Senate Intel Committee Unveils Election Security Report In Wake Of Mueller Hearings

Jul 25, 2019
Originally published on July 25, 2019 5:30 pm

Updated at 3:59 p.m. ET

The Senate intelligence committee has released its report detailing Russia's targeting of election systems in 2016 along with recommendations for protecting American elections from foreign interference.

The committee's final report on election security appeared Thursday as the 2020 presidential race gets underway in what promises to be a bitter and divisive election battle.

It also followed former Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's stark warning to lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia's sprawling influence operation of 2016 was not a one-and-done.

"No, it wasn't a single attempt," Mueller said during some six hours of testimony about his Russia investigation, before two House committees. "They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign."

The leaders of the Senate intelligence committee echoed that warning in unveiling their election security report on Thursday, while also hailing the steps they said have been taken since 2016.

"The Department of Homeland Security and state and local elections officials have dramatically changed how they approach election security, working together to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities," said Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C.

"The progress they've made over the last three years is a testament to what we can accomplish when we give people the opportunity to be part of a solution. There is still much work that remains to be done, however."

Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said he wants the findings to fuel more work by agencies and in the Congress to support election security.

"I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it," he said.

Findings

The Justice Department indicted 25 Russian nationals and three Russian entities because of their alleged role in the Kremlin's active measures campaign against the 2016 U.S. vote.

The special counsel's final report documents in detail those efforts, which started as early as 2014 when Russian operatives traveled to the U.S. on an intelligence-gathering mission.

The Senate intelligence committee's report, meanwhile, adds to the U.S. government's now sizable reporting on Russia's interference operations.

Those efforts included the hacking of Democratic Party computer systems, a social media disinformation campaign to sow discord among Americans and the probing of state election infrastructure.

The committee and Department of Homeland Security have said Russian-affiliated hackers probed the election systems of 21 states. Officials say there's no evidence that vote tallies were changed.

But in 2016, the U.S. political and election system also were slow to respond to a threat that few foresaw.

"Russian efforts exploited the seams between federal authorities and capabilities, and protections for the states," the Senate report found. "State election officials, who have primacy in running elections, were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a hostile nation-state actor."

In its report, the Senate intelligence committee says that must change.

Agencies at the federal, state and local level need to be more aware of cyberthreats and quicker to respond to them. And the committee provides several recommendations to help protect America's elections.

Cyber prescriptions

One, for example, is that U.S. intelligence agencies should put a high priority on attributing cyberattacks quickly and DHS should create clear channels of communication between the federal government and the states.

States and local jurisdictions, which administer elections in the U.S., need to replace old, outdated voting systems that are vulnerable to cyberattacks, the committee said.

There is a growing consensus in Congress about the need to protect elections from foreign interference, and several members of Congress, including Warner, have proposed legislation to address various aspects of the problem.

But those proposals still appear to face an uphill climb in Congress, in part because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., views many of the ideas as unnecessary.

Warner has proposed placing new restrictions on social media platforms, mandating paper ballot backups for every vote cast in the United States and requiring U.S. political campaigns to report contacts with foreign agents.

McConnell and other skeptics point to the progress they say has been made since 2016 and cite the comparatively smooth working of the 2018 midterm elections as evidence that no major overhaul is needed.

The Senate majority leader also opposes a major bill for philosophical reasons, warning about what he calls the danger of "federalizing" a duty mostly discharged by state and local officials.

The Senate intelligence committee's report on Thursday both concurred that state and local leaders should retain their primacy over elections and suggested that more work by Congress could be in order to help them.

In particular, the intelligence committee recommended that when the recipients of about $380 million in election-assistance grants have used up all that money, Congress should allocate more.

The Senate committee also called for more deterrence in the geopolitical realm, to make clear to nations such as Russia that election interference would bring a response.

"The United States should communicate to adversaries that it will view an attack on its election infrastructure as a hostile act and respond accordingly," Burr and Warner's office said in a statement.

"The U.S. government should not limit its response to cyber activity; rather, it should create a menu of potential responses that will send a clear message and create significant costs for the perpetrator."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Yesterday former special counsel Robert Mueller told Congress that Russia's interference in American elections is not over. In fact, he said it's going on right now and will continue in 2020. Well, today the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the 2016 vote that makes clear just how big a challenge election security remains. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here in the studio.

Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: We've heard a lot about Russia's cyber operations during the 2016 election. What does this report have to say that is new?

LUCAS: We have talked a lot about Russia's hacking of Democratic Party emails and its manipulation of social media, pushing disinformation. Mueller talked about this yesterday. This report, though, deals with a third aspect of Russia's interference, and that's its targeting of state election systems. Remember - elections are run by state and local authorities in this country. The report says that Russia basically kind of exploited the seams that exist between federal authorities here in the U.S. who are responsible for national security and state officials who run these elections. It says Russia began targeting election infrastructure like state voter registration databases back in 2014. They were using cyberattacks. And it says intelligence suggests that Russian hackers were scanning systems in one form or another in all 50 U.S. states.

SHAPIRO: But the big question is, why? Like, what did they get from being in these systems?

LUCAS: The report - disappointingly, in a sense, I guess - says Russia's intentions are still unclear at this point. It does suggest a couple of possibilities - traditional espionage. They say Russia may have intended to exploit the vulnerabilities that they discovered but ultimately decided not to. They may - say they may be holding back, and they may exploit them at a later date. There is agreement, though, that this sort of activity fits into an overall goal of Russia's and that is undermining confidence in the integrity of elections in the U.S., and more broadly, in democracy here in this country.

SHAPIRO: I mean, I think the big question that a lot of voters have is, was the vote tally changed? Does this report say anything about that?

LUCAS: It says the same thing that we've heard from U.S. officials for a while, and that's that there's no evidence that any of the vote tallies were changed.

SHAPIRO: But they haven't definitively proved that it didn't happen either.

LUCAS: Right. Right. The report also says that there's no evidence that any voting machines were manipulated. But along with what you said, it says that the committee's insight and the insight that the U.S. intelligence community has on this question is limited, which is kind of a chilling thing to hear. One thing that is clear, though, is that the U.S. political system at every level - state, local, federal - was unprepared for this sort of cyber assault. One example that they cite is that back in the summer of 2016, as all of this was going on, federal officials told states. They alerted them. But the information was either too vague or too thin to be of any sort of use. And sometimes it even went to the wrong people.

SHAPIRO: And do they make recommendations for what to do now?

LUCAS: They do. One recommendation that the report says is that the U.S. needs to find a way to deter these sorts of attacks. It also suggests better coordination and information-sharing about the threats, replacing outdated voting systems and, of course, getting more money to states - always that money question.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.