The head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during last year’s presidential election has told lawmakers he saw no evidence that a cyberattack affected the voting process, after several states said this week they were misled by the DHS report.
“I know of no evidence that last year ballots were altered or votes were suppressed through a cyberattack, but last year’s experience exposed certain cyber vulnerabilities in our election infrastructure,” Jeh Johnson told an election security task force assembled by congressional Democrats Thursday.
The former DHS secretary said his department had observed “scanning and probing” of election systems, including voter registration rolls.
The DHS sent out alerts to 21 states last week, alleging that election systems were targeted by Russian cyber actors during the 2016 election.
The seemingly explosive story began to unravel this week when two of the states – Wisconsin and California – requested more information from the department, with the DHS replying that it wasn’t really their election systems that were targeted.
In a subsequent email to Wisconsin officials, the DHS said an agency that doesn’t deal with elections was the target of scans by Russian IP addresses, AP reported Tuesday.
“Based on our external analysis, the WI IP address affected belongs to the WI Department of Workforce Development, not the Elections Commission,” said the cited email from Juan Figueroa, with Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection.
There was no indication in the DHS statement, however, as to why Russia would want to hack a Wisconsin department which oversees job training and unemployment benefits.
The next day, California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced his office too was first given “wrong” information that its election systems were targeted.
The DHS later “confirmed that Russian scanning activity had actually occurred on the California Department of Technology statewide network, not any Secretary of State website.” This had nothing to do with California Secretary of State elections infrastructure and websites, which were “were not hacked or breached by Russian cyber actors,” according to Padilla’s office.
The DHS notification “was not only a year late, it also turned out to be bad information,” the California secretary of state concluded.
The Obama administration accused the Russian government of interfering in the 2016 US election to help Donald Trump. US intelligence agencies said they had evidence, but it was classified.
This led to numerous Congressional investigations into Russia’s alleged interference, as well as a probe by special counsel into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.
Trump said the Russia story is a “total fabrication, serving as an excuse for Democrats for the “greatest loss in the history of American politics.”
Moscow has repeatedly denied interfering in the US election.