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Senate probe finds ‘extensive’ Russian meddling in US election

United States Senate chamber. (United States Congress/Released)

The Senate Intelligence Committee recounted “extensive” efforts by Russia to compromise the United States’ election infrastructure from 2014 to “at least 2017” and urged new efforts to deter the threat as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

In summarizing the first part of its final report on Russian efforts to undermine American democracy, committee Chairman Richard Burr said Thursday that “in 2016 the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure.”

Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said that since then “we have learned much more about the nature of Russia’s cyber activities and better understand the real and urgent threat they pose.”

The Intelligence Committee’s warning came a day after former special counsel Robert Mueller made a similar plea to combat continuing Russian interference during hearings before two House panels. While Mueller gave an often halting and lackluster summary of his findings on meddling in the 2016 campaign and links to those around President Donald Trump, he was assertive in describing a threat to the American political system.

Amid partisan disputes in congressional committees over the Russia probe, only the Senate Intelligence panel has maintained a largely bipartisan consensus.

“Given Russian intentions to undermine the credibility of the election process, states should take urgent steps to replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems,” the panel said.

The report recommends using paper ballots and optical scanners and preventing any wireless networking capability in voting machines. It recommends against the new trend toward allowing online voting.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel’s Democratic vice chairman, urged the White House and Congress to do more to shore up election security.

“I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it,” Warner said.

The one dissenter from the committee’s consensus was Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who criticized the recommendation to reinforce the primacy of states in running elections, a position many politicians consider sacrosanct. He called for nationwide cybersecurity mandates and voting standards.

“The defense of U.S. national security against a highly sophisticated foreign government cannot be left to state and county officials,” Wyden said. “If there was ever a moment when Congress needed to exercise its clear constitutional authorities to regulate elections, this is it.”

The committee, whose public report had significant redactions, didn’t find that Russian government efforts against U.S. elections systems changed any votes in 2016 or that any voting machines were manipulated. That’s a finding likely to hearten Trump, who has tended to minimize concern about Russian interference as a partisan effort to question the legitimacy of his election as president.

But the committee recommended that any new voting machines include a voter-verified paper backup and said the federal government should consider increasing election assistance to states.

The report found there were strong indications that voting systems in all 50 states had been probed.

“Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data, but the committee is not aware of any evidence that they did so,” according to the report.

The committee said Russian agents “may have been probing vulnerabilities in voting systems to exploit later” or simply sought to undermine confidence in the elections once their activity was discovered.

Illinois experienced the first known breach by Russians of election infrastructure in June 2016, with Russians accessing up to 200,000 voter registration records, the panel found.

The committee is awaiting the declassification of its report on Russia’s social media efforts and intends to release the rest of its final report in multiple volumes this fall.

The panel said it interviewed more than 200 witnesses and reviewed more than 400,000 documents as part of its probe.

FBI Director Christopher Wray also warned Thursday that election attacks from various sources may escalate. “We’ve yet to see attacks manipulating or deleting election and voter-related data, or attacks taking election management systems offline,” Wray said in a speech in New York. “But we know our adversaries are relentless. So are we.”


(Chris Strohm contributed to this report.)


© 2019 Bloomberg News

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