House investigators are examining Wednesday Russia’s attempts to hack into state elections systems with former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson before the House intelligence committee.
“In 2016 the Russian government, at the direction of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin himself, orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the purpose of influencing our election — plain and simple. Now, the key question for the president and Congress is: What are we going to do to protect the American people and their democracy from this kind of thing in the future?” Johnson said in his opening remarks.
The coordinated hacking effort from Russian-aligned hackers has received minimal attention in the congressional probes into Russia’s interference in the election. President Donald Trump and his supporters have regularly noted that no votes were ever changed by Russian hackers — something Obama and Trump administration intelligence officials have regularly stated in their testimony.
But concerns about the security of voters’ information were raised anew after a Republican voter data firm, Deep Root, accidentally left the data of 198 million voters exposed online earlier this month. And questions of what the Russian government was attempting resurfaced recently after a National Security Agency contractor allegedly leaked a report detailing those hacking attempts to a news outlet.
The recent NSA report — written May 5 — detailed extensively a Russian intelligence-directed operation that targeted a company that provides voter registration software and, using information from that hack, later evolved into a “spearfishing” campaign against multiple state and local election officials.
The Justice Department alleges a 25-year-old woman, Reality Winner, leaked the document to The Intercept and has charged her under the federal Espionage Act.
Johnson, in his written testimony, details numerous public statements he made through last year’s election after he learned of hacking attempts, as he tried to draw attention to the issue. He also details a largely failed effort to get elections system designated as critical government infrastructure — which would have given greater priority to states seeking help in possible cyberattacks.
But, as Johnson notes in his testimony, the proposal faced a severe backlash, with some state officials alleging that Johnson was attempting a federal takeover of state-based elections systems. Johnson eventually backed off the idea, he notes.
The hearing itself marks another small victory for House Russia investigators, who have been attempting to right their investigation ever since House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’ clandestine trip to the White House in March almost derailed the House probe.
But the separate Senate probe is still widely viewed as more likely to produce results and uncover major findings. Johnson met privately with the leaders of the Senate intelligence committee last week.