The federal government offered cybersecurity assistance to state and local entities during the 2016 election, but they resisted the help, President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary testified Wednesday.
As attacks against election targets became increasingly visible in 2016, Jeh Johnson, who was secretary into early 2017, floated the idea of designating election infrastructure as critical infrastructure, making it a top security priority for DHS and give it the benefit of domestic and international cybersecurity protections. But he eventually decided the idea would be “counterproductive.”
“To my disappointment, the reaction to a critical infrastructure designation, at least from those who spoke up, ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said during a hearing Wednesday with the Senate Intelligence Committee. “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. This was a profound misunderstanding of what a critical infrastructure designation would mean, which I tried to clarify for them.”
The “critical” designation was eventually made in January 2017, a move prompting criticism and calls for repeal from state-level officials. Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, announced shortly thereafter that his department would keep the “critical” label.
Government officials from DHS and FBI Wednesday also said for the first time there were “election-related systems in 21 states that were targeted” by Russian hackers during the 2016 presidential election.
Read more about Wednesday’s hearing and the investigation of election system cybersecurity in the 2016 election on CyberScoop.