WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama’s secretary of homeland security says that his efforts to protect the country from Russian cyberattacks last year were twice rebuffed — first by the Democratic National Committee and then later by state election officials who feared he was plotting an unwarranted “federal takeover” of the U.S. election system.
The comments by ex-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, made in prepared testimony for the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, underscore the frustrations that the Obama administration had last year in dealing with a Russian state-sponsored cyberattack on the 2016 election that was far more extensive and sophisticated than was publicly realized at the time.
When he convened a conference call of state officials Aug. 15 of last year to tell them he was planning to designate the country’s election system as part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” — a move that would have provided extensive federal cybersecurity protections similar to that given to power grids, dams and financial services — the reaction, “to my disappointment,” was “neutral to negative,” Johnson says.
“Those who expressed negative views stated that running elections in this country was the sovereign and exclusive responsibility of the states, and they did not want federal intrusion, a federal takeover or federal regulation of that process,” says Johnson. “This was a profound misunderstanding of what a critical designation would mean, which I tried to clarify for them.”
Yahoo News first reported two weeks after Johnson’s conference call that foreign hackers possibly linked to Russia had penetrated the voting registration databases of two states, Illinois and Arizona, prompting the FBI to issue a warning to state election officials throughout the country about attempted intrusions. A top DHS official, acting Undersecretary Jeanette Manfra, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that election systems in 21 states were targeted in the Russian cyberattack last year.
But sources have also told Yahoo News that much of the resistance on Johnson’s conference call came from Republican secretaries of state who suspected a partisan motive in the Obama administration’s efforts to bolster cybersecurity protections of state voting systems.
The resistance caused Johnson and top Homeland Security officials to conclude that making the critical infrastructure designation during the election season would be “counterproductive” and he put the idea “on the back burner,” the former secretary says in his testimony. (He later made the designation after the election.)
Johnson also reveals in his testimony that he got similar pushback when he offered to provide homeland security protections to the DNC after he learned about the Russian cyberattack on its computer system.
When he learned of the hack of the DNC, “I pressed my staff to know whether DHS [Department of Homeland Security] was sufficiently proactive, and on the scene helping the DNC identify the intruders and patch vulnerabilities,” Johnson says. “The answer, to the best of my recollection, was not reassuring: The FBI and the DNC had been in contact with each other months before about the intrusion, and the DNC did not feel it needed DHS’s assistance at that time.”
Just how much of a difference Johnson’s efforts would have made in protecting the DNC and state election systems is far from clear. At the time that the DHS reached out to the DNC, the Russian intrusion had already taken place and would be deemed far more serious weeks later, in mid July, when WikiLeaks began dumping internal committee emails on its website — the first clear sign that the Russians had decided to “weaponize” the material they had hacked to potentially influence American voters.
The day after White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters he was unable to say whether President Trump accepted that the Russians had hacked the 2016 election, Johnson made it clear there was no doubt in his mind what had happened. Echoing the formal conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community, he says in his testimony that the Russian government “at the direction of Vladimir Putin himself” orchestrated the attacks “for the purpose of influencing our election — plain and simple.”
He also warns more broadly that “cyberattacks of all manner and from multiple sources are going to get worse before they get better” and “at this moment, those on offense have the upper hand.”
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