The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday revealed their recommendations for improving the country’s election infrastructure and guarding it against foreign cyberattacks—a critical component of that panel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In a veiled swipe at President Donald Trump, the bipartisan report includes a direct plea to federal officials to “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken issue with Trump’s dismissive statements about Russian election-meddling and his apparent unwillingness to treat the issue with urgency, in addition to his administration’s hesitance to immediately and fully implement congressionally mandated sanctions against Russia in response to its election-meddling.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the committee, said federal officials need to be “more effective at deterring our adversaries” like Russia, which “was looking for vulnerabilities” in U.S. election systems ahead of the 2016 election as part of its coordinated campaign to interfere in and influence the outcome of the election.
“If you’ve got intent and capability, then you’ve got a threat,” Burr said alongside his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats. “Russia is not the only one with the capability, and they’re probably not the only one that has the intent.”
After briefing reporters on the committee’s report, Burr said he was “less concerned with what the president says and I’m more concerned with what [the Department of Homeland Security] and other agencies do.”
On Tuesday, committee members were united in their condemnation of Russia over its interference in the 2016 election, and in their dire warnings over the likelihood for future election-meddling from hostile foreign actors like Russia. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) warned that the Russians have “set a path that others can follow” in the future.
It was a notable difference in tone from the House’s intelligence panel, which has been locked in partisan squabbling for months over its Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation wrapped up last week, with Republicans and Democrats set to issue their own partisan final reports rather than a non-partisan one on the findings of the investigation.
While the report does not address past vulnerabilities, it outlines steps that individual states and localities can take in order to “better defend against a hostile nation-state who may seek to undermine our democracy.” The recommendations represented the committee’s first public report as part of its Russia investigation, which was launched last year.
“The Russians continue to undertake sophisticated attacks to exacerbate the divisions in our country,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said. “We may never know the full extent of the Russian malicious attacks.”
The full report comes as states and municipalities nationwide have already begun holding primaries for the 2018 cycle. U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned that Russia will interfere in the midterm elections—and feels emboldened to do so. At least one top official, National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers, has attributed Russia’s intentions to the Trump administration not doing “enough” to counter the Kremlin’s anti-democratic efforts.
“More broadly, my concern is, I believe that [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin has clearly come to the conclusion there’s little price to pay here, and that therefore I can continue this activity,” Rogers said last month in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Burr reiterated on Tuesday that the federal government as a whole needs to do more.
While there isn’t any evidence that election results were altered in 2016, federal officials believe that Russians targeted election infrastructure in nearly two dozen states and successfully hacked into one voter database. The recommendations issued by the committee on Tuesday did not address Russia’s coordinated influence-campaign that sought to impersonate Americans on social media to exacerbate political tensions in the U.S.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate panel, said it took the Department of Homeland Security nine months to inform state officials that their systems were targeted by a foreign actor. Additionally, Warner said, 14 states were using equipment in the 2016 election that provided no verifiable paper trail. Senators said states should remain in charge of their own election infrastructure, with the federal government serving in an advise-and-assist role and participating in intelligence-sharing.
“The Intelligence Community should put a high priority on attributing cyber attacks both quickly and accurately,” the report states. “Similarly, policymakers should make plans to operate prior to attribution.”
The senators also recommended that Congress “urgently pass legislation” to establish a “voluntary grant program” for individual states. Those funds would be intended to “improve cybersecurity by hiring additional Information Technology staff, updating software, and contracting vendors to provide cybersecurity services, among other steps.”
On Wednesday, the committee will hold a public hearing on election security, with witnesses including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Jeh Johnson, who held that position during the Obama administration.