Lawmakers told of growing cyber threat to election systems

Lawmakers on Wednesday learned that federal officials have evidence that election-related systems in 21 states were targeted by Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee received the information amid growing concerns on Capitol Hill about the possibility of foreign interference in future electoral processes.

“We could be here in two or four years talking about a much worse crisis,” said Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrLawmakers grapple with warrantless wiretapping program Facebook under fire over Russian ads in election 5 senators call for US to shutter embassy in Havana MORE (R-N.C.) at the hearing Wednesday morning. 

The hearing represented a rare moment where the committee’s investigation into Russian election interference was not focused on possible connections between associates of President Trump’s campaign and Moscow. 

The issue has dogged Trump for months, expanding to the question of potential obstruction of justice in light of testimony from former FBI Director James Comey about the circumstances of his firing in early May.

Instead, lawmakers sought information about the scope of Russia’s targeting of state and local electoral systems and what the federal government is doing to mitigate threats to elections in 2018 and 2020. 

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pointed to evidence that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 states — none of which were involved in vote tallying — and that a small number of the networks were successfully breached. 

The intelligence community had referred to Russian intelligence’s accessing of elements of state and local electoral boards in an unclassified report released in January, but a DHS official provided new details Wednesday. 

“We have evidence of election-related systems in 21 states that were targeted,” said Jeanette Manfra, acting deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications at the DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorate. 

Bill Priestap, assistant director of FBI’s counterintelligence division, said that the bureau has a number of ongoing investigations into the targeting efforts. 

Still, the officials refused to disclose the names of the states targeted or the number that had any data stolen, prompting objections from some lawmakers. Previously, authorities have confirmed that foreign actors breached voter databases in both Arizona and Illinois, but media reports have previously indicated the scope was much greater.

“I do not believe that this country is made safer by holding this information back from the public,” said Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain Facebook under fire over Russian ads in election MORE (D-Va.), who sent a letter to the DHS this week asking that the scope of the attempts be made public. “I am not trying to embarrass any state.” 

DHS officials offered a stern defense of their efforts to engage with state and local election officials on cyber threats and incident response. Manfra touted the department’s designation of election infrastructure as critical — a move made by the Obama administration — as important to bring better cyber protections to election systems. Some state-level officials are opposed to the designation. 

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers indicated the need for swift action by the federal government to do more to work with state and local officials to better safeguard election infrastructure from cyberattacks. 

“We have elections in 2018, but in my home state of Virginia, we have statewide elections this year,” Warner observed. “This needs a sense of urgency.”

Priestap’s testimony qualified worries about the potential for future foreign interference, pointing to a history of Russian influence operations but describing the 2016 effort as the largest in scale and aggressiveness. 

“No doubt they will continue,” Priestap said.