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Fears Surface of Russian Hack of Congress IT System

Subcommittee told legislative branch is highly vulnerable

Sasse asked about the likelihood of a Russian incursion. Witnesses said it was likely. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sasse asked about the likelihood of a Russian incursion. Witnesses said it was likely. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators’ examination of Russian efforts to undermine democracies took a turn that hit close to home on Wednesday, when witnesses openly speculated to the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism that Congress itself was likely the victim of nefarious hacking.

When Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., asked experts testifying about the likelihood of such an incursion, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves offered it was “almost certain” congressional IT systems have been infiltrated by Russia’s security services, particularly if two-factor security is not deployed.

Ben Buchanan, a fellow at the cyber security project at Harvardf’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, went a step further than Ilves, suggesting intruders may be operating inside the network.

“I think that I’d be very concerned. If you put me in charge of congressional IT tomorrow, I would not spend my first action looking outward. I would look inward,” Buchanan said. “But that is true of any high-priority network at this point. Find the intruders who are already inside.”

Calls to legislative branch offices with responsibility for IT operations in the Capitol did not yield any guidance.

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee that held the hearing, did not express any knowledge of specific threats.

“We get briefings and warnings from time to time from the sergeant-at-arms, and they have people who are dedicated to trying to make sure that our networks have not been penetrated, or where they have been that it’s contained and they understand the how and the why and the whom,” Whitehouse said. “All I have is that kind of general observation.”

Judiciary ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who with other colleagues met with FBI Director James Comey regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, said she did not know of any Russian intrusion into Congress’ IT system. “I don’t know anything about this … I have no knowledge.”

Bridget Bowman and Rema Rahman contributed to this story.

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