Why DOD is sending cyber teams to DHS before the election

The Defense Department has loaned personnel to Homeland Security in effort to prevent -- or react to -- election hacking attempts.

election security (Shutterstock.com)
 

The Defense Department has sent cyber personnel to work with the Department of Homeland Security ahead of midterm voting in an effort to prevent or respond to election hacking attempts.

DOD personnel arrived at DHS Oct. 31 "to conduct familiarization and situational awareness" of policies, practices and procedures with DHS' cybersecurity unit, the National Protection and Programs Directorate National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center, or NCCIC, a DHS official said.

The DHS official told FCW via email that DOD has been "one of our close partners in our work and participated in this effort to improve mid-term election cybersecurity" and began sending personnel this week.

John Felker, who heads NCCIC, said the agency is tapping up to 50 DOD "non-reimbursable" personnel ahead of the midterm elections. This is a way for cyber protection teams part of U.S. Cyber Command to train on the ground, as opposed to a simulation environment, Felker said at the Professional Services Council’s Vision conference Oct. 30.

"They don’t get a lot of hands-on reps for incident response," he said, "and if things go really bad in this country, DHS is going to run out" of skilled staff.

The personnel sharing is part of a Defense Support of Civil Authorities request to pre-approve assistance permitted under a 2019 defense spending bill provision that supports a pilot program allowing DOD and DHS to model, simulate and prepare for cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.  The move is supported by a provision in the 2019 defense spending bill, which authorizes DOD "to take appropriate and proportional action in foreign cyberspace to disrupt, defeat, and deter such attacks" if foreign actors -- namely China, Iran, North Korea, or Russia -- attempt to disrupt democratic processes or elections.

But officials say there’s no indication that an attack is imminent or underway.

A Pentagon spokesperson told FCW via email that personnel had not been activated or deployed in response to midterm election-related incidents.

Jeanette Manfra, DHS  assistant secretary for the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, said during an Oct. 30 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event that the focus for now is on preparation for an election-related cyberattack.

"To be very clear, there is no intelligence or anything that would suggest we would be in that situation, but we wanted to have all of the various, different bureaucratic and legal agreements pre-negotiated, settled," Manfra said. "We wanted to have a very clear understanding on if we did need to call on DOD resources to supplement DHS or others that we would have those plans in place before we actually needed them."

DHS hosted a three-day election cybersecurity exercise in August with DOD to help prepare the agency, other federal organizations, state and local election officials and private vendors for a cyber incident. Felker said the partnership with DOD could lead to more unified cyber training between the two agencies.

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