Trump officials brief Congress on election cyber threats behind closed doors

Trump officials brief Congress on election cyber threats behind closed doors
© Greg Nash

Top U.S. officials briefed members of Congress behind closed doors Tuesday on hacking threats to upcoming elections and efforts by the Trump administration to counter them. 

The classified briefing on election security took place Tuesday morning in the U.S. Capitol as voters in Arkansas, Georgia, Texas and Kentucky headed to the polls.

The briefing, arranged by House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow the Trump tax law passed: Dealing with a health care hangover Dems fight to protect Mueller amid Rosenstein rumors Jordan wants Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee MORE (R-Wis.), represented an effort by Republicans in Congress and the administration to address mounting concerns about the security of U.S. voting infrastructure following Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Russia’s efforts included targeting state voter registration databases and other digital election systems.

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Democrats have accused President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: Dems playing destructive 'con game' with Kavanaugh Several Yale Law classmates who backed Kavanaugh call for misconduct investigation Freedom Caucus calls on Rosenstein to testify or resign MORE, who has railed against the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling, of turning a blind eye to the threat of future election interference.

“We all remain committed. This is a national security issue,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenWatchdog finds FEMA chief cost government 1K on unauthorized travel: report Webb: The new mob: Anti-American Dems DOJ employee in Project Veritas video says she was fired for confronting Kirstjen Nielsen at restaurant MORE told reporters following the briefing. “We take it very seriously.”

Nielsen, along with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, briefed House lawmakers on the current threat landscape and efforts by the Trump administration to counter future foreign influence operations targeting U.S. elections.

The classified briefing lasted just over an hour Tuesday morning. It was not widely attended — attracting only between 40 and 50 members, by some accounts. 

Most lawmakers emerged tight-lipped from the briefing, unwilling to share details of what they heard. 

“What I was primarily interested in is whether there will be real-time communication with the states if their elections are probed or interfered with or hacked in any way so that we don’t have what we did in 2016 where a year goes by before the states are notified of what the Russians have done,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: Rosenstein drama dominates the day | Biz, regulators focus on 5G revolution | New questions over Trump cyber strategy Dems fight to protect Mueller amid Rosenstein rumors Jordan wants Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters.

“I also want to make sure there is a real-time communication channel between the intelligence community and the tech companies so if they discover the Russians or anyone else creating fake pages, trying to exert covert influence over our elections, that is made known to the tech companies and the tech companies in turn can share information when they see things,” Schiff added. “Those were the nature of my questions, and I can’t get into the answers.”

Lawmakers who were willing to speak provided differing accounts of their satisfaction with the briefing, reaction that broke down along party lines.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulSessions calls on former colleagues to send drone legislation to Trump's desk Hillicon Valley: Manafort to cooperate with Mueller probe | North Korea blasts US over cyber complaint | Lawmakers grill Google over China censorship | Bezos to reveal HQ2 location by year's end Overnight Defense: Details on defense spending bill | NATO chief dismisses talk of renaming HQ for McCain | North Korea warns US over cyber allegations MORE (R-Texas) described it as a comprehensive discussion that gave him confidence in Homeland Security’s efforts to guard state voting systems from cyber sabotage.

“It was a very full discussion, answering all the questions,” McCaul said. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiTrump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin A new law just built a bridge over America’s skills gap Dems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, signaled that the briefing left him unsatisfied.

“I just feel like we need a lot more granularity about what’s being done and we need more information about what has to be done to address vulnerabilities at the state level,” Krishnamoorthi said. 

“Overall, it feels like a bureaucratic response, and I’m not feeling the confidence that we are really addressing the threat square in the face,” he added.

Nielsen and other officials made the case that they are serious about tackling the threat. In a joint statement issued Tuesday morning, Nielsen, Wray and Coats described election security as “an issue that the administration takes seriously and is addressing with urgency.” 

The purpose of Tuesday’s briefing was to clarify the responsibilities of each of the federal agencies involved in guarding against election interference, according to Nielsen. 

The Department of Homeland Security — which found evidence of Russian hackers targeting systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 vote — is taking the lead on helping states secure their digital election assets. Meanwhile, the FBI is working to counter foreign influence operations. Coats was present to provide lawmakers with an overall threat picture. 

“Americans’ votes must count, and they must be counted correctly,” Nielsen said.

Officials provided lawmakers with an unclassified resource guide of the services Homeland Security is offering to state and local officials who request aid, which range from simple cyber "hygiene" scans that can be done remotely to more rigorous risk and vulnerability assessments that require federal officials to be on the ground in states to test their systems. 

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Russia or other foreign adversaries would look to sow discord in future elections — fears that were echoed on Tuesday. 

“As we look forward to the midterm elections in 2018, our concern is that not only Russia but possibly other foreign adversaries are now looking at how they can meddle in the midterm elections, and we need to be prepared,” McCaul said. “We were caught off guard last time.” 

Homeland Security officials have said that there is no current, credible evidence of specific actors looking to target voting systems ahead of the 2018 midterms.

But Nielsen said that, broadly, Russia is looking to engage in future influence operations against the United States.

“We see them continuing to conduct influence campaigns, so yes,” Nielsen told reporters.

Ryan initially scheduled the briefing for last week, to take place in an unclassified setting. GOP leadership postponed it in order to make it classified, after Democrats raised alarm that the unclassified nature would prevent officials from going into great enough detail about the threat.

It is unclear whether Tuesday's briefing will temper Democratic concerns about a lack of urgency on the part of the administration with respect to election security.

Nielsen also opened herself up to criticism when she told reporters following the briefing that she had not seen the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia sought to interfere in the election, in part, to help Trump win.

“I do not believe that I have seen that conclusion,” Nielsen said, though she added that she has “no reason to doubt any intelligence community assessment” in general. A Homeland Security spokesman later defended her comments, saying the reporter's question was misleading and that she agrees with the intelligence community's assessment. 

“The fact that she did not seem aware of the report’s findings while briefing members of Congress on the very important topic of election security is appalling to all who have tried to make progress on this issue since 2016 with little help from Republicans or this Administration,” Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonTrump's Puerto Rico tweets spark backlash Washington to finally focus on threat to supply-chain risk management Mississippi to test limits of Medicaid work requirements MORE (Miss.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.