Democrats sound election security alarm after Russia’s Burisma hack
Congressional Democrats are raising fresh concerns about 2020 election security following a report this week that Russian military officers hacked Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company at the center of President Trump’s impeachment.
Several Democratic lawmakers are viewing the incident, reported by The New York Times on Monday night, as the first major sign that Moscow is gearing up for a repeat of its 2016 election interference. They cited what they call similarities between the Burisma attack and the Democratic National Committee hack four years ago.
Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the hack confirmed that Russia will be back to interfere in U.S. elections this year.
“The Russians are actively engaged in hacking all sorts of sites and businesses, and I am sure there was a political motivation behind it. We know the Russians are going to be actively involved in trying to cause problems in the 2020 election, and this is just a further confirmation of their active involvement in American politics,” Peters told The Hill.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the latest Kremlin-backed cyberattack spells trouble for Election Day.
“The 2020 election is likely to be the most consequential election in modern American history, and I am alarmed by new reports that Russia recently hacked into the Ukrainian gas company at the center of the impeachment trial, as well as Russia’s plans to once again meddle in our elections and in our democracy,” Thompson said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted that Russians “appear to be at it again.”
“According to a new report, they’re hacking information that could be a prelude to more election interference in 2020. And again, it appears aimed to help Trump.”
Silicon Valley firm Area 1 Security said Russian GRU officers used malicious phishing emails to try to steal credentials from Burisma employees and its subsidiaries beginning in November, the Times reported. It’s unclear what the hackers found or what they were looking for.
“The success of phishing relies on authenticity,” the company wrote in its report, adding that the Russian officials were able to “steal account credentials, gain access to internal systems and data, impersonate employees through the unauthorized use of their accounts, and manipulate outcomes successfully.”
Burisma quickly became a household name during the impeachment inquiry into Trump following a government whistleblower report alleging the president pressured his Ukrainian counterpart on a July 25 phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of Burisma between 2014 and 2019.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill in a statement Tuesday that while he couldn’t comment on the Burisma incident, he saw Trump’s involvement with Moscow as giving a “green light” to Russia’s cyber operations.
“When the president of the United States openly courts foreign interference in our elections, and pressures foreign leaders to concoct dirt about his political rivals, no one should be surprised if Russia sees that as a green light to target Donald Trump’s enemies,” Wyden said. “It’s reasonable to assume Russia is seeking not only to steal and leak documents, but also to taint records and fabricate dirt to advance its interests.”
But among Trump’s potential challengers, only a few weighed in on the hack.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released a statement Tuesday condemning the Republican response to both the Burisma incident and to election security concerns overall.
“After our intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, including with thousands of paid ads on Facebook, the New York Times now reports that Russia likely represents the biggest threat of election meddling in 2020, including through disinformation campaigns, promoting hatred, hacking into voting systems, and by exploiting the political divisions sewn by Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “Meanwhile, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell [Ky.], has shown again and again his total disinterest in taking even basic steps to stand up to Russian interference.”
Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), a key Republican who has been involved in pushing for action to shore up voting systems, cautioned against linking the Burisma hack to election security in the U.S.
“I think everybody is speculating,” Lankford said. “It’s always interesting when it’s that particular company. At this point we will get more information about it and the folks that are trying to track it all down.”
Election security has faded in and out of the spotlight on Capitol Hill since the 2016 elections. Last year, the House passed three bills addressing voting rights and election security, but they have all stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Congress has, however, made headway in helping states fund security ahead of 2020, with $425 million included in the recent appropriations bills for states to use for election security. That’s in addition to the $380 million appropriated by Congress for the same purpose in 2018.
But efforts to help states will come under more pressure, Thompson said, now that it’s clear the threat from Russia has not abated.
“Russia showed us their playbook in 2016, and intelligence officials across the government have warned that Russian meddling will only get worse this year,” Thompson said. “The President owes it to all Americans to condemn all forms of election interference and demand [Russian President Vladimir] Putin put a stop to it.”