DHS official: No sign of Russia targeting midterms ‘to the level of 2016’

DHS official: No sign of Russia targeting midterms ‘to the level of 2016’
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A top official at the Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday that intelligence officials have seen no evidence of Russia trying to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections that “rises to the level of 2016.”

However, the intelligence community continues to see Russian attempts to use social media and other avenues to identify divisive issues and sow discord among the American public, Christopher Krebs, who leads Homeland Security’s cybersecurity unit, said during congressional testimony.

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“We are not seeing … anything that rises to the level of 2016–directed, focused, robust campaign,” Krebs told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday. But, he added, “the intelligence community continues to see Russian activity in the sowing discord across the American public.”

According to U.S. officials, Russia waged a multifaceted campaign to interfere in the 2016 election that included efforts to target or hack into digital state election systems, successful breaches targeting top Democratic officials and the spread of disinformation.

Homeland Security detected evidence of Moscow-linked hackers scanning election-related systems — but not actual voting machines — in 21 states for vulnerabilities. In a small number of cases, officials say, hackers were successful in breaching systems. Illinois saw its voter registration database breached ahead of the 2016 vote, but state officials say no data was changed or deleted.

As the primary elections for the November midterms have gotten underway, Krebs said that Homeland Security has “not seen anything, certainly, to the degree of 2016 in terms of specific hacking of election systems.” 

But he said intelligence shows that Russia continues to engage in information operations, though not on the scale that Moscow did in 2016. Those efforts, Krebs said, have not been directed specifically at the midterms, politicians or political campaigns, but instead have been aimed at sowing discord. Moscow is using “social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesman, and other means to influence or inflame positions on opposite ends of controversial issues,” he said.

Moscow’s aims in 2016, officials concluded last year, were to undermine democracy, damage Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE and help Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE win the White House. 

For more than a year, Homeland Security officials have taken steps to help states secure their voting systems, offering remote cyber hygiene scans and more rigorous assessments that probe for potential vulnerabilities. Federal officials have also stepped up information sharing on cyber threats with state and local election officials.

Krebs’ remarks come several months after top U.S. intelligence officials warned that Russia was likely to try to interfere in the midterms, though they spoke of no concrete evidence bolstering that conclusion.

Krebs warned that the midterms are still a “potential target” for interference by Moscow. Indeed, Homeland Security did not begin to detect robust evidence of Russian hackers targeting state electoral systems until summer 2016 — almost precisely two years ago.

“We remain vigilant and any attempt to undermine our democracy will be met with consequences,” Krebs said in his opening remarks.

Krebs is the undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate — an entity within Homeland Security that works to secure federal networks and guard critical infrastructure from cyber and physical threats. 

Krebs, a former Homeland Security official during the George W. Bush administration, was confirmed to the post by the Senate in June after serving in the position in an acting capacity for about a year.