Senior Admin Officials Warn Congress on Election Hacking Threats

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, in Washington. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Senior Trump administration officials warned Congress on Tuesday of ongoing efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2018 midterm congressional elections as the federal government prepares to hand out $380 million in election security funding to states.

At a briefing attended by 40 or more members of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, the heads of the FBI and the Homeland Security Department and the director of national intelligence told members to urge states and cities overseeing elections to be prepared for threats.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters she agreed Russia was trying to influence the 2018 elections.

“We see them continuing to conduct foreign influence campaigns,” Nielsen said, but added there was no evidence that Russia had been targeting specific races.

Nielsen said DHS was watching other countries that have the capability to influence U.S. elections, including China and Iran. “We need to be prepared,” she said.

Chris Krebs, a senior cybersecurity official at the DHS, told Reuters in an interview that he expected the $380 million approved by Congress in March to help safeguard U.S. voting systems from cyberattacks to be distributed to states later this week.

DHS is assisting 48 states with election security and handed out a chart at the briefing to members seen by Reuters that said states need to have auditable systems; spend time on planning, training and drills; and should “consider investing in full system architecture reviews.”

Russia among others

Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said after the briefing that members were concerned that “not only Russia but possibly other foreign adversaries are now going to start looking at how they can meddle in the midterm elections and we need to be prepared. We were caught off guard last time.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian leadership at a very high level was involved in the attempt to interfere in the U.S. election in order to boost President Donald Trump’s candidacy. Russia has denied interfering in U.S. elections.

Several Democrats said after the briefing that they were worried that the federal government was not doing enough to safeguard elections. “I think there is a lot of concern that we are not up to par,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat.

DHS said in March it is prioritizing election cybersecurity above all other critical infrastructure it protects. The agency has said that 21 states had experienced initial probing of their systems from Russian hackers in 2016 and that a small number of networks were compromised, but that there remained no evidence any votes were actually altered.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters after the briefing the federal government should quickly alert states if they learn of election system hacking.

He also wants a “real-time communications channel” between the intelligence community and technology companies in order to assure that internet firms are notified if evidence emerges that Russia is creating fake Facebook pages or taking other actions to try to influence the elections.

By: Walter Metuth