Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson defended the Obama administration’s delay in revealing Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election, saying Wednesday that officials were worried that they’d be blamed for a partisan attempt to influence the results.
The FBI found evidence by August that Russian-backed hackers had targeted electoral systems in 21 states, officials confirmed Wednesday, but the Obama administration did not publicly disclose the meddling until Oct. 7.
At that point, Johnson and James R. Clapper, then the director of national intelligence, issued a joint statement accusing Moscow of cyber “thefts and disclosures … intended to interfere with the U.S. election process” and of attempts “by a Russian company” to break in to state voter registration databases.
The unusual statement followed weeks of leaks of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and senior officials, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Some of the emails embarrassed or undermined her campaign.
“We were very concerned that we would not be perceived as taking sides in the election, injecting ourselves into a very heated campaign,” Johnson told the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
After weeks of legal and political tumult created by President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey last month, two congressional hearings Wednesday focused on the original crime — a broad cyberattack on U.S. electoral systems by the Russian government in an effort to influence the outcome.
Officials repeated previous assurances that none of the digital intrusions affected the vote count on election day. But they said they expect Russian authorities, who have denied any election-related hacking, to keep trying.
“I hope the American people will keep in mind Russia’s overall aim is to restore its power and prestige by eroding democratic values,” said Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
Priestap said the hackers stole data from some states “to understand what it consisted of” and to plan future attacks. He declined to describe the stolen data because the Russian operation remains the focus of an FBI investigation.
Several lawmakers on the House panel pressed Johnson to explain why the Obama administration did not respond more quickly to Moscow’s interference.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking Democrat, said he and other lawmakers were given a classified briefing last summer about Russia’s campaign hacks. He asked why the White House waited until December to punish Moscow by imposing sanctions and expelling 35 alleged spies.
“What led to such a long delay in making attribution and why would the most significant step of imposing costs on Russia for its interference come only after the election?” Schiff asked.
Johnson said the need to protect intelligence sources and methods prevented him and other officials from issuing more specific warnings earlier. He said he had repeatedly warned last year about the vulnerability of voter registration databases to hacks.
He said the Oct. 7 statement “did not get the attention it deserved” because it was overshadowed by a Washington Post report later that day about Trump making crude comments about women on a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape.
Homeland Security officials confirmed at the Senate hearing that the Russian hacks breached electoral systems in 21 states — though only Illinois and Arizona have been made public and the details of the penetrations remain secret.
Jeanette Manfra, the acting deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at Homeland Security, said the secrecy was intended to preserve confidential relationships with state and local elections officials. The top Democrat on the committee wasn’t convinced.
“I do not believe our country is made safer by holding this information back from the American public,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat.
The two hearings also laid bare conflicts between Homeland Security, which is responsible at the federal level for securing U.S. elections, and state and local elections administrators.
No secretaries of state — who are responsible for elections in each state — have been cleared to receive classified details of the Russian hacking operation, said Connie Lawson, secretary of state in Indiana and president-elect of the National Assn. of Secretaries of State.
She also criticized Homeland Security for not revealing a cyberattack last fall on at least one U.S. voting software supplier by Russian military intelligence, an operation revealed this month by the Intercept, a website that specializes in national security issues. It cited a leaked classified report by the National Security Agency.
“It is gravely concerning that election officials have only recently learned about the threat referenced in the leaked NSA report, especially given the fact that [Homeland Security] repeatedly told state election officials no credible threat existed in the fall of 2016,” Lawson said.
But Johnson had complaints as well, saying state elections officials resisted his offer to designate voter databases as “critical infrastructure” — a move that would have allowed federal authorities to offer cybersecurity protections similar to those given to power grids, dams and financial networks.
Johnson said the reaction of state officials ranged from “neutral to negative” because they feared a federal takeover. Lawson confirmed that many state officials remain wary, saying they don’t want to compromise public confidence in the system.