at the Capitol Hill hearing on election security Wednesday had a unified message for the Homeland Security chief: The Russian threat to our 2018 elections is already happening, and we need urgent action.

The Senate Intelligence Committee grilled DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former DHS heads about the lack of election security in the 2016 election, and the ongoing threat to the 2018 midterms. Senators urged the department to be more transparent about election vulnerabilities and enact tougher security measures to deter interference.

“We can patch software systems till the end of time and it won’t matter,” said Independent Sen. Angus King from Maine. “We saw the advent of a serious offensive weapon in 2016, all of the patches won’t work unless we have deterrence, and we don’t have that strategy.”

During the 2016 election, Russian hackers penetrated Illinois’ voter registration database and attempted to target 20 other states. They also hacked Democratic campaign email servers and flooded social media with divisive propaganda. Though no votes were changed in 2016 due to the hacking, intelligence officials say Russia is attempting the same kind of interference right now. Senators released their recommendations for election security Tuesday, which include auditable paper ballots, a clear cybersecurity standard, and stronger rhetoric condemning Russian meddling attempts from the U.S. government.

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“The president of the United States is the most visible American, maybe the most visible person on the planet,” said former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. “The things he says and does are watched very closely.”

Senators have been critical of the White House’s passive response to ongoing Russian interference in the midterm elections. The State Department has not spent any of the $120 million allocated to combat election meddling, the New York Times reported earlier this month.

At Wednesday’s hearing, senators pointed out state election system vulnerabilities. Fourteen states used at least some machines without an auditable paper trail in 2016, and five states used only machines without paper trails. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen agreed with the need for paper ballots, or alternative auditable systems. She stressed that election security reforms are voluntary for states, but assured the committee that DHS is working with all states that ask for help. The Department is also working to get three officials from each state, 150 total, federal security clearances so that they can be well briefed on relevant national security threats. So far just 20 officials have received clearances.

“We will read in the appropriate officials that day if we need to whether or not they have clearances,” Nielsen said.

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California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for more transparency, saying the public should know which states have been threatened and whether they are working with DHS to bolster security. Nielsen said making that information public might deter states — “victims,” she called them — from coming forward if they’ve been hacked.

America is the victim, and America has to know what’s wrong,” Feinstein said. “I think states should know what happened. You’re enabling them to not disclose it.”

Feinstein criticized former DHS Secretary Johnson for not raising the alarm about Russian interference to the American public ahead of the 2016 elections. He pointed to a statement he published on Oct. 7, 2016, just one month before the election, bluntly blaming Russia for hacking Democratic party emails.

“It did not get the attention I thought it would get, maybe because of the release of the Access Hollywood video,” Johnson said. The video from 2005, featuring then-reality TV star Donald Trump’s lewd comments about groping women, was released the same day.

The committee has put together a classified report about exactly what went wrong in the 2016 election. Intelligence agencies are reviewing the document for redaction and declassification.

“I think you’re in a key position,” Sen. King told Nielsen. “The classified report will terrify you.”

Cover image: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)