PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. homeland security secretary said on Saturday there are no signs that Russia is targeting this year’s midterm elections with the same “scale or scope” it targeted the 2016 presidential election.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen spoke at a convention of state secretaries of state, an event that’s usually a low-key affair highlighting voter registration, balloting devices and election security issues that don’t get much public attention. But coming amid fresh allegations into Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 election, the sessions on election security have a higher level of urgency and interest.
Nielsen said her agency will help state and local election officials prepare their systems for cyberattacks from Russia or elsewhere. She said U.S. intelligence officials are seeing “persistent Russian efforts using social media, sympathetic spokespeople and other fronts to sow discord and divisiveness amongst the American people, though not necessarily focused on specific politicians or political campaigns.”
The conference of top state election officials she addressed was sandwiched between Friday’s indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers alleged to have hacked into Democratic party and campaign accounts and Monday’s long-awaited meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump has never condemned Russia over meddling in the 2016 election despite the findings of all top U.S. intelligence agencies, and the Kremlin has insisted it didn’t meddle in the U.S. election. In the past, Trump has reiterated Putin’s denials, but this week he said he would bring up the issue when they meet on Monday in Finland.
“All I can do is say, ‘Did you?'” Trump said days ago at a news conference in Brussels. “And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”
Some of the state officials who run elections say it’s important for Trump, a Republican, to take a tougher stance to avoid having the public’s confidence in fair elections undermined.
“I believe as commander in chief he has an obligation to address it and, frankly, put Putin and any other foreign nation that seeks to undermine our democracy on notice that the actions will not be tolerated,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in an interview this week.
Some of his peers declined to go that far.
“I don’t go around telling the president what to do,” said Jay Ashcroft, the Republican secretary of state in Missouri.
Trump portrays the investigation as a partisan attack, but not all Republicans see it that way. This month, the Republicans and Democrats on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee backed the findings of an assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election and acted in favor of Trump and against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
As part of that effort, Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states ahead of the election and are believed to have breached the voter registration system in at least one, Illinois, investigators say. Without naming the state, Friday’s indictment said the Russian intelligence officers stole information on about 500,000 voters from the website of one board of elections, a breach undetected for three weeks.
There’s no evidence results were altered, but the attempts prompted the federal government and states to re-examine election systems and tighten their cybersecurity.
Federal officials also say it’s possible that malware might have been planted that could tamper with voting or paralyze computer systems in future elections.
The election officials talked about technical details of blocking an incursion.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, told her peers how her state is using its National Guard to help test and shore up cybersecurity for elections. She said it’s important to make it clear to voters that the military is not running elections and does not have access to election data.
“The whole idea of this is to instill confidence in voters and the public that the system is secure,” Wyman said in an interview.
Some state officials also said Homeland Security is becoming more helpful in sharing information.
On Friday, a federal grand jury indicted the 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges they hacked into Democratic campaign networks in 2016 and then stole and released tens of thousands of documents. The indictment says one of the intrusions came that summer, on a vendor whose software is used to verify voter registration information. The indictment references a spoof email it says the Russian agents sent to more than 100 election-managing customers of the vendor to try to get more information.
“The indictments tell us that … no longer can we deny in any shape or form that Russians were involved,” said cybersecurity expert Sam Woolley, of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California.