GOP chairman seeks Obama-era communications, docs on Russian interference
The Republican chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee is pressing officials to unearth Obama-era documents used to brief Congress in September 2016 on Russian attempts to interfere in the presidential election.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is asking the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for documents used to prepare officials for the 2016 briefing, during which he says Obama administration officials assured lawmakers they “had the matter under control.”
The documents requested by Ron Johnson include communications among then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, then-FBI Director James Comey, former President Obama’s homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and other U.S. officials, according to a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday and obtained by The Hill.
All three individuals participated in the September 2016 briefing referenced by Ron Johnson.
“The briefers … assured Members that the Administration had the matter under control and asked for Congress’ help in reinforcing public confidence in the election,” Ron Johnson wrote, adding that he is requesting the documents in order “to understand the threat as it existed at the time of the briefing.”
Among his requests, the GOP lawmaker is asking the department to produce all documents used to prepare Jeh Johnson to brief lawmakers at the September briefing, as well as all documents produced by Homeland Security before the briefing about Moscow’s attempts to meddle in the election.
Ron Johnson is also after communications between U.S. officials, including Comey and other FBI officials, about the briefing.
“Please produce all documents and communications between or among Secretary [Jeh] Johnson or any DHS employee, Director Comey or any FBI employee, or Lisa Monaco or any National Security Council employee referring or relating to briefing Members of Congress on the Russian Government’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election on September 8, 2016,” he wrote.
The letter comes following an April committee hearing on cybersecurity that focused in part on the cyber threat to U.S. elections. Homeland Security has disclosed that Russian hackers targeted digital election-related systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 vote, and in a small number of cases breached systems. None of the systems targeted were involved in actual vote tallying, officials said.
At that hearing, Ron Johnson expressed concern about Russian attempts to interfere in the election, but emphasized that the threat to actual voting machines and other digital systems should not be blown “out of proportion” so as to undermine confidence in the security of the voting process.
He also brought up the September 2016 briefing when questioning a Homeland Security cyber official.
“The thrust of that briefing without providing any classified information was Russia’s attempt at this. They’ve attempted to hack into voter files, but the administration has this under control,” Ron Johnson said at the April hearing. “They’re in contact with the states and the main message we want you as members of Congress, because it’s so important in terms of the stability of our democracy, is to let the public know that we’ve got this covered and that the election in November will be legitimate.”
He asked Jeanette Manfra, the Homeland Security official, if that was an “accurate” characterization of the briefing. Manfra replied that it was, saying the officials “laid out the risk as they saw it, the intelligence as we saw it.”
The letter indicates an effort by Ron Johnson to gain more details on the government’s understanding of threats to U.S. election systems leading up to the 2016 vote. Ron Johnson has separately launched an investigation into communications between FBI officials after the Justice Department inspector general unearthed text messages between two officials in which they disparaged President Trump before the election. Those officials were once assisting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference.
The U.S. intelligence community released its unclassified assessment detailing Russia’s multifaceted campaign to interfere in the vote in January 2017, judging that Moscow aimed to undermine U.S. democracy, damage Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump win the White House. Homeland Security did not reveal the scope of Russian targeting of state election systems until months later, in June 2017.
Ron Johnson set a deadline of June 20 for Homeland Security to respond to his request. Ranking member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was copied on the letter.