US officials underscore Russia threat to 2016 elections


Jeh Johnson, who led the Homeland Security Department until the end of the Obama administration, told the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee his department had issued warnings about hacking into voter registration databases.

Panelist Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division, said [PDF] that his agency has not made an assessment of how much the Russian activity had influenced the USA election result, as yet.

Johnson was repeatedly quizzed about whether U.S. officials did enough to warn the public about Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Johnson said he doesn't know whether the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails and other Moscow-directed interference "did in fact alter public opinion, and thereby alter the outcome of the presidential election". But that statement he said "did not get the attention it should have", because of the release of the Access Hollywood tape that day - in which then-candidate Trump boasted of groping and kissing women.

The Department of Homeland Security today confirmed that "election-related systems" in 21 states were targeted by hackers during the 2016 campaign.

Johnson said he was disappointed the DNC would not accept Homeland Security's help in finding its cyber-vulnerabilities.

"They have less people to carry out their activities, so that has certainly had an impact on the number of people", Priestap said.

"It was a nonpartisan interest", Johnson told the intelligence panel Wednesday.

He said he considered having elections systems designated as "critical infrastructure", a classification that would allow for the same cybersecurity protections available to the financial services and transportation sectors.

She said the calls occurred on August 15, September 8 and October 12.

"We made some progress [there], but this is something where I think that a carrot over stick approach is best", Johnson said today.

Jeannette Manfra, a cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, said the decentralized nature of US elections means that an attempt to penetrate state systems and change results would be "virtually impossible" to accomplish without being detected. She reiterated that there was no evidence that any actual votes were manipulated.

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"In 2016 the Russian government, at the direction of Vladimir Putin himself, orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the objective of influencing our election - plain and simple", said Johnson, who warned that cyberattacks would get worse before they get better.

In prepared testimony, Johnson described the steps he took once he learned of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, his fears about a cyberattack on the election itself and his rationale for designating US election systems, including polling places and voter registration databases, as critical infrastructure in early January - two weeks before President Donald Trump's inauguration.

After last year's attempted cyberattacks, Johnson declared USA elections system "critical infrastructure".

While the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign has been known for months, it was the first time US officials have said how many states' electoral systems were targeted. Officials in Arizona and IL had previously confirmed that hackers targeted their voter registration system, though news reports suggested the Russian effort was much broader.

In the second panel, state election officials also indicated that they were working to secure voting systems, with and without federal help.

Jeanatte Manfra, the acting deputy undersecretary of cybersecurity at the DHS, told the Congressional committee the agency had evidence of 21 states being targeted.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, ranking member of the committee, was skeptical of this approach.

"I do not believe our country is made safer by holding this information back from the American public", he said. "I am not trying to embarrass any state".

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said he hoped the Intelligence Committee could reveal as much as possible because of how corrosive Russia's influence efforts have already proven.

"I recall clearly that I was not pleased that we were not in there helping patch this vulnerability", Johnson said.

Rubio told a story about seeing a fake story that said President Obama had "banned" the Pledge of Allegiance - and getting text messages asking him about it.