Spy chief sees 2020 election security as 'number one goal'

Gen. Nakasone's remarks come as a group of former senior officials seek funds to counter the "extraordinary challenges" posed by coronavirus pandemic and foreign interference to state and local election administrators.

voting security

One of America's top spies said that checking foreign interference in the November vote is a primary concern.

"Our number one goal, our number one objective at the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command -- a safe, secure and legitimate 2020 elections," said Gen. Paul Nakasone, who leads both agencies, during an Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) virtual event on July 20.

Nakasone said the goal is to build on lessons learned from 2018 midterm elections for 2020 so the U.S. will, "know our adversaries better than they know themselves."

Nakasone said that to shore up election security efforts, NSA and CyberCom will look to "broaden partnerships" with academia, which have ongoing research efforts that look at social media and influence operations, and respond accordingly when adversaries attempt to interfere with elections.

"2018 was a really remarkable year because at that point we had well-trained and well-led forces at U.S. Cyber Command and NSA come together with the right authorities and policies and also match with this idea of having an organizational construct," Nakasone said.

However, a group of former senior officials, including a former NSA chief, are worried that current funding levels are not enough to secure the 2020 vote.

In a letter to House and Senate leadership, more than 30 former officials are calling on Congress to include substantial new funding to state and local governments in the next coronavirus relief package to deal with the pandemic and potential foreign interference in the upcoming presidential election.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of foreign interference present "extraordinary" roadblocks to state and local officials in the conduct of elections, according to the letter's signatories – including Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence and former Secretaries of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff.

"While these twin challenges are first and foremost a test of our democracy, they are also a threat to our national security," the former officials wrote. "We urge you to provide election officials with the resources they need to protect our elections this year."

The economic recession caused by the pandemic has hit state and local government budgets particularly hard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, state governments shed 25,000 jobs in June, while overall government employment is down 1.5 million jobs below levels reported in February.

Some election jurisdictions are redirecting federal funds originally designed to bolster security to cover new costs in other areas of election administration. In March, a group of 138 election officials across the country sent a similar letter to Congress asking for federal assistance.

Additionally, election jurisdictions nationwide are dealing with a serious shortage of qualified poll workers to work polling stations. More than half are over 60, an age group particularly at-risk for COVID-19. One election official in swing-state Florida told FCW their county has seen more than a quarter of their regular poll workers drop out from this year's election, with few newcomers to replace them.

"Bolstering and securing this infrastructure will require more staff, supplies, and technology. And this increased need for resources is coming at a time when many government budgets are facing a revenue crisis," they wrote.

Congressional Democrats have been calling for increased aid to the states during negotiations for previous relief bills, but those efforts have so far been blocked by Senate Republicans. Congressional sources told Axios July 19 that the latest draft of the Senate bill led by Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does not include additional funding for state and local governments to deal with the pandemic or elections.