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Senate Intel Leaders Look for Better Security Before 2018 Primaries

DNI testifies about importance of public information on Russian election meddling

FBI Director Christopher Wray, left, shakes hands with Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr before a Tuesday hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
FBI Director Christopher Wray, left, shakes hands with Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr before a Tuesday hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee hope to make their findings public on improving election security before primary contests get underway.

That’s what panel Chairman Richard M. Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said Tuesday in wrapping up the open portion of the annual hearing on “Worldwide Threats.”

“It is our hope and our belief that before the primaries begin, we intend to have an overview of our findings that will be public,” Burr said. “We intend to have an open hearing on election security, and it’s the committee’s intent to make recommendations that will enhance the likelihood that the security of our election processes are in place.”

“It’s our hope that on election security we can come forward with a set of recommendations very quickly because we have primaries coming up as early as March,” Warner said.

While questions from senators covered hot spots around the world, the hearing never veered too far from issues arising from Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as this year’s midterms and other contests abroad.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

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Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the assumption should be that elections in the United States and elsewhere will face Russian active measures.

“The more transparency we can provide to the American people, to people of nations that see this threat coming, the better off we will we be,” Coats said. “Obviously, we need to take other measures, but we need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to be happening and the resilience needed for us to stand up and say we’re not going to allow some Russian to tell us how to vote, how we’re going to run our country.”

Dueling timelines

Senators had questions about the headline-grabbing topics of the moment — Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about the so-called Steele dossier of allegations against President Donald Trump, and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden asked Wray about the security clearance process for ousted White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter.

Wray said the FBI completed its background check in July for Porter’s security clearance. The former aide resigned last week amid allegations he abused his two ex-wives. That contradicted the timeline given by the White House, which said the background check had not been completed. 

“I’m quite confident that in this particular instance, the FBI followed established protocols,” Wray told the panel.

Asked about the FBI director offering a different timeline, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House’s personnel security office had not closed the case.

That office had not made a final recommendation to White House officials, she said.

The White House security staff — career officials, not Trump appointees — had determined “significant” additional “field work” was required before it could make a final recommendation about Porter getting a security clearance, Sanders said.

The office was still obtaining information about Porter as recently as a few weeks before he was forced out of his job, she added.

Focus on elections

But it was election security and cybersecurity that took center stage at the hearing, often in the context of both Russia and China.

“With respect to Russian influence efforts, let me be clear. The Russians utilize this tool because it’s relatively cheap, it’s low risk, it offers what they perceive as plausible deniability, and it’s proven to be effective at sowing division,” Coats testified. “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”

The assembled leaders of the intelligence community at the witness table couldn’t say whether Trump had specifically directed them to counter Russian election meddling, when asked by Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, but it was nonetheless high on their agendas.

Sen. Roy Blunt focused his questions most directly on election infrastructure. The Missouri Republican is a former chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee and would likely play a lead role in crafting any election security legislation.

One challenge is making sure the people in charge of the voting systems themselves know how they could become compromised, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency who is retiring this spring, said in response to a query from Blunt.

“Many network and system operators do not truly understand their own structures and systems, and so one of the things that I think is part of this is how do we help those local, federal, state entities truly understand their network structure, what it’s potential vulnerabilities are,” Rogers said.

Like the leaders of the Intelligence Committee, Blunt mentioned the year’s primary season that kicks off in March. 

“This committee has been working toward both of those goals of trying to sure up critical infrastructure on Election Day, as well as alert people to and decide what might be done on the other side of the ledger,” Blunt said. “If we’re going to have any impact on securing that voting system itself, it would seem to me that we need to be acting quickly.”

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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