Department of Homeland Security officials disclosed during congressional testimony that computer hackers employed by the Russian government had attempted to infiltrate the election systems of 21 states during the 2016 presidential election. Officials voiced confidence that the cyber intrusions did not alter votes or subvert the election outcome.
On June 21, the DHS Cyber Division's acting Director Samuel Liles and acting Deputy Undersecretary of Cyber Security Jeanette Manfra testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both officials disclosed some of the results of their department's investigation into Russian activity during the election, but declined to offer specifics.
Manfra revealed that the DHS found that Russian hackers had targeted 21 states and successfully breached the election systems of some of them.
"As of right now, we have evidence that election-related systems in 21 states were targeted," Manfra told the committee.
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Liles added that Russian hackers were unable to infiltrate some of the 21 states' election systems, comparing them to people who "rattled the door knob and [were] unable to get in."
The Intelligence Committee's ranking member, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, voiced frustration that Manfra would not disclose which states were targeted.
"I understand the notion of victimization, but I do not believe our country is made safer by holding this information back from the American public," Warner said, according to CNN.
Manfra asserted that the DHS would work to strengthen U.S. electoral systems in order to ward off Russian cyber attacks in future elections, Bloomberg reports.
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"We are taking this threat very seriously ... We do recognize that these systems are critical to American life," Manfra said.
Both DHS officials and FBI Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Bill Priestap asserted that U.S. national elections could not be subverted by hacking because election systems are maintained at a local level.
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine pushed back on their confidence, noting that presidential elections are often decided by a handful of swing states.
"A sophisticated actor could hack an election simply by focusing on certain counties," King said, according to Reuters. "I don't think it works just to say it's a big system and diversity will protect us."
The U.S. intelligence community's consensus is that the Russian government carried out a cyber campaign to undermine confidence in the 2016 election results and to damage former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico queried Priestap on whether President Donald Trump's public statements during the race about the election being rigged against him had aided Russia's attempts.
"By effectively reinforcing the Russian narrative and publicly saying that our system is rigged, did then-candidate Trump, now President Trump, become what intelligence officials call an unwitting agent?" Heinrich asked.
Priestap gave a long pause before answering: "I can't really comment."
While the U.S. intelligence community has unanimously concluded that Russia worked to undermine the 2016 election, Trump has been publicly dismissive of the evidence.
On June 20, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked by reporters whether or not Trump believed Russia had attacked the election.
"I have not sat down and talked to him about that specifically," Spicer responded.