WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ten months before the United States votes in its first major election since the 2016 presidential contest, U.S. state election officials huddled in Washington this weekend to swap strategies on dealing with an uninvited guest: Russia.
A pair of conferences usually devoted to staid topics about election administration were instead packed with sessions dedicated to fending off election cyber attacks from Russia or others, as federal authorities tried to portray confidence while pleading with some states to take the threat more seriously.
"Everyone in this room understands that what we are facing from foreign adversaries, particularly Russia, is real," Chris Krebs, a senior cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told an audience of secretaries of state, who in many states oversee elections. Russia, he added, is "using a range of tools against us."
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The department said last year that 21 states had experienced initial probing of their systems from Russian hackers and that a small number of networks were compromised. Voting machines were not directly affected and there remains no evidence any vote was altered, officials say.
While virtually all 50 states have taken steps since the 2016 election to purchase more secure equipment, expand the use of paper ballots, improve cyber training or seek federal assistance, according to groups that track election security, some officials at the conferences expressed an added sense of urgency.
That is because the meetings came immediately after U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed an indictment accusing 13 Russians and three Russian companies of conducting a criminal conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 election.
The charges alleged a sophisticated multi-year operation carried out by a Russian propaganda factory to use false personas on social media to boost Donald Trump's campaign. Russia has repeatedly denied it attempted to meddle.
"Loud and clear I hear that the biggest threat is this campaign of disinformation as opposed to the election process itself," said Denise Merrill, Connecticut's secretary of state, a Democrat.
DHS has taken the lead on working with states to improve voting machine security, but no federal agency is specifically responsible for combating online propaganda.
Several secretaries of state said they needed more rapid notification from federal partners about not just attempts to breach voting systems but disinformation campaigns as well.
"I don't want to find out about propaganda two years later, after I elect my congressman," said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, in an interview while clutching his own printed copy of the 37-page indictment.
Frustration boiled over at times among the secretaries of state, some of whom criticized a classified briefings U.S. intelligence agencies held with them over the weekend as largely unhelpful.
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Key Trump officials, advisers of note in the Russia probe
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The close friend to Donald Trump and CEO of private equity firm Colony Capital recommended that Trump bring in Paul Manafort for his presidential campaign.
R. James Woolsey
Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has cooperated with Mueller's investigation and worked with Michael Flynn and was present at a meeting where they discussed removing the controversial Turkish Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen from US soil.
(Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The former senior Trump campaign official and White House adviser was present and crucial during the firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey.
The former head of the Trump transition team following the 2016 election has said previously that he believes he was fired due to his opposing the hiring of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.
Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.
Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.
Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.
2016 election winner Donald Trump is at the center of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russia's handlings.
Clovis, a former member of the Trump campaign, arrives on at the U.S. Capitol December 12, 2017 to appear before a closed meeting of the House Intelligence Committee. Clovis worked with George Papadopoulos, a former Donald Trump campaign foreign policy advisor who struck a plea deal on charges of lying to the FBI.
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”
Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.
Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.
Former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo (L)
Caputo waves goodbye to reporters after he testified before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Caputo resigned from being a Trump campaign communications advisor after appearing to celebrate the firing of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Denying any contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, Caputo did live in Moscow during the 1990s, served as an adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and did pro-Putin public relations work for the Russian conglomerate Gazprom Media.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Stephen Miller, White House Senior Advisor for Policy
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer
Donald Trump Jr.
White House Senior adviser Jared Kushner
Executive assistant to Donald Trump Rhona Graff
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski
US Vice President Mike Pence
Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci
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Federal officials, they said, continued to provide inadequate information to states about the nature of the Russian cyber threat and how to protect against it.
"I would have thought that behind closed doors, I would have heard, 'This is why this has to be classified.' And I heard none of it," said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican. Still, other secretaries of state and election directors said relationships with DHS had improved dramatically compared with a year ago.
Speaking on a panel and attempting to quell frustration, Robert Kolasky, another DHS cybersecurity official, stressed that U.S. intelligence officials were genuinely worried about how Russia or others may attempt to interfere in 2018.
"There are reasons we are worried that things could become more serious," Kolasky said. "The Russians got close enough, and we anticipate it could be different, or worse, the next time around," he said.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Daniel Wallis)