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Former DHS Chief Warns Russians Will Continue to Target U.S. Elections

Former DHS secretary Jeh Johnson tells Congress there's no evidence Russian efforts to meddle the election changed votes in 2016 but says they'll "be back."
Image: Johnson is sworn in to testify about Russian meddling in the 2016 election
Former U.S. Security of Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson is sworn in to testify about Russian meddling in the 2016 election before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 21, 2017.Michael Reynolds / EPA

WASHINGTON — Former Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson told Congress Wednesday that he has not seen evidence that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election directly altered ballots, but warned cyberattacks aimed at undermining U.S. elections will “get worse before they get better.”

Johnson said officials should “assume" that "the Russians will be back, and possibly other state actors, and possibly other bad cyber actors"

Johnson told the House Intelligence Committee it is “a fact” Russian President Vladimir Putin directed cyberattacks aimed at influencing the election. But, Johnson added in his prepared statement: “To my current knowledge, the Russian government did not through any cyber intrusion alter ballots, ballot counts or reporting of election results.”

He repeated that his conclusions come with the caveat that he has not had access to classified information since leaving his post five months ago, and he could not determine whether the hacking influenced public opinion.

Johnson said he became increasingly concerned about Russian efforts to infiltrate voting machines after the intelligence community concluded Moscow was behind the Democratic National Committee hack and had probed state voter registration databases.

In his testimony, Johnson said his stern warnings to state officials about the prospects of cyberattacks against voting machines went largely ignored. Secretaries of state, Johnson said, were largely uninterested in the federal government’s help by designating election infrastructure as critical, which would have provided additional resources to states to protect the integrity of their elections.

“To my disappointment, the reaction to a critical infrastructure designation, at least from those who spoke up, ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said in a statement submitted to the committee. “Those who expressed negative views stated that running elections in this country was the sovereign and exclusive responsibility of the states, and they did not want federal intrusion, a federal takeover, or federal regulation of that process.”

Johnson, who left DHS in January, said he does not know the final count of states impacted by the cyber intrusions into voter databases. But DHS officials simultaneously testifying in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee said 21 states were targets of cyberattacks — though they were not prepared to disclose which states.

At the Senate hearing Wednesday, University of Michigan election security expert J. Alex Halderman said voting machines across the country can be hacked, and votes changed, warning that "we must start preparing now."

“If we fail to act I think it’s only a matter of time until a major election is disrupted or stolen in a cyber attack,” Halderman said.

During his House appearance, Johnson expressed frustration at the DNC for failing to ask his department for help in better securing itself from cyberattacks prior to being hacked. Johnson said in hindsight, perhaps he should have camped outside the DNC in an effort to force them to seek assistance in securing their themselves against hacking.

Johnson also said he was unaware the FBI had opened an investigation into possible coordination between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russian officials. He said he only knew what has been publicly reported about the investigation.

He also faced tough questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about why President Barack Obama and his administration were not more forceful about warning the American people about Russian efforts ahead of Election Day.

“We were very concerned that we not be perceived as taking sides in the election, injecting ourselves into a very heated campaign,” Johnson said, noting that the intelligence community did put out a statement warning about Putin’s efforts.