DHS chief issues stern warning to Russia, others on election meddling, cyberattacks

DHS chief issues stern warning to Russia, others on election meddling, cyberattacks
© Greg Nash

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenThe Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers MORE issued a stern warning to Russia and other countries looking to meddle in future U.S. elections, saying that the U.S. government will consider all options “seen and unseen” for responding to malicious attacks in cyberspace.

“The United States, as you know, possesses a spectrum of response options both seen and unseen, and we will use them to call out malign behavior, punish it and deter future cyber hostility,” Nielsen said in keynote remarks at the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. 

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“Our cyber defenses help guard our very democracy and all we hold dear. To those who would try to attack our democracy to affect our elections, to affect the elections of our allies, to undermine our national sovereignty, I have a simple word of warning: Don’t,” Nielsen said.

Homeland Security officials last year disclosed that Russia tried to hack into voting systems in 21 states before the 2016 presidential election, as part of a broader effort to interfere in the vote. The revelation has spurred concerns that Russia or other nations would look to meddle in future votes, including the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

The activity prompted the Obama administration to designate election systems as “critical infrastructure” and open it up to voluntary federal protections, a move that initially prompted criticism from state officials who feared federal takeover. The Trump administration has kept the designation in place.

Under Nielsen’s leadership, the Department of Homeland Security is providing voluntary assistance to state and local officials administering elections to secure their voting infrastructure, including testing their digital systems for potential vulnerabilities. The department is also working to share sensitive threat information with states. 

On Tuesday, Nielsen said she is confident that the department is doing everything it can to help secure election infrastructure, though she acknowledged that officials need to continue to forge better partnerships with state election officials.

“We do need to continue to move forward and do more,” Nielsen said. “It’s a continuous attack circumstance here.”

Russian interference has continued to attract massive attention in Washington since the 2016 election, as special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE has pressed forward with the investigation into whether there was coordination between President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE’s campaign and Moscow. 

Trump has often lashed out against the special counsel probe, calling allegations of collusion a “witch hunt.” Some have criticized the president for undermining his administration’s efforts to call Russia out for its bad behavior.

Nielsen insisted Tuesday that Trump is committed to preventing future meddling in U.S. elections by Russia or other any other foreign actor.

“I’m very confident that the president and I are both committed to ensuring that we do all we can do to prevent any meddling in the election,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen took the helm at Homeland Security last December. She previously served as chief of staff for John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, who served as Homeland Security secretary during the early months of the Trump administration before the president tapped him as White House chief of staff last summer. Nielsen, a former Bush Homeland Security official, is widely cheered for her expertise on cybersecurity.

During her remarks Tuesday, Nielsen broadly laid out Homeland Security’s priorities with respect to cyber, noting that the department is working to adopt a “more forward-leaning approach” to address evolving and compounding threats. 

“The threat picture is getting dimmer, not brighter,” Nielsen acknowledged. 

She said the department is focused on evaluating “systemic risks” that could have a cascading effect on U.S. critical services, making sure that systems can quickly recover in the event of successful attacks and determining how to deter adversaries from carrying out malicious cyber activity.

“The threats are so severe that if we don’t start identifying and punishing our assailants, they will overtake us and the cost of interconnectivity will start to outweigh the many benefits,” Nielsen warned.