Russians penetrated US voter systems, says top US official

The U.S. official in charge of protecting American elections from hacking says the Russians successfully penetrated the voter registration rolls of several U.S. states prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, said she couldn't talk about classified information publicly, but in 2016, "We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated."

Jeh Johnson, who was DHS secretary during the Russian intrusions, said, "2016 was a wake-up call and now it's incumbent upon states and the Feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again."

"We were able to determine that the scanning and probing of voter registration databases was coming from the Russian government."

10 PHOTOS
Jeanette Manfra, head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security
See Gallery
Jeanette Manfra, head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security
Jeanette Manfra, Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Cybersecurity at the DHS, listens to testimonies about Russian interference in U.S. elections to the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert looks toward Assistant Secretary at Homeland Security's Office of Cybersecurity and Communications Jeanette Manfra as they hold a briefing publicly blaming North Korea for unleashing the so-called WannaCry cyber attack, at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Jeanette Manfra, Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Cybersecurity at the DHS, testifies about Russian interference in U.S. elections to the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Jeanette Manfra, chief cybersecurity official for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaks about the Wannacry virus as they announce that the US believes North Korea was behind the cyber attack, during a briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, December 19, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 21: (L-R) Acting Director of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division Sam Liles, Homeland Security Undersecretary Jeanette Manfra, and Assistant Director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division Bill Priestap testify during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee June 21, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Russia's cyber efforts against our election systems in 2016, our response efforts, potential threats to our 2018 and 2020 elections, and how we are postured to protect against those threats.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and Assistant Secretary at Homeland Security's Office of Cybersecurity and Communications Jeanette Manfra hold a briefing publicly blaming North Korea for unleashing the so-called WannaCry cyber attack, at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 21: Acting Director of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division Sam Liles (L) and Homeland Security Undersecretary Jeanette Manfra (R) testify during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee June 21, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Russia's cyber efforts against our election systems in 2016, our response efforts, potential threats to our 2018 and 2020 elections, and how we are postured to protect against those threats.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 21: Acting Director of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division Sam Liles (L) and Homeland Security Undersecretary Jeanette Manfra (R) testify during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee June 21, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Russia's cyber efforts against our election systems in 2016, our response efforts, potential threats to our 2018 and 2020 elections, and how we are postured to protect against those threats.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Jeanette Manfra, acting director of undersecretary, national protection and programs directorate at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on more Russian companies and individuals as well as separatists in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine as President�Donald Trump�held White House talks with Ukrainian leader�Petro Poroshenko. Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jeanette Manfra, acting director of undersecretary, national protection and programs directorate at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), center, speaks while Bill Priestap, assistant director of counterintelligence for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), right, and Samuel Liles, acting director of the cyber division with the office of intelligence and analysis department at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), listen during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Senators on the Intelligence Committee pressed administration officials Wednesday to disclose more about the extent of Russian hacking attempts during last year's election after the government disclosed that 21 states had been targeted.Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

NBC News reported in Sept. 2016 that more than 20 states had been targeted by the Russians.

There is no evidence that any of the registration rolls were altered in any fashion, according to U.S. officials.

In a new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, 79 percent of the respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned that the country's voting system might be vulnerable to computer hackers.

In January 2017, just weeks before leaving his post, Johnson declared the nation's electoral systems part of the nation's federally protected "critical infrastructure," a designation that applies to entities like the power grid that could be attacked. It made protecting the electoral systems an official duty of DHS.

But Johnson told NBC News he is now worried that since the 2016 election a lot of states have done little to nothing "to actually harden their cybersecurity."

Manfra said she didn't agree with Johnson's assessment. "I would say they have all taken it seriously."

NBC News reached out to the 21 states that were targeted. Five states, including Texas and California, said they were never attacked.

Manfra said she stands by the list, but also called it a "snapshot in time with the visibility that the department had at that time."

Many of the states complained the federal government did not provide specific threat details, saying that information was classified and state officials did not have proper clearances. Manfra told us those clearances are now being processed

Other states that NBC contacted said they were still waiting for cybersecurity help from the federal government. Manfra said there was no waiting list and that DHS will get to everyone.

Some state officials had opposed Johnson's designation of electoral systems as critical infrastructure, viewing it a federal intrusion. Johnson said that any state officials who don't believe the federal government should be providing help are being "naïve" and "irresponsible to the people that [they're] supposed to serve."

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.