NBC News conducted an interview with Obama era Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cybersecurity chief Jeanette Manfra Wednesday, then tweeted out a largely inconsequential revelation from last year as “BREAKING” news.
“We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated,” Manfra told NBC’s Cynthia McFadden, adding that she had “no doubt” Russia’s government was involved.
NBC News ran the headline “Russians penetrated U.S. voter systems, says top U.S. official,” and then tweeted the following:
BREAKING: U.S. official in charge of protecting American elections from hacking tells NBC News that Russians successfully penetrated voter registration rolls of several U.S. states prior to 2016 presidential election. https://t.co/QXnaa0zdBd
More tonight on @NBCNightlyNews.
— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 7, 2018
The “breaking” story was quickly picked up by sister network CNBC, the New York Post, The Hill, the New York Daily News – whose headline included “U.S. official confirms for first time” – GQ, the Washington Examiner, and other news outlets around the world.
But there was nothing in the statement by Manfra – a holdover career civil servant who once served in the Obama White House and as counselor to Obama’s DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson – that could be characterized as “breaking news.” Manfra herself, then merely acting deputy undersecretary of cyber security, testified before the Senate Intelligence committee in June that 21 electoral systems had been “targeted” by the Russians.
As NBC’s own reporting acknowledges, the Associated Press (AP) reported almost five months ago, on September 22, that Russia had “targeted” 21 states’ voter roles, and that the systems of several were breached, and that authorities believed the Russian government itself was involved.
When this story broke, in September, NBC picked up the AP’s newswire. Then NBC News’s own reporter filed an article giving “Top Dems,” including House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a chance to reply to the news. Then sister network MSNBC’s Chris Matthews took up the story, placing it in his seven minute rundown of “Russia news” he felt was important that day.
Then, hours later, fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow presented the news as a primetime bombshell, even suggesting that there may be more than the 21 named states that had been hacked. “And now that the states know, not all of the states are telling us the public about what happened,” Maddow claimed before implying the administration was hiding the “Russia hacked the voter rolls” bombshell:
[W]e have no idea why the Homeland Security Department didn’t notify these states before today, since they`ve known at least since June which states were attacked.
Sure. Why not wait until mid-September? What the heck? How about a Friday afternoon? Probably an excellent time to submarine that news, especially by just letting it drib and drab out from individual stats here and there, rather than making any sort of actual government announcement about this thing.
Then, weeks later, NBC News used the same story to help “debunk” President Donald Trump’s claim that the “Russia story” was a “hoax.”
Compounding NBC News’s erroneous “breaking” claim is that the original, five-month-old revelation later was proven to be wildly exaggerated and amounted to very little. As McFadden and her co-author’s own supposedly “breaking” story notes, “There is no evidence that any of the registration rolls were altered in any fashion, according to U.S. officials.”
Not only has no one ever alleged any actual consequence of Russia “targeting” states’ voter rolls, as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald documented, the extent of the Russian government’s “targeting” was quickly disputed. Most of the “hacking” turned out to be mere “scanning” of state systems. Authorities in Wisconsin even disputed that the systems “scanned” had anything to do with elections; those in California disputed that any attack of any kind had taken place.
By the time NBC News got around to writing up Manfra’s interview and contacting the states she claimed were targeted, the number of states disputing the September claim had grown to five.
If any new information came to light in NBC News’s “breaking” report Wednesday, it is that Manfra “stands by” the 21 states claim, despite these disputes from state officials. She does not specify why, and Manfra notes, cryptically, that the list was only a “snapshot in time with the visibility that the department had at that time.”
Her former boss Jeh Johnson, whom NBC also contacted, told them state officials who think they do not need federal help with voter roll security are “naïve” and “irresponsible to the people that [they’re] supposed to serve.”