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politics

Most State Election Officials Lack Necessary Clearances, DHS Says

Updated on
  • Just 20 out of 150 state officials have full clearances
  • Nielsen endorses voter-verified, auditable paper ballots

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said only about 20 out of a targeted 150 state officials have full security clearances needed to receive classified information on cybersecurity threats to their elections, with the midterm congressional primaries already underway.

Nielsen, under fire Wednesday from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security, said her department is willing to give key state officials temporary clearances to see classified information when needed. But she added that “it will require a significant investment over time” to improve state voting systems -- suggesting many needed changes won’t occur before 2020.

With primaries having been held in two states and more coming in the months ahead, Nielsen said the threat to U.S. elections from Russia and other actors “remains high.” The hearing comes after the Senate panel issued a classified report examining Russia’s attempts to interfere in state election systems. An overview of that report, which one senator described as “horrifying” in its conclusions, will be released by the end of the week, according to Senator Richard Burr, the committee’s Republican chairman.

“The issue is urgent,” the North Carolina senator said. “If we start to fix these problems tomorrow, we still might not be in time to save the system for” the midterms and 2020 elections. Burr said he’s heard from states which claim they aren’t receiving the cyber election support they need, while adding that others remain wary of ceding too much control to federal officials.

‘No Sense of Urgency’

Republican Senator Susan Collins pressed Nielsen, saying she sees “no sense of urgency” from the federal government on helping states, as primary voting is underway. “We’re already in an election year,” Collins added.

Nielsen pushed back, saying election security is “of extreme urgency” to the department and that they’re working to give security clearances to three elections officials in each state. She said her department is also working with other intelligence agencies to declassify information when possible so it can be more broadly shared.

“We’re expending not only extraordinary resources to provide any support at the request of states,” but DHS is prioritizing election efforts in states over other critical infrastructure sectors, Nielsen said. “If we have intel, we will read in the appropriate state officials that day, so we’re not waiting for clearances.”

Time’s Running Short to Stop 2018 Election Hacking, Senators Say

A draft spending bill meant to avoid a government shutdown calls for more funding to secure U.S. elections and combat Russian hacking. There’s a $307 million increase above the Trump administration’s request in the FBI’s budget for counter-intelligence efforts to fight Russian cyberattacks this year, and another $380 million for election technology grants for states to secure election systems.

Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, told Nielsen that the committee’s classified report on Russia’s election hacking is “horrifying.” King dinged the Trump administration for failing to deter Russians and ensure they pay a big enough price to stop their attacks.

“We can patch software to the end of time and we’re not going to defeat these people," he said. “All the patches aren’t going to work if we don’t have a strategy of deterrence.”

Thwarting Russia is delicate because the U.S. has a “multifaceted relationship with Russia” and needs to work with Moscow on North Korea, Syria, Iran and other issues, Nielsen said.

“The consequences and what we do in reaction to their meddling in the election needs to be proportionate” and “driven in a way that they understand the specific behavior that we are seeking to avoid,” Nielsen said.

Security Flaws

Nielsen endorsed voter-verifiable, auditable paper ballots for all votes after grilling from Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, about voting machines. She said the inability to audit some computer ballot systems is a “national security concern” and added that her department doesn’t have authority to mandate voting machine requirements.

Wyden said many states are using voting machines with “serious security flaws” and companies making the machines “are accountable to no one.”

“Five states have no paper trail” and that means “there is no way to prove the numbers the voting machines put out are legitimate -- so much for cybersecurity 101,” Wyden said.

Nielsen appeared at the hearing alongside former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Burr said the FBI declined the committee’s request to testify at the hearing.

The intelligence panel is the only congressional committee still maintaining a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. On Tuesday, the committee issued recommendations on ensuring election security, saying the U.S. should “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.” That finding amounted to a tacit criticism of both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump for failing to act aggressively enough.

Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said Nielsen and other senior Trump administration officials appear to understand the threat posed by Russia. But Warner said Trump himself does not, citing the president’s congratulatory phone call Tuesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection.

“I’m glad the secretary of Homeland Security said she’s convened some sessions” within the Cabinet on the Russia threat, Warner said in an interview. “But it’s just remarkable that the president of the United States, instead of calling out Russia and Putin’s activities, instead calls to congratulate him on what John McCain called a sham election.”

— With assistance by Erik Wasson

(Updates with spending bill details and Warner quote starting in eighth paragraph.)
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