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Senate Intel Unveils First Findings on Russia Election Meddling

Focus Tuesday was on election infrastructure security

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., left, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., lead a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday to preview the committee’s findings on threats to election infrastructure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., left, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., lead a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday to preview the committee’s findings on threats to election infrastructure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recommendations for how to secure U.S. election systems from intrusion efforts by the Russians and others aren’t exactly earth-shattering.

But that’s not to say they aren’t important.

“Look at where we are now in this year of our Lord 2018, we’re talking about paper ballots,” California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said. “But that actually might be one of the smartest systems, going back to something tangible that we can hold on to, because Russia cannot hack a piece of paper like they can a computer system.”

Harris, a freshman who joined the Intelligence panel upon her arrival in the Senate, was among the bipartisan array of committee members present for the unveiling of the election security recommendations Tuesday.

“It is probably best that you do not have your election system connected to the internet, because that would create a greater vulnerability,” Harris said.

It was the first such release from the Intelligence panel, led by Chairman Richard M. Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat.

Among the proposals for the Department of Homeland Security is that it expedite clearances for state and local officials who might need access to intelligence on threats to their election integrity.

The clearance backlog more generally has been a point of emphasis for the Intelligence Committee, which held an open hearing on the topic earlier in March.

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Among the committee’s findings was that information sharing with state and local officials was not sufficient, even beyond the question of which personnel should have access to classified material.

“Although the FBI sent out a warning to state officials, the alert was not clear in specifying that vulnerabilities in state election systems were being exploited by a foreign adversary, nor did it specify just how serious the threat was,” Sen. Susan Collins said at Tuesday’s news conference.

The Maine Republican also acknowledged the reluctance on the part of state officials to tell voters too much about the nature of the threat, since that might actually help the Russian effort to undermine public confidence.

Senators present from both parties stressed that state and local control of elections remains important, but the federal government should be prepared to provide additional resources.

“We must assist states in hardening their defenses against foreign adversaries, including passing much-needed legislation providing funding,” Collins said.

While Russia hackers attempted to probe at least 21 state election systems (with at least one success), no votes were changed in 2016, committee members said. The senators warned that the next attempt may come from a different rogue actor at home or abroad.

Tuesday’s release of recommendations came ahead of another open hearing Wednesday designed to spotlight election challenges. The committee did not quite hit the target of getting these findings public before 2018 voters began going to the polls, with primaries already underway in several states, including on Tuesday in Illinois.

“It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election systems,” Burr said. He added that while information was provided to officials, it may not have been specific enough to prompt action in response. “No clear reason for states to take this threat more seriously were given,” he said.

Burr said legislative fixes most likely fall under the purview of the Rules and Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over election law.

That task will most likely fall to Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who both serves on the Intelligence Committee and is likely to hold the gavel of the Rules panel starting sometime in April, after the committee shuffle that will take place following the resignation of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.

Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, suggested that legislation for consideration could include a proposal already introduced by Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Warner noted that Virginia had to move more quickly to make sure voting systems were secure because the commonwealth has a practice of holding gubernatorial elections in what are off years in almost all other states.

“It took a real scramble, but that scramble was appropriate,” Warner said of efforts in his home state in 2017.

Even with mixed precipitation already falling in Washington, D.C., and a changeover to snow in the forecast, Burr stressed that his panel’s hearing featuring Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other witnesses would go forward as scheduled Wednesday.

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