It was a remarkable week for Russian hacking news. Fox News announced “the #RussiaHoax is over” even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified the Kremlin continues to subvert U.S. elections. Then Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell buried two election security bills, prompting Morning Joe to call out #MoscowMitch for “aiding and abetting Putin.”
But there was real news amid the hashtags, and it was made by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by North Carolina’s Richard Burr. After a two-year, bipartisan investigation, the committee reported Russian interference was more serious than we realized. The Kremlin likely scanned election infrastructure of all 50 states, researching election web pages, voter ID information, election software and election service companies.
The committee found no evidence that Russian actors succeeded in changing vote tallies, but it acknowledged the intelligence community’s insight is limited, raising the possibility that manipulation went undetected. This is concerning because, as the report states, nationwide elections are often won or lost in a small number of precincts, so a “sophisticated actor” that targets districts where “margins are already small” could have “a disproportionate impact on an election’s outcome.”
Why did Russia meddle? The committee says motivations may have been complex, but its likely Putin wants to sow lack of confidence in the democratic process, which it’s been doing through social media as well.
The report is heavily redacted. So, although it details Russia’s specific efforts in a number of U.S. states, it’s hard to tell if North Carolina is described. When asked, Senator Burr’s office didn’t comment.
Earlier this summer, committee member Ron Wyden of Oregon asked the FBI to investigate if a Russian military attack on an election software manufacturer affected election software used in Durham and elsewhere. North Carolina’s Board of Elections says the Department of Homeland Security is still investigating whether Durham’s laptops were compromised.
To prevent future attacks, the committee says the country needs a stronger cyber strategy. Meddling in our elections should be considered a “hostile act” that triggers a response so painful it will deter future intrusion. But to do that, the U.S. must first identify the source of the attacks, and it’s clear from the report that intelligence cannot always do so.
It is striking that, even though the report clearly states funding shortfalls are the biggest obstacle to improving cybersecurity at the state and local levels, it does not call for additional monies. (In North Carolina, for example, the State Board of Elections says counties need more funding to update their equipment.) Instead, the committee adopts what appears to be a compromise recommendation, calling only for a report on whether more funding is necessary. That’s understandable since this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell jettisoned a bill that would increase security funding, but it’s also disappointing.
Still, Sen. Burr and his Democratic counterpart, Mark Warner, should be lauded for conducting a truly bipartisan investigation at a time when this serious national security has become shockingly partisan. It is heartening they could agree on both findings and recommendations. The country needs more sober-minded statesmen to work together across the aisle on this issue, which goes to the very heart of democracy.