WASHINGTON (CN) – The 2020 presidential election is a tantalizing target for hackers, foreign influences and other peddlers of propaganda but stopping all forms of interference is virtually impossible, national security officials told a House panel Wednesday.
U.S. elections will always be vulnerable to some manner of meddling, Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told lawmakers during a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on election safeguards.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last month that the 2020 election is the “big show” for bad actors and the 2018 midterms were merely a “dress rehearsal.”
While foreign entities did target election and campaign infrastructure during the midterms, they were quickly dispatched by intelligence and law enforcement officials monitoring the activity, Krebs said Wednesday.
But being “unhackable is not a realistic outcome,” he added, noting lawmakers shouldn’t set a goal of perfectly executed interference prevention as they turn their eyes to the 2020 election.
Instead, Krebs said the goal over the next 18 months should be to sustain a well-oiled network of state, local and federal officials who fully support and staff election infrastructure bodies like the U.S. Election Assistance Commission or the Federal Election Commission.
Deterring a hacker hell-bent on getting into a system they want to be in is “impossible,” and no amount of funding poured into that end would ultimately provide a permanent solution, he explained.
“Every day isn’t going to be a good day. But this is about making the bad days less catastrophic,” Krebs said of his agency’s deterrence operations.
In February, the Office of the Director of National Security furnished the White House with a classified report on attempts by foreign actors to interfere in the 2018 midterms. While the report indicated there was no “material impact” to the election by those actors, the department’s director, Dan Coates, was adamant: U.S. adversaries will only evolve their tactics over time and ramp up attacks as the next election grows closer.
Both Krebs and Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, agreed on that point Wednesday but mutually emphasized a need to strengthen capabilities in both departments.
The proposed 2020 budget reduces cyber and election security funding below 2018 levels but as it stands, Krebs said, the current allotment would still be sufficient for his office to carry out operations.
Several Democratic lawmakers were skeptical of his assessment.
There are 2,200 personnel in Krebs’ department, with 900 employees focused on cyber security and 800 focused on physical security. Communication specialists and mission support teams make up the rest.
A Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General report published in February found various gaps in security, notably in areas like “emerging threats” during the 2018 elections. Key security plans were not in place and established metrics to track data and observe potential patterns of abuse were also missing.
Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, said the classified report from Coates’ office on election security gave him “significant” pause and he felt little reassurance as Krebs and Hickey testified Wednesday.
He said the agencies seemed self-assured about their ability to neutralize a threat but the public – and Congress – is mostly in the dark about those operations.
Hickey told Welch there was very little chance the report would be declassified since it could expose sensitive sources and methods the intelligence community has mastered to thwart would-be hackers.
But Welch argued transparency is increasingly critical on this matter.
On a related note, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis also made a strong case for transparency Wednesday. The governor called for a widespread review of his state’s election infrastructure in the wake of revelations last week by the FBI which found that two counties in Florida had their voting systems breached.
DeSantis has already directed Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee to initiate a full review of the election system in the Sunshine State.