Dueling Capitol Hill hearings focus on security of state election systems

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Wednesday is shaping up to be a busy, consequential day in the ongoing multiple Capitol Hill investigations into Russian meddling in last year's presidential election.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is testifying before the House Intelligence Committee as part of that panel's Russia probe.

Johnson told lawmakers that there was no evidence that votes were altered as the result of Russian efforts to breach state election systems.

"Based on everything I know, that is correct," Johnson told Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, "I know of no evidence that, through cyber-intrusions, votes were altered or suppressed in some way."

Johnson also defended the Obama administration's decision not to make a public statement about the Russian meddling until the fall of last year. He said the statement he and other Obama administration intelligence officials released in early October warning of the Russian attempts to meddle in the election "did not get the attention it should have" because of the release of the Access Hollywood tapes that day — in which then-candidate Trump boasted of groping and kissing women.

In retrospect, Johnson said he wished "he had camped out with a sleeping bag" in front of the Democratic National Committee to get them to take seriously warnings that their email server had been hacked.

Johnson said he was disappointed the DNC would not accept Homeland Security's help in finding its cyber-vulnerabilities. He said he had asked on a number of occasions if the DNC had taken up the Department of Homeland Security's help. "I recall very clearly that I was not pleased we were not in there helping them patch this vulnerability," Johnson told lawmakers, adding that the agency does not have the authority to go into a private company with a warrant to fix its IT problems.

His prepared remarks were released by the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday evening:

"In 2016 the Russian government, at the direction of Vladimir Putin himself, orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the purpose of influencing our election — plain and simple. Now, the key question for the President and Congress is: What are we going to do to protect the American people and their democracy from this kind of thing in the future?"

While Johnson is testifying on the House side, the Senate Intelligence Committee is holding its own hearing focused on state election systems. Senators are hearing from cybersecurity experts from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security as well as from representatives of state election systems and state secretaries of state across the country.

In the Senate hearing, Department of Homeland Security and FBI witnesses told lawmakers they expect the Russian cyber-threat against the U.S. to "evolve" — and that governments across the country must try to keep up as well.

"I believe the Russians absolutely will continue to try to conduct influence operations in the U.S., which will include cyber operations," said Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division.

Democrats on the Senate panel, however, are frustrated by DHS Secretary John Kelly's unwillingness to disclose more detail about the states that were targeted or compromised last year. DHS acknowledges that Russia's intelligence officers went after elections systems in 21 states, only two of which — Arizona and Illinois — have been officially confirmed.

Jeanette Mafra, acting director of DHS' national protection and programs directorate, told senators that DHS must "build trust" with the state and local agencies it supports and that releasing names or details about them would ruin that by embarrassing them.

Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., complained that the official work of investigating and explaining Russia's mischief last year was hamstrung by all the secrecy about what had been compromised.

"I understand the notion of victimization," he said. "But I do not believe our country is made safer by holding this information back from the American public. I have no interest in trying to embarrass any state, but we've seen this too long in cyber ... people try to sweep this under the rug and assuming it will all go away."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said he hoped the Intelligence Committee could reveal as much as possible because of how corrosive Russia's influence efforts have already proven.

"I think you could argue they've achieved quite a bit because if you look at the amount of time we've spent in this country on what happened and if you look at the political fissures that formed."

Rubio told a story about seeing a fake story that said President Obama had "banned" the Pledge of Allegiance — and getting text messages asking him about it.

"I knew it wasn't true," he said, "but people thought it was."

The hearings Wednesday potentially refocus all of the recent drama in Washington about the Russian election meddling narrative back on the facts and details of what Russian intelligence services sought to do to breach the security of state election systems, among other things, in order to interfere in the 2016 presidential race.

NPR's Phil Ewing contributed to this report.

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