At a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, former Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testified that the Russia government launched an unprecedented attack on the US presidential election and that he had repeatedly warned state officials about the possibility of voting systems being targeted.
Johnson and other Obama administration officials were wary about alerting the public or taking any concrete steps to ensure that states had immediate access to cybersecurity aid because, he said, they felt they had to avoid the appearance of meddling in the election.
Specifically, Donald Trump’s public accusations that the election was being “rigged” against him hindered Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation from speaking out sooner, Johnson said.
Last summer, after learning that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, Johnson became aware of reports indicating various state voter registration databases had been probed by hackers who were searching for vulnerabilities. He had by that time already floated the idea of designating the US election system as critical infrastructure, a move which would give states swifter access to DHS assistance in the event of an attack.
The reaction to this idea, he said, ranged from “neutral to negative,” with many state election officials depicting it as an attempt by the federal government to intrude upon the states’ “exclusive responsibility” to run the election.
Johnson’s plans were derailed by the highly charged campaign atmosphere in which the Republican presidential candidate repeatedly flung accusations that the vote would be falsified to favor his opponent. Applying the critical infrastructure designation amid the contentious campaign would have been “counterproductive,” Johnson said. “Instead, and more importantly in the time left before the election, we encouraged the states to seek our cybersecurity help.”
Johnson testified under oath that only 33 states and 36 cities took him up on his offer to use DHS equipment to scan voting systems for election vulnerabilities.
Two months after the election, Johnson moved to place election equipment under the umbrella of “government facilities,” one of 16 critical infrastructure sectors which include military installations, embassies, and national laboratories. Polling and vote tabulation locations, among other facilities, would receive prioritized cybersecurity assistance, he wrote in a January 6 statement.
He also sought to assuage state officials’ fears that the plan would lead to the federalization of elections: “This designation does nothing to change the role state and local governments have in administering and running elections,” he said.
In March, Homeland Security’s new leadership under Trump announced it intended to keep the critical infrastructure designation in place.
Asked by Rep. Adam Schiff why the Obama White House didn’t move sooner to alert the country to the threat, Johnson said Wednesday that it was about avoiding a bad appearance: “We were very concerned that we not be perceived as taking sides in the election, injecting ourselves into a very heated campaign or taking steps to themselves delegitimize the election process,” Johnson said.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg, citing anonymous sources familiar with the nationwide investigation, reported that Russian hackers attacked election systems in as many as 39 states. (Samuel Liles, DHS’s acting director of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division, provided a smaller number Wednesday, saying election systems in 21 states were probed by hackers seeking vulnerabilities.) In Illinois, for example, investigators reportedly discovered forensic evidence pointing to an attempt by the hackers to delete or alter voter data. And, with the help of a leaked classified intelligence report, The Intercept further reported that hackers allied with Russian intelligence targeted more than 100 election officials with phishing emails just before Election Day. At least one US voting software supplier was also attacked, according to the classified report.
Johnson further testified that, prior to the election, he became convinced that the American public needed to know “what the Russian government was doing.” However, both he and FBI Director James Comey were hesitant to do so, he said, if only to avoid the appearance of aiding Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, on October 7, Johnson and Comey released a joint statement describing the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine the US vote by way of “thefts and disclosures,” while also noting that some states had “seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems.”
Johnson added he believed it was essential the announcement be made to American citizens before the election. “I think the larger issue is it did not get the public attention that it should have because the same day the press was focused on the release of the Access Hollywood video,” he said, referring to the video which shows Trump boasting about kissing women and groping their genitals without their consent.