Russia Hack Inquiry Hindered by Security Clearance Issues
Eleven months after the 2016 presidential vote, top election officials in the states say they still can't determine the level of Russian hacking in their electoral systems in part because they lack the security clearances to discuss the issue with the Department of Homeland Security.
In testimony to Congress last June, DHS officials admitted that they had knowledge of Russian attempts to break into the electoral systems of 21 states, although there was no evidence of direct vote-count tampering. Subsequent reports say the number of states targeted by Russian hackers may be double that.
Top Democrats on the Hill intelligence committees are blasting the government for what they said was a failure to create a system to share evidence of tampering in a timely manner.
"It drives me crazy that we've had 21 states that were broken into, and we still get this Kafkaesque response that we can't share with the top election officials because they don't have appropriate clearances," Sen. Mark R. Warner, the Senate intelligence committee's top Democrat, told the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington on Wednesday.
The volatile issue has evolved for months as new details have continued to emerge over Russian meddling in the heated contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Warner, along with election officials from numerous states, have expressed frustration over DHS' refusal to identify which states were targeted.
Shortly before last year's election, President Obama said he confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about election meddling on the sidelines of a G-20 summit, warning Mr. Putin to "cut it out" or face "some serious consequences." Mr. Obama later contended that, "in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process."
But the Obama administration angered state election officials with a decision close to the election to designate the nation's election systems as critical infrastructure and tying them more closely to the federal system. The National Association of Secretaries of State said the "hastily conceived" move could actually make electoral systems in the states more susceptible to foreign attacks.
This summer, a leaked analysis from the National Security Agency revealed, despite Mr. Obama's assurance, that Russian covert efforts continued much closer to Election Day, including a Russian military intelligence-led "spear-phishing" attack on more than 100 local election officials just days before Nov. 8. Voter registration networks in Arizona and Illinois were also targeted, both states have confirmed.
On Thursday Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the lead Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told the INSA gathering in Washington that much greater transparency was needed between the government, intelligence community, states and vendors who supply much of the technology.
"The states still do not know if they were victims of Russian hacking because we have not shared that information with them," the California Democrat said. "I think that is crazy."
Mr. Warner and Senate intelligence committee Chair Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, dropped a provision into the panel's 2018 policy bill for U.S. spy agencies that would require Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to sponsor security clearances "up to the top secret level" for the country's top election officials -- and one person per state, such as a top aide. While a "top secret" clearance is not the U.S. government's highest clearance, it would allow election officials access to a wide range of sensitive information.
The bill including the provision cleared the committee in a 14-1 vote, and the Senate is now considering the legislation. Mr. Schiff said he hopes the House intelligence committee can soon hold hearings with state election officials.
"We've been seeking that kind of clearance for months," National Association of Secretaries of State spokesman Stephen Reed said in a statement.
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