Midterm Security Watch: How US intelligence agencies reformed after 2016 hacking


For months, top U.S. officials have warned that foreign countries, specifically Russia and China, have the capability to hack the American midterm elections. Fifth Domain is live-blogging election security updates before, during and after the Nov. 6 vote, following the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and others to ensure election day integrity.

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12:25 p.m. -- How US intelligence agencies reformed after 2016 hacking -- The U.S. government was caught off guard by Russia’s hacking efforts during the 2016 elections, current and former U.S. intelligence and White House officials have told Fifth Domain. To be clear, there is no evidence that the vote tally was changed during the 2016 elections. Instead, U.S. government officials say that Russia hacked the Clinton campaign and weaponized information through leaks to sway Americans perceptions.

Since then, the U.S. intelligence community has started a new election security task force, boosted collaboration with local officials and has taken offensive cyber operations.

The creation of the NSA’s election security small group this May was meant to monitor foreign government’s actions during future elections. Information from the task force is then given to the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, who works to update local election officials.

The NSA has also taken offensive operations “in connection with defending the integrity of our electoral process and defending the overall integrity of our information technology systems,” national security advisor John Bolton said Oct. 31 during an event at the Alexander Hamilton Institute.

Some former intelligence officials have told Fifth Domain that the changed have not been strong enough and blame an absence of executive leadership.

The intelligence community believes that it is difficult to compare the threat of election interference in the midterm elections with the 2016 presidential vote, because adversaries and the U.S. government’s tactics have changed. But American intelligence officials say foreign countries are trying to sow discord and undermine faith in the democratic process, and their midterm activity could be preparation for the 2020 election.

10:54 a.m. — DHS refers Georgia hacking claims to state — An official from the Department of Homeland Security told Fifth Domain the agency has been notified of an accusation of a potential hack on the Georgia registration database, and are deferring to the state for further details.

The office of Georgia Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp has, without citing evidence, opened an investigation into the Democratic Party of Georgia for “failed efforts to breach the online voter registration system.” In a Nov. 4 statement, Kemp’s office requested the FBI investigate the claims, and said the secretary of state’s office would be working with private-sector vendors and investigators to review data logs. Kemp has refused to step down from his role as secretary of state, the office which oversees the elections.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said in a interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Kemp was “trying to distract voters with a desperate ploy.”

“This is also someone who has a strong habit of having hackable systems," Abrams said. “He once again is overseeing a vulnerable system and is blaming someone for his mistakes.”

A spokesperson for the FBI and the Georgia Secretary of State office did not immediately return requests for comment.

Kemp was one of the few secretaries of state who refused support from the Department of Homeland Security during the 2016 elections. Former Homeland Security officials have told Fifth Domain that when DHS tired to persuade Kemp to accept federal support, the Georgia secretary argued that the federal government was trying to take over local elections.

Published: 2018-11-05 17:27:50