Dem election task force to hear from Obama Homeland Security chief

Dem election task force to hear from Obama Homeland Security chief
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A task force of congressional Democrats is slated to meet with an Obama-era Homeland Security secretary this week as part of an ongoing effort to address cyber threats to election infrastructure.

The election security task force announced that it will host a public forum on Thursday featuring Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Obama administration.

News of the forum comes days after the DHS notified nearly two dozen states that they were targeted by Russian hackers ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

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It was Johnson who was responsible for engaging with state-level officials on cybersecurity ahead of the election last year. The department offered voluntary cybersecurity assistance to states to shore up their systems ahead of the vote.

Some state election officials have been critical of Johnson’s engagement, saying that states were not given enough information on the threat from Russia ahead of the presidential vote.

It was also Johnson who, in the waning days of the Obama administration, moved to designate election infrastructure as "critical infrastructure," opening voting systems and polling places up to federal protections in the event that states request it. State and local officials have been skeptical of the designation, fearing it could amount to a federal takeover of elections.

Johnson will appear Thursday alongside Suzanne Spaulding, a former high-level cybersecurity official at the DHS, at the public forum hosted by the Congressional Task Force on Election Security.

In a public assessment released in January, the U.S. intelligence community accused Russia of waging an interference campaign against the election, which included targeting state and local electoral systems not involved in vote tallying. Since then, officials have pointed to evidence that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 different states.

Last Friday, the DHS notified all 21 states of Russian attempts to probe their systems. Many of the attempts were unsuccessful, though it was previously revealed that voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois were breached. 

“Recent news reminds us that Russia targeted voting infrastructure in at least 21 states last year in a direct attack on our democracy,” Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.), the leaders of the Democratic task force, said in a statement Tuesday. “Looking forward, the American people expect us to investigate our vulnerabilities and do whatever possible to prevent this from happening again.” 

They accused Republicans in Congress of “refusing to investigate” the matter. 

Thompson and Brady announced plans to set up the election security task force in June, expressing frustration at a lack of focus on threats to election systems by the Homeland Security and Administration committees. 

The House and Senate Intelligence committees are currently investigating Russian interference in the election, a matter that is also under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller at the Justice Department.