The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing this morning on Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, and on what the government knows about Russian intentions to meddle in future contests. The Committee heard from three federal officials, two from the Department of Homeland Security, and one from the FBI.
Together, those officials made clear that not only did Russians peddle in propaganda and fake news in an effort boost the fortunes of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016; they also penetrated election systems via cyber warfare.
But they also hinted at another important truth, which a forward looking one. Here it is: The very core of our democracy is at extraordinary risk if we are not prepared to prevent Russian interference in our next election, which is less than 18 months away.
Not only did today’s hearing make clear that election systems remain vulnerable to cyberattack; it also laid bare significant uncertainty in how the government is going about addressing those vulnerabilities. If the public knows that the vulnerabilities exist, but has doubts about how the government plans to fix them, that, in turn, will only damage our democracy further, by reinforcing public doubts about the integrity of the systems and therefore weakening public confidence in our election outcomes.
All of this is just as the Russians want.
In today’s hearing, it emerged that the Department of Homeland Security knows of Russian attempts to hack into election systems in 21 states during the 2016 cycle. This came courtesy of Samuel Liles, the DHS’s acting director of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division — though he was quick to add that the hack didn’t have any impact on voting tallies or outcomes. The efforts amounted to a “scan of vulnerabilities,” Liles said, likening it to casing the neighborhood to collect information to aid possible future efforts to infiltrate these computer systems. Election results were not altered. This time, at least.
But that was the only bit of good news, if it could even be characterized as good, to emerge from the hearing.
One official starkly laid out not just how brazen the Russians’ 2016 efforts were — but also that there’s little doubt that they will continue to pursue these efforts in 2018 and beyond. Bill Priestap, Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Division at the FBI, noted that, while the Kremlin has engaged in influence operations since the Cold War era, its 2016 efforts were “its boldest to date in the United States,” and included “a multi-faceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” This approach included discrediting Hillary Clinton, the “weaponization of stolen cyber information” (such as that stolen from the Democratic National Committee); and the use of trolls and social media to further spread propaganda and misinformation. According to Priestap, the Russians could use data obtained this cycle to “determine whether it can be manipulated going forward,” in order to influence future elections.
This was further commented on by ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA), who said, “the bad news is this will not be their [the Russians’] last attempt,” adding that he was “deeply concerned” about future Russian “efforts to undermine confidence in our whole electoral system.” Indeed erosion of Americans’ confidence in the integrity of our election system is a a central goal of Russian active measures — which is why the hearing’s exposure of what appears to be a disjointed, opaque approach to combating the hacks was so alarming.
Unfortunately, however, DHS was in many cases unwilling to communicate basic information. Senators of both parties expressed frustration with the refusal to specify things such as which states, beyond Arizona and Illinois, were among the 21 whose systems were infiltrated by Russian actors — and about how DHS is working with state and local officials to prevent future cyber attacks.
This could have far reaching implications — if voters know that the cyber warfare has taken place, but remain unclear about its scope and effect, or about how it might be used again, that can fuel suspicion and distrust. As Marco Rubio (R-FL) put it, “Even the news that a hacker from a foreign government could have gotten into a computer system” could “create the specter of a losing candidate arguing the election was rigged.” In other words, without clear and accurate information about the nature of the attacks — and, crucially, how the government is preventing future ones — there is an open door for trolling, fake news, and conspiracy theories that further undermine voters’ confidence in the integrity of democratic processes.
Lawmakers were not alone in their frustration. Secretaries of state, who oversee the election process in 40 states, complained in their testimony that DHS has failed to share vital information with them about their own cyber vulnerabilities. What’s more, the extent of Russian penetration remains unknown. These secretaries of state, it emerged, themselves do not know which states are among the 21 whose systems were infiltrated by Russian cyber warfare, an information gap Warner described as “stunning.” And in an ominous moment, the FBI’s Priestap declined to answer a question about whether Russians had installed malware in penetrated systems, because of the pending special counsel investigation into Russian interference.
“The key lesson from 2016 is that hacking threats are real,” summed up J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan and a cybersecurity expert. “There is no doubt that Russia has the technical ability to commit widescale attacks against our voting system, as do other hostile nations.”
This is not a partisan issue, or an occasion for finger-pointing. Urgent solutions are needed — and ensuring Congressional oversight of that could well be the most vital work on the Committee’s agenda in the coming months. This will require not only well-coordinated efforts by officials within DHS who are working with state and local elections officials, but will also demand that Republicans abandon President Trump’s efforts to discredit the entire Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.” Our democracy depends on it.