Homeland Security officials faced cutting criticism from lawmakers Wednesday as they testified on Capitol Hill and warned that not enough is being done to deter Russia from interfering in upcoming midterm elections.
Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee along with her predecessor Jeh Johnson, who was the agency’s chief when Russian agents targeted election systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 general election.
Both agreed with the assessment of an intelligence official who appeared before the panel recently that Russia is actively targeting election systems across the U.S.
“We think the threat remains high,” Nielsen said. “We need to be vigilant. Decentralized system makes it difficult to have a national effect, but local effect could be substantial.”
Lawmakers have criticized both the Trump and the Obama administrations for not moving quickly enough to stem the Russian threat.
The Trump administration recently instituted sanctions against several Russian nationals and businesses in the wake of indictments brought by special counsel Robert Mueller.
But Trump has faced growing criticism for publicly doubting Russia’s involvement in interference, his calls for warm relations with Russia and his congratulatory conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Trump did not raise the issue of election meddling during his conversation with Putin, the White House said.
Nielsen said that Trump believes that election tampering did occur, “but the line that he's drawing is that no votes were changed. That doesn't mean that it's not a threat.”
The hearing follows a Tuesday news conference in which committee members from both parties said government efforts to protect state and local elections from Russian cyberattacks haven’t gone far enough.
Federal warnings last time did not provide enough information or in some cases go to the right people, the senators said, though they reiterated that there was no evidence votes were changed.
Johnson defended his actions as he was grilled by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The American people were not informed of the breaches “sufficiently, in any way, shape or form, to know that there was a major active measure going on, perhaps by a foreign power,” Feinstein said.
Johnson said that he issued several public statements that were lost in the noise of the election cycle, “because everyone was focused on the campaign,” he said.
The Obama era official also said that more must be done to prevent future attacks.
“It does seem plain… that the Russian effort has not been contained. It has not been deterred,” Johnson said. “In my experience superpowers respond to sufficient deterrence...more needs to be done.”
Top U.S. intelligence officials have said they’ve seen indications Russian agents are preparing a new round of election interference this year.
The committee is recommending that states make sure voting machines have paper audit trails and aren’t capable of being connected to the internet.
Nielsen said that DHS offers states comprehensive risk assessments and remote cyber scanning of their networks to spot vulnerabilities, but that it is voluntary.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was disappointed to learn of the snail-like pace of security clearances for election officials and called out Nielsen on the issue.
“At this point we know for certain that the Russians were relentless in their efforts and also that those efforts are ongoing,” Collins said. “And yet, when I listen to your testimony, I hear no sense of urgency to really get on top of this issue.”
Nielsen insisted that getting state officials caught up was of “extreme urgency.”