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Trump downplays Russia threat as officials sound alarm over 2018 election security

Senior members of President Donald Trump's national security team have testified that Russia continues to threaten the U.S. democracy. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

With the midterm elections less than four months away, officials are questioning whether the U.S. government has done enough to secure America's election infrastructure and deter future cyberattacks.

After publicly challenging the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and then reversing his statement, President Donald Trump claimed his administration was taking "strong action" to prevent any future election meddling.

On Tuesday, President Trump argued he was doing more than his predecessor to "aggressively" repel "any efforts to interfere in our elections."

"We’re going to take strong action to secure our election systems and the process," Trump told reporters. "We’re doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018."

By Wednesday Trump denied that Russia is still targeting the United States. The assertion was, again, at odds with his own intelligence agencies' threat assessment.

Every senior member of Trump's intelligence and national security team has publicly testified that Russia will try to compromise the 2018 elections, through direct interference, cyberattacks or propaganda. Moreover, they maintain that Russia is currently engaged in an effort to undermine the U.S. democratic process.

Late last week, America's top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, characterized Russia as the "most aggressive foreign actor" in its efforts to undermine the U.S. democracy and noted Russia's "persistent" and "pervasive" attacks against America's critical and digital infrastructure.

Comparing U.S. cyber-vulnerabilities to the period before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Coats warned, "The warning lights are blinking red again."

HAS ANYTHING IMPROVED?

Despite Trump's wavering on the issue of Russian election interference, steps have been taken to prepare for the midterms.

After the IC released its 2017 report on Russian election interference, the Obama administration began taking steps to secure America's election system. Those have continued into the Trump administration.

The effort started with the designation of election systems as part of the country's critical infrastructure. That opened the floodgates for additional federal funding, intelligence sharing and the guarantee that the government would respond to an attack on the U.S. election systems the same way it would to an attack on America's energy grid, banking sector or nuclear sites.

This year, Congress appropriated $380 million for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to distribute among the 50 states and five territories to harden their election infrastructure. Congress also amended federal rules to provide classified threat information to qualified state and county-level officials.

"We're in a much better position than we were in 2016," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who sits on the intelligence and homeland security committees.

Despite some improvements, the threats are still very real, he noted. "We're more aware of what they did in 2016. What we don't know is what they want to try in 2018. And the vulnerabilities are there."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., agreed that awareness had improved but it was still not sufficient. "I do think we have more knowledge, but I don't think we're there in terms of making sure it's foolproof," she said calling for additional funding for state and local election security.

Chief among America's election vulnerabilities are elements of the system that are connected to the internet, like voter registration databases and election results reporting websites. Approximately 38 states currently allow voters to register online and the majority have public-facing websites where they publish early, unofficial results.

The American public learned about some of these vulnerabilities in 2017, when the Department of Homeland Security reported that 21 states were probed by Russian intelligence.

Last week, in its latest indictment of 12 Russian agents for allegedly hacking into U.S. election systems, the Justice Department and Special Counsel put a fine point on the extent of the 2016 security breach.

Among other things, the indictment revealed how Russian military intelligence units successfully broke into at one state election board website and stole sensitive information on 500,000 voters, including names, birthdates and partial social security numbers. Hackers also successfully infiltrated a software company that verified voter registration information.

According to DNI Coats, the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security have not seen the same attempts by Russia to breach voter databases or state election systems as it did in 2016. "However, we fully realize that we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself," Coats said last week.

WHAT ELSE IS BEING DONE?

Following Trump's conflicting remarks about Russian election interference, members of Congress have begun pushing for urgent action to deter a repeat attack in 2018.

"We need to up our game as a nation," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said calling on Congress and President Trump to pass legislation in the coming weeks. "We're just a stone's throw away from them changing vote totals."

A number of lawmakers are promoting a bill by Senators Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., which would impose steep costs on Russia if they attempt to meddle in the upcoming elections.

"There's growing momentum for it," Van Hollen told reporters, explaining the bill. "If there is a determination by the DNI that the Russians have interfered in one of our elections, there are automatic, very deep and very punishing economic sanctions" targeting the Russian energy and banking sector.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that the Senate may vote on that bill or another election security measure soon.

According to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., President Trump's mixed messages about election interference are undermining state and local efforts to improve election security. "There is zero confidence out there among mayors and governors that this administration will protect their elections. Zero confidence," he stated.

Even without President Trump's explicit guidance, the Department of Homeland Security continues to engage state and local partners, as does the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

The National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command are reportedly taking new steps to counter Russian efforts to disrupt the 2018 election, outside the explicit direction of President Trump, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Senators with knowledge of intelligence matters would not confirm the report. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., only affirmed that the intelligence agencies "are doing an adequate job of preparing us" for the next election.

Because of the way the U.S. system is organized, the responsibility for election security largely falls on local officials who are slowly warming up to the idea of receiving help from the federal government, explained Maurice Turner, the senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"State and local officials by and large are recognizing the need for assistance. They are simply not capable of putting up a complete defense and deterring well-funded and highly skilled adversaries, like a nation-state actor," he said.

At the local level, officials have to play constant defense, secure and duplicate systems connected to the internet and be vigilant amid numerous threats, including foreign actors, domestic hackers, criminals and hacktivists.

"We need to focus on securing election systems across the board from multiple bad actors who might use multiple types of attacks to bring down the system," Turner advised.


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