President Obama’s claim that he confronted President Vladimir Putin and shut down Russian hacking efforts late in the 2016 election campaign will face sharp scrutiny when Jeh Johnson, Mr. Obama’s homeland security chief, faces lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The Obama administration’s record on fighting hacking efforts and complaints from state election officials over an 11th-hour regulation to tie state election systems to federal security systems will get a major airing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, one of a number of panels investigating Russian efforts to interfere in the election.
The effectiveness of the Obama administration’s efforts to track and shut down suspected Russian election hacks has been one of the underreported aspects of the scandal. Mr. Obama has said he was torn last summer between making public what U.S. intelligence knew of Moscow’s meddling and concern about the appearance of trying to influence the vote.
But he told reporters in December that he finally decided to confront Mr. Putin on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in September. In Mr. Obama’s account, he warned that Russia needed to “cut it out” with election hacking or “there were going to be some serious consequences.”
“In fact,” Mr. Obama said, “we did not see further tampering of the election process.”
But a recently leaked analysis from the National Security Agency contradicts the former president’s account. It found that Russian covert efforts continued much closer to Election Day, including a Russian military intelligence-led “spear-phishing” attack on more than 100 local election officials just days before Nov. 8.
In remarks prepared for delivery to the committee, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Putin was personally behind the directive to mount cyberattacks to influence the election, including the hack of Democratic National Committee emails.
Mr. Johnson said the DNC kept his department, which heads up America’s cybersecurity defense, in the dark for months, then refused his offer of assistance. He called that “not reassuring.”
The former secretary, who served from late 2013 through the end of the Obama administration, said he began to receive reports of attempted hacks of state elections systems in August, about the time the FBI issued a public warning.
The fast-moving investigation into Russian hacking, suspected collusion by the Trump campaign and the Obama administration’s handling of sensitive data advanced on several fronts Tuesday:
• Special counsel Robert Mueller met with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the evening and was to meet with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning in an effort to keep his independent probe from conflicting with multiple investigations in both chambers of Congress. The top Republican and Democrat on the House intelligence committee investigation called the meeting productive.
• White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Trump would reveal by the end of the week whether he had tapes of his conversations with fired FBI Director James B. Comey that could shed light on any obstruction of justice case. Mr. Trump hinted in a tweet last month that he may have recorded their private talks. Mr. Spicer also told reporters that he had not asked Mr. Trump directly if he accepted the intelligence community consensus that Russia tried to interfere in the election.
• Republicans stepped up their criticism of the team of lawyers Mr. Mueller is assembling, saying many have records of contributing to Democratic causes and candidates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, joked on Twitter that Mr. Mueller “wanted to hire me to help investigation, but I wasn’t a donor to Clinton campaign or Clinton Foundation, so I was dumped from [the] list.”
A second move at the end of Mr. Obama’s tenure related to election security is also facing criticism — a directive to classify the state-based election systems as “critical infrastructure” in response to the hacking, in addition to questions about the timing of the WikiLeaks disclosure of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s hacked emails.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has blasted the Jan. 6 measure — which the Trump administration is keeping for now — as “hastily conceived,” with more than a dozen states fighting the designation. Some national election officials have gone so far as to argue that tying state election systems into a national security network could make American elections more susceptible to foreign attacks.
“Secretaries of state have serious concerns about the general lack of federal government information-sharing regarding documented threats against election systems, particularly in the wake of the leaked NSA report,” Kay Stimson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State, said in an interview.
“It remains unclear why our intelligence agencies would withhold timely and specific threat information from chief state election officials, who can use it to better defend their systems,” she said.
Mr. Johnson, in his prepared remarks, said he first floated the idea of elevating elections to critical infrastructure status in August, but was put off by state officials’ response, and concluded that it would be “counterproductive” just ahead of the election.
“I remained convinced it was a good idea, but we put the idea on the back burner,” he said. “Instead, and more importantly in the time left before the election, we encouraged the states to seek our cybersecurity help.”
He said most states eventually sought some sort of assistance, including Homeland Security tools to scan their systems to try to spot intrusions.
He issued the critical infrastructure designation in January.
The National Association of Secretaries of State, a bipartisan collection of secretaries of state from New Hampshire to California, said it fears Homeland Security could interpret the designation to include election storage facilities, polling places and centralized vote tabulations and registration databases.
They say this could lead to a federalizing of the election process.
Ms. Stimson said, “From its very inception, the designation seemed hastily determined to election officials.”
State election officials argue that their systems have numerous built-in safeguards against malicious attacks and systemic fraud. No evidence has been produced that any tampering by the Russians or any other foreign actor changed any voting totals or affected Mr. Trump’s Electoral College win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“There is no way to disrupt the voting process in any large-scale, meaningful way through cyberattacks because there is — no national system — to target,” a cybersecurity election briefing by the secretaries of state said earlier this year.
State and local election systems also function without a great deal of internet connectivity, with voting machines, where ballots are cast, not connected to the internet, thus minimizing opportunities of online hacking.
Finally, they argue, robust local check and balances promote transparency.
Before the Homeland Security Department approved the order, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signed a letter of opposition in September, stating that “we would oppose any effort by the federal government to exercise any degree of control over the states’ administration of elections by designating these systems as critical infrastructure.”
Mr. Johnson and then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper on Oct. 7 issued the first public warning that “Russia’s senior-most officials” were involved in a cyberattack effort to disrupt the election. That night, WikiLeaks began posting thousands of hacked private emails from Mr. Podesta.
The secretaries of state said that state election officials wonder why Mr. Johnson last year repeatedly told them — during three calls in the run-up to Election Day — that no credible or specific threats of meddling existed.
Mr. Johnson dismissed the elections officials’ fears of federalization but concurred with the conclusion that the intrusions didn’t succeed in fouling any ballots or vote counts.
Mr. Johnson, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, met last week with heads of the House intelligence committee probe, Reps. Mike Conaway, Texas Republican, and Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat. He was also interviewed by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
After those meetings, Mr. Johnson declined to say whether the Obama White House should have taken more active measures against Russian threats during the campaign.
“I’m here voluntarily to assist the House intelligence committee on a matter of great importance,” he said. “So I welcome the opportunity to do that to help strengthen our nation’s cybersecurity.”