- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Defense told lawmakers Tuesday that the Pentagon is increasingly optimistic about efforts to secure the 2020 elections.

Acting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the country must nevertheless continue to develop new capabilities to stay ahead of ongoing attacks targeting the U.S. electoral process.

Mr. Esper, a former Raytheon executive who served as the secretary of the Army under Mr. Trump until recently, made the comments while discussing election security during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill.

Responding to questioning from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, Mr. Esper credited a classified directive issued by Mr. Trump last year — the National Security Presidential Memorandum 13, or NSPM 13 — with allowing the military to defend the 2018 midterm elections from foreign meddling by taking a more offensive approach that before.

“We are more and more confident that the 2020 elections will also be unfettered,” Mr. Esper said.



On the other hand, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, subsequently told Mr. Esper that he left a classified briefing held last week on election security concerned that the government is doing “way short of what is necessary” to safeguard next year’s race.

“I did not mean to convey that I am comfortable with where we stand,” Mr. Esper replied. “I think this is going to be an ongoing threat for some time.

“I certainly cannot attest today that 2020 will be flawless, but, like I said, I think we were in a much better posture in 2018,” he said. “I think we addressed the problem adequately.”

Russia interfered in the presidential race won by Mr. Trump in 2016, according to the U.S. intelligence community. The Department of Justice has filed related criminal charges against alleged state-sponsored hackers and professional internet trolls accused of meddling in the election by attacking American computer systems and weaponizing social media platforms, respectively.

Mr. Esper did not reveal how the military has relied on NSPM 13 to make stride to election security since 2016. The Washington Post previously reported that the classified directive allowed the Pentagon to wage an offensive cyber campaign last year targeting the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based company accused of employing the trolls that used social media to spread disinformation and sow discord during the last White House race.

“We are at war, if you will, in the cyber domain now, constantly battling countries such as Russia or China, who are trying to do everything from steal our technology to influence our elections to put out disinformation about the United States,” Mr. Esper testified Tuesday.

“We just have to get used to the fact that this is a new domain of warfare that we will probably be in constant conflict with countries below the threshold of kinetic conflict,” he said. “And that’s just the way the world will be from now on. And we have to continue to develop and make sure that we retain cutting edge capabilities and overmatch in that area.”

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