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Trump fires head of election cybersecurity who debunked conspiracy theories

CISA Director Christopher Krebs had recently butted heads with the White House over his agency's Rumor Control blog, which rebuts false claims of election fraud and hacking.
Image: Chris Krebs
Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 14, 2019.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images file

Christopher Krebs, who led the federal government's election cybersecurity efforts, has been fired by President Donald Trump via Twitter.

Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, has been the target of public criticism from Trump since the Nov. 3 election over his agency's Rumor Control blog, which rebuts a list of false claims about election fraud and hacking — many of which Trump or his lawyers have touted as real after he lost the election.

"I'm proud of the work we did at CISA," Krebs told NBC News on Tuesday night after the firing. "I'm proud of the teammates I had at CISA. We did it right."

A source with knowledge of the firing said that Krebs found out about it via Twitter and that it was upsetting for him because he took the work seriously.

Several sources close to Krebs said in recent days that it was a matter of "when, not if," Krebs would be fired.

"He's been on death watch," said a person close to Krebs.

Trump tweeted Tuesday night that Krebs had put out a statement concerning the election that was "highly inaccurate," apparently a reference to a joint statement Thursday from CISA, the Election Assistance Commission and groups that represent the chief election officers in every state. The statement read, in part, "There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised."

Trump has said repeatedly that the election was rigged, even though no evidence has substantiated the claim and numerous state and federal agencies have said the election was legitimate.

Krebs has been one of the most vocal government officials debunking baseless claims about election manipulation, particularly addressing a conspiracy theory centered on Dominion Voting Systems machines that Trump has pushed.

In addition to the rumor control web site, Krebs defended the use of mail-in ballots before the election, saying CISA saw no potential for increased fraud as the practice ramped up during the pandemic.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump maintained that the election did not suffer from foreign interference, but he again referred to Dominion Voting Systems.

Shortly after Trump's announcement, Krebs tweeted: "Honored to serve. We did it right."

Sources close to Krebs expected him to continue to push back against the president's misinformation to the end and not "lay low."

Krebs' dismissal not only leaves the door open for the president to appoint someone loyal in his place; it is also "an opportunity for bad cyber actors to take advantage," said a former official of the Department of Homeland Security, CSIA's parent agency.

Krebs’s deputy, Matthew Travis, resigned soon after, according to a source directly familiar with the situation.

According to a CISA spokesperson, Brandon Wales, who was No. 3 at CISA until Tuesday night, will now be acting head of the agency after the firing of Chris Krebs and the resignation of Travis. Wales is a career official, not a political appointee, which insulates him from being fired by the White House.

While he does not appear to have made public comments since the election, at an MIT event on Oct. 11, he said CISA's role was "first, trying to correct election disinformation."

"Our role is to get to the American people and provide them the right way to evaluate information they’re seeing. Ultimately we can do that whether disinformation comes from foreign or domestic sources."

Krebs put Wales in his current position deliberately, so that in the event such as this, there would be a "capable leader to serve," said a source familiar with the decision. "The priority was consistency," the source said. "Wales is widely respected and has been with CISA for about 15 years, he is a known quantity."

Another former DHS official said CISA has largely enjoyed bipartisan support throughout the Trump administration, even from Democrats who were critical of wider Department of Homeland Security.

"The idea that they are trying to rewrite history on CISA is insane," the former official said.

But, the former official said, Krebs should be able to return to government in a Biden administration because he left "with his credibility in tact."

"He's going to be the guy who stood up to the president and protected democracy," the fomer official said.

A source close to Krebs said acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf had recently tried to "rein in" Krebs by asking him not to post tweets that countered the president's claims about the election.

'Chris didn't compromise himself'

Trump appointed Krebs, a former policy director at Microsoft, director of what is now CISA in 2017, in the wake of Russia's 2016 election interference campaign and the outgoing Obama administration's declaration that elections systems would become critical infrastructure.

While the agency provides security assistance to a number of industries, like manufacturing and the energy grid, Krebs had become the face of the government's election cybersecurity efforts, which included wrangling both the heads of elections from all 50 states and the broader hacker community.

Both groups are historically skeptical of the federal government, but under Krebs' direction, CISA has been able to make inroads with both. He became a fixture at the country's major cybersecurity conferences and persuaded highly regarded hackers to join CISA.

He also won over state election officials from both parties, hosting national joint election security walkthroughs and persuading every state to install cyberthreat information-sharing sensors. Noting that some states were unable to receive intelligence briefings in 2016 because some information about Russia's activities was classified, CISA oversaw an initiative to get at least one person with security clearance in each state.

A senior agency official called Krebs' firing "a sad day" for the agency and said he had resisted calls to echo misleading claims.

"Chris didn't compromise himself or this mission," the senior official said.

Another CISA official said Krebs' being fired for refuting false claims about the election was "an absolute badge of honor."

"He should be proud," the official said.

Earlier Tuesday, CISA announced that Krebs would be speaking for the agency at two livestreamed talks held by third parties.

Many politicians and state officials praised Krebs following Trump's announcement.

"Chris Krebs should be commended for his service in protecting our elections, not fired for telling the truth," said Michael Gwin, a spokesperson for President-elect Biden's campaign. "Bipartisan election officials in the administration itself — and around the country — have made clear that Donald Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud are categorically false and Trump's embarrassing refusal to accept that reality lays bare how baseless and desperate his flailing is."

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and its former chair, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., each emailed statements in support of Krebs.

"Chris Krebs is an extraordinary public servant and exactly the person Americans want protecting the security of our elections," Warner said.

"It speaks volumes that the president chose to fire him simply for telling the truth," Warner added.

"Chris and his team at CISA have worked diligently to strengthen our election infrastructure, helping to shore up vulnerabilities and build trust between State and Federal Governments," Burr said. "The creative and innovative campaign CISA developed to promote cybersecurity should serve as a model for other government agencies."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in an emailed statement that Krebs' firing "is a gut punch to our democracy."

"Director Krebs has been praised by both Republicans and Democrats at the state and national level for protecting our nation's critical infrastructure, including our election systems," she said.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who serves on the Homeland Security Committee and is a member of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a joint government agency to create a comprehensive U.S. cybersecurity strategy, said in an emailed statement that Krebs "is a public servant of impeccable integrity."

"The president's inability to accept the election results and his lashing out at those willing to speak the truth about his lies has gone from petulant to downright dangerous," Langevin said.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in an emailed statement that the move "leaves our nation weaker."

"The success of the 2020 General Election — in the face of disinformation campaigns and cyber threats from foreign adversaries — is owed in large part to CISA under Chris Krebs' leadership. Chris Krebs has been an accessible, reliable partner for elections officials across the country, and across party lines, as we have fortified our cyber defenses since 2016," he said.