Senators Press Trump Officials for More Details on Russia Hacks weiXx/Thinkstock

Senators Press Trump Officials for More Details on Russia Hacks

Twenty-one states were potentially targeted by Russian government cyber actors.

(Bloomberg) -- Senators on the Intelligence Committee pressed administration officials Wednesday to disclose more about the extent of Russian hacking attempts during last year’s election after the government disclosed that 21 states had been targeted.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, unsuccessfully pressed government officials to disclose which states were the victims.

"I just fundamentally disagree," Warner said of the decision to withhold the names. "I do not believe our nation is made safer" by keeping the states secret, he said, adding that he’s concerned about potential attempts to influence elections coming up in his state this year as well as the nationwide congressional elections in 2018.

"We are taking this threat very seriously,” said Jeanette Manfra, acting deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security. She said the operators of the targeted election systems have been made aware of the attempted intrusions, but declined to name the states.

"We do recognize that these systems are critical to American life,” she said.

Pushing for Disclosure

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said he was asked repeatedly in the fall by citizens if their vote was going to count, and said more information needs to be given to the public so they have confidence.

"Hope we err on the side of disclosure," he said.

A small number of state systems “were successfully exploited,” said Samuel Liles, acting director of the cyber division at Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, who said that 21 states were potentially targeted by Russian government cyber actors. Warner noted that figure stands in contrast to a report by Bloomberg News that Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states.

Either way, officials said they don’t have any evidence that actual vote tallies were affected. 

‘Unwitting Agent’

President Donald Trump’s name also came up several times in the hearing.

Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, noted the finding of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia’s actions last year were aimed at hurting Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately at helping Trump win. But he wouldn’t say whether he considered Trump “an unwitting agent” of Russia when asked by Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat.

“By effectively reinforcing the Russian narrative and publicly saying that our system is rigged, did then-candidate Trump, now President Trump, become what intelligence officials call an unwitting agent?” Heinrich asked. After a long pause, Priestap reached for his microphone but didn’t appear to turn it on. He shrugged and declined to comment.

“I don’t blame you for not answering that question,” Heinrich said, prompting laughter in the room. Priestap reiterated that he believes Russia’s broader efforts -- which included “information warfare” and dissemination of fake news stories -- will continue in future elections.

“It’s election-related activity wasn’t a one-time event,” he said.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr announced the panel will bring in the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a classified briefing on open and new inquiries regarding Russia, and reiterated the need for the public to know more about what happened ahead of upcoming elections. He said he wants to declassify "as much as we can" for a final report of the committee.

DNC Hack

As the Senate panel was meeting, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House Intelligence Committee that the Democratic National Committee spurned offers of help from his agency and the FBI after the party operation was hacked last year.

"The response I got was FBI had spoken to them, they did not want our help," said Johnson, who served under Democratic President Barack Obama. “I was not pleased that we were not in there helping them patch these vulnerabilities.”

He also said some state officials resisted his department designating the voter system as critical U.S. infrastructure, saying that “running elections in the country was the sovereign and exclusive responsibility of the states and they did not want federal intrusion.” He said he delayed making that designation until after the election so that state officials would cooperate.

Johnson told lawmakers that the Department of Homeland Security didn’t perform an analysis after the election about whether the vote had been manipulated.

No DHS Recount

"No, and I’m not sure I had the authority to do that. Homeland Security does not engage in election recounts," he said, under questioning from Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat.

On ensuring that states adopt security standards for their voter databases and vote-counting machines, Johnson said a carrot-and-stick grant approach would be better than efforts to impose rules from Washington.

"If you want to federalize elections in this country -- good luck," said Johnson.

But he said he would advise states that the 2016 election shows "your voter registration databases are very vulnerable to exploitation" and that "it’s not just an academic exercise."

J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, told the Senate committee that he and others have successfully hacked numerous voting machines now in use, and suggested spending federal money to replace them.

"The fixes aren’t expensive," he said. "Replacing insecure paperless systems nationwide would cost between $130 million and $400 million," he said, citing an estimate from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

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