- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The federal government should give states more help to update decrepit election systems, beef up its cybersecurity and obtain more top secret intelligence to prevent foreign hackers from meddling again in U.S. elections, top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday.

In the first set of findings from its yearlong probe into Russia’s efforts to hack the 2016 election, the committee also blasted the federal government’s attempts to stop the Kremlin’s cyberattacks.

“We were all disappointed that the Department of Homeland Security and federal government were not more on their game,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said during a Capitol Hill news conference, adding that the committee found breakdowns in communications from the department to individual states trying to protect the integrity of their election processes.

The bipartisan push to improve election security came on the same day that voters in Illinois — the only state known to have been successfully hacked last time around — cast ballots in the country’s second primary. Texans kicked off the primary season earlier this month.

In 2016, Russian agents targeted election systems in 21 states, Homeland Security officials have said, with experts warning that not enough has been done to secure almost 10,000 U.S. voting jurisdictions that mostly run on out-of-date technology.

While no evidence has yet surfaced that the 2016 hacks altered election results, the multiple attempts scared state election officials who are still working to understand how their systems were vulnerable.

On Tuesday, while unveiling six election security recommendations, committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr and other panel members sternly echoed top U.S. intelligence officials’s warnings that Russia was gearing up to do it again.

“One conclusion is clear: The Russians were relentless in attempting to meddle in the 2016 elections, and they will continue their efforts to undermine public confidence in Western democracies and in the legitimacy of our elections,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told reporters at a Capitol Hill briefing.

The wide-ranging recommendations would still leave the states in the lead on running elections, with Washington only ensuring that they receive the necessary resources and information.

The Department of Homeland Security should establish clear channels of communication between the federal government and appropriate state and local levels election officials with “a common set of precise and well-defined election security terms to improve communication,” the committee said. Lawmakers also urged the U.S. government to explicitly warn foreign powers that any attacks on America’s election infrastructure “is a hostile act” and that the U.S. will respond accordingly.

The Homeland Security Department should expedite security clearances for state and local election officials needing access to intelligence, the panel concluded, after state officials complained Homeland Security was too slow to share information in 2016. The panel also recommended a federal grant program to help the states rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems.

Some committee members said the states need help securing paper ballots and computer back-up files to ensure no opportunities exist to create fake votes or hack the process.

“Russians cannot hack a piece of paper the way they can a computer system connected to the internet,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, California Democrat.

Members are scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on threats to election infrastructure, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and her Obama administration predecessor, Jeh Johnson, slated to testify.

The Senate intelligence panel thus far made no assessments about whether Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign coordinated in any way with Russia — although that is part of the committee’s probe. Thus far, instead Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner have focused on less controversial issues where all members agree. A parallel House investigation has proven far more partisan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently rejected the U.S. intelligence community consensus that Moscow-backed hackers tried to meddle in the 2016 election to undermine popular faith in the U.S. political process and harm the candidacy of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

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