Senate Intel Leaders Slam DHS Communication with State Election Officials

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., left, with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., left, with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

An intelligence policy bill would mandate security clearances for top state election officials to aid cyber information sharing.

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders slammed the Homeland Security Department Wednesday for its long delay sharing information about Russian efforts to penetrate state election systems with those states’ top election officials.

Homeland Security formally notified 21 states last month that it believed their systems had been probed by Russian government-linked hackers in advance of the 2016 presidential contests—roughly 11 months after that election ended.

Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., called that delay “very disappointing” during a press conference with Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., focused on the committee’s ongoing investigation into the Russian digital meddling campaign.

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“There was at least trying to open the door in these 21 states,” Warner said. “We still don’t know exactly why last Friday was the date they chose to reveal that information, but we still believe there needs to be a more aggressive, whole of government approach in terms of protecting our electoral system.”

Senate investigators “can certifiably say that no vote totals were affected” by the election system probing, Burr said.

Homeland Security notified those states’ political officials in advance of the election, department leaders have said, but that information sometimes didn’t reach election officials because those officials lacked federal security clearances or because there were not clear communication lines between the offices.

Top state election officials, called the secretary of state, are often elected statewide, and so can hail from a different party than the governor or legislative leaders. Their offices also frequently have separate staff and operate on different computer networks.

The Intelligence Committee’s 2018 Intelligence Authorization Act includes a provision requiring that a top election official in every state be cleared and able to receive cyber threat information, Burr noted.

Homeland Security is in the process of arranging those clearances now, but progress has been slow, according to congressional overseers.

Burr and Warner are a long way from completing their investigation into Russian election meddling and the investigation has no strict timeline, they said.

The senators do plan to wrap up the investigation before primary elections in 2018 congressional contests are held, they said.

Among the topics the committee is still actively investigating, they said, are whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials and Russian efforts to place phony advertisements and posts on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter.

Social media companies are scheduled to testify before the committee in November.