- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee lashed out at President Trump for failing to acknowledge the severity of the threat Russia still poses to the integrity of the midterm elections.

“We need the administration to accelerate its efforts,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said before a Capitol Hill hearing on past and future election security. “

Wednesday’s hearing featured testimony from current Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Jeh Johnson, who held the post under President Obama. Ms. Nielsen defended the administration’s response, and said her department has made defending U.S. electoral systems a top priority.

The department is “prioritizing election efforts … over all other critical infrastructure sectors,” including the financial, energy and communication systems, she said.

But she also acknowledged only about 20 out of a targeted 150 key state election officials have full security clearances needed to receive classified information on cybersecurity threats to their elections. She said the department was mobilizing to get the word out on the dangers.

“We’re expending not only extraordinary resources to provide any support at the request of states,” Ms. Nielsen said. “If we have intel, we will read in the appropriate state officials that day, so we’re not waiting for clearances.”

On Tuesday, the committee issued the first recommendations of its year-long investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, urging the federal government to provide states with more help to update decrepit election systems, beef up cybersecurity and obtain more top-secret intelligence to prevent foreign hackers from meddling again.

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experts warning that not enough has been done to secure almost 10,000 U.S. voting jurisdictions that mostly run on out-of-date technology.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

“This issue is urgent — if we start to fix these problems tomorrow, we still might not be in time to have systems in place by 2020,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina, said Wednesday.

Senators from both parties were aggressive in their grilling of the Homeland Security chiefs.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, California Democrat, pushed Mr. Johnson, on why Obama administration officials failed to more forcefully warn American voters that hacks were occurring in 2016.

Mr. Johnson responded that the Obama administration did issue a statement in October 2016, but said it came on the same day that news broke of an “Access Hollywood” video from last decade in which Mr. Trump had a lewd conversation about women.

Ms. Feinstein dismissed his answer, and countered that Mr. Johnson was displaying the sort of “victim mentality” the department seems to adopt whenever addressing Russian threats.

Meanwhile, Sen. Angus King, Maine Independent, urged Ms. Nielsen to hire hackers to break into state election systems to prove to skeptical states how vulnerable they are.

“America needs to wake up,” he said.

Congress is taking up a massive spending bill this week that is expected to include roughly $400 million for election security, Reuters reported.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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