Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a written statement that the Russian government, and by extension, its president Vladimir Putin, had “orchestrated cyberattacks” on the US “for the purpose of influencing our election — plain and simple.”
The statement, delivered amid a bicameral congressional probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election, preceded Johnson’s scheduled Wednesday testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It was the latest affirmation by a former top US official about Russia’s US-election interference.
Johnson says that he became aware of the Democratic National Committee hacks in 2016, and began a probe to see whether the DNC needed assistance. The answer he received; however, was “not reassuring.”
“The FBI and the DNC had been in contact with each other months before about the intrusion, and the DNC did not feel it needed DHS’s assistance at that time,” wrote Johnson. “As summer 2016 progressed, my concerns about the possibility of a cyberattack around our national election grew.”
Johnson floated the idea of including “election infrastructure” into the US’s 16 “critical infrastructures” — governmental sectors; such as financial services, dams, transportation, government facilities, that are vital to the country. By adding election infrastructure into the list, it meant the DHS would prioritise requests from election officials, including cybersecurity protections.
During an August conference call with election officials from every state, Johnson reiterated that “we must ensure the security and resilience of election infrastructure,” and offered his agency’s assistance.
“To my disappointment, the reaction to a critical infrastructure designation, at least from those who spoke up, ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson wrote. “Those who expressed negative views stated that running elections in this country was the sovereign and exclusive responsibility of the states, and they did not want federal intrusion, a federal takeover, or federal regulation of that process.”
Johnson and his team called this a “profound misunderstanding” and ended up dropping their efforts to establish a designation because they thought it would have been “counterproductive” during the election season.
“Instead, and more importantly in the time left before the election, we encouraged the states to seek our cybersecurity help,” Johnson continued. “Prior to the election, encouraging the horses to come to the water had to be the primary objective.”
Following the 2016 US presidential election, Johnson reported that his team’s efforts were unsuccessful: “… My staff reported to me that state officials’ said views of the designation had not changed, and continued to be neutral to negative.”
In August and September, Johnson and other security officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, became “increasingly convinced” that Russia had perpetrated the election process by hacking the DNC and other political figures.
By Election Day, states had reportedly corralled around the DHS for cybersecurity assistance. Johnson’s agency had also implemented a “crisis-response team” in order to “rapidly address any reported cyber intrusions.”
“Cyberattacks of all manner and from multiple sources are going to get worse before they get better,” wrote Johnson.
“With the experience fresh in our minds and clear in our rear-view mirror, we must resolve to further strengthen our cybersecurity generally, and the cybersecurity around our political/election process specifically.”
In the early months of President Donald Trump’s term, the congressional probe has gone through a circuitous process that has seen the recusal of several top US officials, including the House’s Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Despite a wide range of US officials who agree that Russia had meddled with the election, Trump continues to throw cold water on the claim: “Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News,” Trump tweeted in May.
As recently as Tuesday, it remained unknown whether or not Trump believed Russia interfered in the US election.