A bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee documents how the Obama administration did not take effective action as Russia worked to target the U.S. election process.
The same report shows that, under the Trump administration, U.S. agencies have made significant progress in working to secure election systems while vulnerabilities still remain.
Not only were states confused by briefings on election threats by Obama-era agencies, the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama didn’t even tell states that a nation-state actor may have been associated with suspicious IP addresses listed in an FBI FLASH notification on August 18, 2016 about actors purportedly scanning election-related websites, the report relates.
States the report in one damning section: “Given the lack of context, state staff who received the notification did not ascribe any additional urgency to the warning; to them, it was a few more suspect IP addresses among the thousands that were constantly pinging state systems. Very few state IT directors informed stats election officials about the alert.”
The report, which contains some heavily-redacted sections, contains the results of a bipartisan investigation led by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.). It was released on Thursday, one day after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about the results of his own report, which found no evidence of any collusion between the Trump administration and Russia while documenting Russian interference attempts.
The bipartisan Senate report did not explicitly indict the Obama administration by name, but it thoroughly documented the many failures of government agencies to secure U.S. election systems prior to the 2016 presidential election.
A key section of the report states that “the Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level.”
Prior to the 2016 election, 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,” states the report.
The report related a news-making August 15, 2016 conference call with state election officials in which then-Secretary of DHS Jeh Johnson took heat from some state officials for bringing up the idea of designating the U.S. election systems as critical infrastructure.
Relates the report:
States also reported that the call did not go well. Several states told the Committee that the idea of a critical infrastructure designation surprised them and came without context of a particular threat. Some state officials also did not understand what a critical infrastructure designation meant, in practical terms, and whether it would give the federal government the power to run elections. DHS also did not anticipate a certain level of suspicion from the states toward the federal government. As a State 17 official told the Committee, “When someone says ‘we’re from the government and we’re here to help,’ it’s generally not a good thing.”
Those and other failures contrast with concrete action taken under the Trump administration to secure U.S. election systems.
The report notes that “since 2016, DHS has made great strides in learning how election procedures vary across states and how federal entities can be of most help to states.”
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), and other groups have helped DHS in this effort. DHS’s work to bolster states’ cybersecurity has likely been effective, in particular for those states that have leveraged DHS’s cybersecurity assessments for election infrastructure, but much more needs to be done to coordinate state, local and federal knowledge and efforts in order to harden states’ electoral infrastructure against foreign meddling.
Congress in 2018 also appropriated $380 million for states to bolster cybersecurity and update or replace vulnerable voting machines.
The report documents other improvements in election security in the Trump era:
By early 2018, State officials gave DHS credit for making significant progress over the next six months. States began to sign up for many of the resources that DHS had to offer, and DHS hosted the first meeting of the Government Coordinating Council required under the critical infrastructure designation. Those interactions often increased trust and communication between the federal and state entities. For example, DHS has identified a list of contacts to notify if they see a threat; that list includes both IT officials and election officials. State 9 described it as “quite a turnaround for DHS,” and further stated that the Secretaries of State had been disappointed with how slowly DHS got up to speed on election administration and how slowly the notifications happened, but DHS was “quick with the mea culpas and are getting much better.”
The Washington Post previously cited former Obama administration officials as expressing regret that not enough was done to contain the alleged Russia interference threat. One reason given was concern that Russia interference attempts could taint any victory by Hillary Clinton.
The newspaper reported:
“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”
“The punishment did not fit the crime,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014. “Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack. And U.S. policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions.”
They also worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign. By August, Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged. Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome and potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
Written with research by Joshua Klein.