Intel chiefs: No direction from Trump on election security

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At a Feb. 13 Senate hearing with intelligence leaders, lawmakers debated what role the intelligence community should play in countering election influence operations from foreign governments and what specific direction the White House was providing to intelligence agencies about how to handle the threat.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked FBI director Christopher Wray if President Trump had directed him to take actions to confront and blunt Russian interference in future elections.

"We're taking a lot of specific actions...not specifically directed by the President," said Wray.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo emphasized that his agency was looking at all plausible threats facing the United States, but also alluded to not receiving specific marching orders from the White House on the issue.

"I'm not sure how specific -- I mean, the president has made it very clear we have an obligation from a foreign intelligence perspective to make sure we have a deep and thorough understanding of every threat, including threats from Russia," said Pompeo.

Pompeo later told Reed that there is a significant combined effort by the intelligence community to push back against interference from Russia as well as other nations like Iran and China.

"The simple question I pose is has the president directed the intelligence community, in a coordinated effort, not merely to report but to actively stop this activity? And the answer I seem to be…that there's reporting going on as we are reporting about every threat coming into the United States," said Reed.

Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, echoed Wray's comments but argued that the role of the intelligence community is to provide information and insight on the issue so that policymakers can take action.

"I can't say I've been specifically directed to blunt or actively stop [Russian election interference]," said Rogers. However, he said the White House has pushed his agency to "generate knowledge and insight, help [them] understand this so we can generate better policy. That direction has been very explicit."

In a written statement, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats singled out Russia and China as leading intelligence threats, and expressed confidence that Russian cyber influence operations will continue in the lead up to the 2018 mid-term elections. Such operations are cheap, low-risk and provide a sufficient amount of plausible deniability on the part of perpetrators.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said his research indicated that a rough calculation of the costs Russia incurred through their online influence campaigns in America, the Netherlands and France comes out to less than the cost of one new F-35 airplane.

"That's a pretty good bang for the buck," remarked Warner.

Curtis Dukes, former director of Information Assurance for the National Security Agency, concurred with that assessment, telling FCW that it is "relatively inexpensive to conduct a disinformation campaign." Renting out botnets to promulgate your message over social media can cost $5-$10 per hour on average, though Dukes noted that many nations own their own bot networks.

The committee is grappling with how handle the final phase of its investigation into Russian election interference. The body will likely release a portion of its final report dealing with election security before the 2018 mid-terms, but committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) indicated in December 2017 that the report would likely stick to best practice recommendations for state and local governments and avoid legislative proposals for Congress.

A Feb. 8 survey conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice found 229 election officials across 33 states who reported outdated voting systems that need to be replaced by 2020. Many told the center they lack the funds to do so and some have resorted to buying replacement parts of eBay.

Warner, the panel's vice chairman, appeared to break with his counterpart by expressing hope that Congress will do more than make recommendations on the matter.

"It's our hope that on election security that we can come forward with a set of recommendations very quickly," said Warner. "My hope is that there will be able to be bipartisan legislation to try to start addressing this issue."

A number of bills have been introduced over the past year by members of Congress to bolster election security, but thus far none have gotten out of committee. The Department of Homeland Security is acting as the lead agency coordinating with state and local election officials on election infrastructure and voting machine security.

Burr reiterated support for making some form of the committee report's section on election security public and announced a future hearing on the issue, but remained silent on the prospect of federal legislation.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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