WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized both the current and former heads of the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday for failing to issue stronger warnings about potential threats to the integrity of the 2018 midterm elections.
Kirstjen Nielsen, who currently heads the Department of Homeland Security, rebuffed assertions by senators that the department appeared to lack urgency when addressing possible gaps in cybersecurity measures.
Nielsen said she has an “extreme sense of urgency” and will expend “extraordinary resources” to provide support to any states who request assistance monitoring the integrity of their election systems.
A part of that process, she said, includes expediting security clearances for some election officials: in some cases the “appropriate election officials” will be prioritized and issued security clearances in a single day.
So far, Nielsen reported, just 20 of 150 election officials nationwide have received a full security clearance.
“We’re granting interim secret clearances as quickly as we can,” she said.
No evidence currently exists suggesting intrusion in 21 targeted election sites ahead of the 2018 election ultimately changed the end result but lawmakers pressed Nielsen and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson for their recommendations moving forward.
Both secretaries emphasized the need to maintain clear-cut boundaries between federal and state powers but Jeh Johnson shared some of the difficulties he had getting some state officials onboard when it became apparent to the department that intrusion was afoot.
“In August, I wanted to talk to state election officials first. I was surprised and disappointed that there seemed to be a lot of misapprehension about what [designating their election systems as critical infrastructure] would mean,” Johnson said. “I said it would mean we prioritize providing assistance to [them] if [they asked.] It’s voluntary, not a federal takeover. The reaction was largely neutral to negative. The priority had to be getting states to come to us and seek cyber security assistance.”
Once states opt to make their election infrastructure “critical infrastructure,” those states can be actually be protected, Johnson emphasized.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he was sympathetic to the difficulty of collaborative efforts between the federal government and states, but zeroed in on the importance of achieving consensus on the dangers of vulnerable voting systems.
“Because we know Russians and potentially other [bad actors] are coming at this, I think it is critical that even if you, [the secretaries of Homeland Security] don’t want to highlight this, someone needs to highlight these states and localities that don’t want to participate or [refuse to] move to a paper trail,” Warner said. “A community has a right to know if there is a state ignoring this problem.”
Republican and democrat lawmakers alike spoke in favor of securing voting machines and pressed Nielsen for developments on that front.
“Voter files are maintained by outside vendors, and those vendors then collect all of that information at a single point. You don’t have to even go through a state to target someone, but you could attack a vendor,” Sen. Warner noted.
Nielsen said the department was working with vendors from the supply chain upward, but so far just six states have taken up the department’s offer to enhance their cyber security services. Though she did not specify, the secretary said there were also “multiple” vendors who agreed to collaborate with the feds.
Lawmakers offered bipartisan support for recommendations to improve hardcopy, paper audit trails at voting centers. Making certain that the machines not connected to the internet should also be a high priority, senators agreed.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., echoed calls by the committee for paper ballots and post-election audits Wednesday, issuing a statement singling out the need for a “baseline, mandatory federal election security standard.”
The senate committee plans on releasing a full election security report, with full recommendations, in the next few weeks as a part of its ongoing investigation into Russian meddling.
Lawmakers may be able to fund their efforts by drawing from the roughly $380 billion pool of grant funding earmarked for state election security. The grants, which are part of a larger spending bill, are expected to be unveiled as early as Wednesday but could come later this week, the Associated Press reports.