The Russians are up to their same old dirty tricks it seems — at least according to one Florida Democrat, who claims that hackers successfully hijacked his state’s election infrastructure ahead of midterms.
Sen. Bill Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that Russian hackers “have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.”
Although Nelson insisted that he and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Marco Rubio, were instructed by the Senate Intelligence Committee to notify election supervisors that “the Russians are in their records,” neither Florida officials nor the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could independently verify Nelson’s allegations. In fact, DHS spokesperson Sara Sendek disputed his conclusions, insisting that her federal law enforcement agency is unaware of any new developments on the cyber-security front.
“While we are aware of Senator Nelson’s recent statements, we have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure,” Sendek said in a statement on Wednesday. Pointing to “a number of initiatives” available to Florida officials to help secure their election systems, Sendek also denied any recent intrusion, saying:
We know that in 2016 Russian government cyber actors sought access to U.S. election infrastructure as part of a multifaceted operation directed at the U.S. elections. We continue to assess Russian actors were not able to access vote tallying systems, though we consider all 50 states to have been potential targets.
When asked to provide more concrete proof of the alleged Russian espionage campaign, Nelson would only say that “the threat is real and elections officials – at all levels – need to address the vulnerabilities.” Rubio, meanwhile, refused to comment on the subject.
Follow the money
Sens. Nelson and Rubio have joined together in the past to encourage district officials to take advantage of federal assets designed to protect and preserve critical election infrastructure. The pair wrote and disseminated a letter last month addressed to 67 election supervisors that read in part: “County election boards should not be expected to stand alone against a hostile foreign government.”
“DHS will follow your lead and meet your needs with a tailored set of options,” the senators explained. “We encourage you in the strongest terms to take advantage of those resources, and to let us know about your experience with DHS and FBI.”
As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rubio was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in May to provide cybersecurity funding to improve Florida’s election system. The agency approved nearly $20 million in funding after Rubio wrote aa letter arguing that Florida was targeted by Russians in 2016 and insisting that this could happen again.
Last year, DHS cyber-security chief Jeanette Manfra claimed that 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers prior to the 2016 presidential race, and that “an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.”
However, five of those states, including Texas and California, denied ever being attacked at all. In addition, the National Association of Secretaries of State, a group of senior election officials charged with sanctifying electoral systems, said it was “still only aware of one state voter registration system that was penetrated” during the 2016 election, “and that office made a public statement at the time.”
While the Illinois Board of Elections confirmed in 2016 that voter data had been accessed by Russian hackers, they maintain that the intruders were unsuccessful at altering any files or tainting election results. In fact, when the federal government was pushed for specific details regarding the nature of the threat, officials said that the information was classified and inaccessible to state representatives.
The lack of consensus regarding the nature of Russia’s cyber-espionage threat speaks to the partisanship that has encroached on genuine efforts to rebuff future attacks. The House Intelligence Committee challenged a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released in January 2017, pointing out “shortcomings in the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia came to favor Trump winning the 2016 election.”
While the Obama-era intelligence community concluded that Russia intended to elect President Donald Trump by hacking Democratic Party computers and operating a social media campaign, some Republicans argue that the primary goal behind the cyber-espionage efforts was to cause Americans to doubt the legitimacy of their political institutions.
Many Americans are even doubting the validity of their vote today, and much of their distrust stems from the hysterical response of Democrats who have greatly amplified the effects of Russian intrusion.
But if Russia’s ultimate goal is to sow discord and compromise Americans’ faith in their democracy, they certainly don’t need any more help. Sen. Nelson and other Democratic lawmakers look like they’re batting for Team Moscow when they embellish claims of widespread election tampering.