Inside Cybersecurity

April 17, 2021

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Cyber Congress: Analysis

Mueller hearings appear unlikely to move cyber election-security debate

By Charlie Mitchell / July 25, 2019

Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) took a stab today at bringing election-security legislation to the Senate floor but was blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), signaling how difficult it will be to separate cyber-related election measures from partisan narratives following former special counsel Robert Mueller's congressional testimony Wednesday.

The Senate Intelligence Committee today released a report and recommendations springing from its own 2016 election hacking investigation, which could pump life into bipartisan interest in election security.

And some House Republicans emerged from the Wednesday Mueller hearings saying that with the collusion and obstruction issues disposed of – in their words – perhaps attention could turn to action on securing the ballot box and related systems from Russian hacking.

Mueller told lawmakers Wednesday the Russians would be back in 2020 – that, in fact, they've never left when it comes to a sophisticated, cyber-enabled campaign to target and undermine democratic processes in the United States.

“Much more needs to be done” to counter foreign interference in U.S. elections, Mueller said at the end of Wednesday's House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He specifically called for more collaboration and info-sharing among campaigns, government agencies and other entities.

Schumer on the Senate floor today highlighted Mueller's comments and said, “Let's forget the political divisions” and pass election-security measures. He pressed again for action on bipartisan bills that would set cyber requirements for election vendors and establish new tools for deterring foreign aggressors.

But when he and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) offered motions to proceed to bipartisan election legislation, McConnell blocked the moves.

Schumer has been touting four bills in particular: a revised version of Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (D-MN) Election Security Act tracking with House-passed legislation; the DETER Act by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD); a bill aimed at deterring Russia -- known as DASKA -- by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH); and the Prevention of Foreign Interference with Elections Act by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Blumenthal.

But McConnell wasn't biting. He turned aside the Democrats' parliamentary moves and said today the Senate will focus on a government funding agreement and approving nominations in the week before the August recess. He seemed unmoved by Mueller's testimony when it comes to bringing election-security legislation to the floor.

“What kind of makes me crazy,” Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA) said on MSNBC today, “is we're not doing enough to actually make our country better protected. There are -- there's commonsense things we can do, simple things. There ought to be an affirmative obligation. If a foreign government intervenes, tell the FBI. … [E]very ballot ought to have a paper ballot backup. We ought to make sure that if a country attacks us, we put sanctions on them and they know that ahead of time.”

He said, “We ought to make sure that in social media there's a requirement to report if foreigners or others advertise. We need some guard-rails around Facebook and Twitter. These are things that would get overwhelming majority of the votes, but this White House and the majority leader refuse to allow any of these bills to come to the floor, and that to me is not making our country safer.”

Warner said, “I think that these votes -- these bills would get 70, 75 votes on the floor of the Senate. I like -- I think a lot of the reluctance is coming from the White House.”

House GOP: Move on

The message from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) following six hours of hearings in the Judiciary and Intelligence committees: “Close the books on this mess.”

“It is time that America turns the page,” McCarthy said at a GOP press conference Wednesday evening. “It is time for America to move forward. The Democrats have to stop wasting time and trying to have a do over of the 2016 presidential election. For more than two years Democrats have obsessed about the Muller investigation, going as far as falsely accusing that they had evidence of collusion, which we found not to be true today. What we heard today only helped to reinforce the facts that there is no collusion and there is no obstruction.”

Said Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (R-GA), “[I]n my committee it was really interesting today because it was agreement on the one thing that there was Russian and foreign interference in our 2016 election. Well, what has been the answer from my committee, from my majority and from my chairman? To bring no bills forward. To bring no solutions forward.”

House Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan (R-OH) said “maybe tomorrow we should have a hearing on the very issue you're talking about, making sure our election system is as safe as possible. But instead, in Oversight, we're going to subpoena White House employees for all their emails. So the Democrats continue this. As the leader said, when you're so focused on stopping the president, it's actually tough to do what's best for the country, and in your specific example, tough to do what's best for our election system. So yeah, we would support moving ahead [on election security], having bipartisan focus on that. But the focus in Oversight and Judiciary seems to be totally on going after the president and folks who work for him.”

House Dems I: Pelosi on next steps

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), at the Democrats' Wednesday evening presser, called Mueller's testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees “a crossing of a threshold, in terms of the public awareness of what happened.”

More investigation is warranted, she said, and impeachment is not off on the table. “Ten instances of obstruction, yes,” she said. “No exoneration. That's some of what we heard today.”

On impeachment, Pelosi said, “My position has always been whatever decision we make in that regard would have to be done with our strongest possible hand and we still have some outstanding matters in the courts. It's about the Congress, the Constitution and the courts. And we are fighting the president in the courts.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said: “Mueller found that Trump would and did benefit from Russia's help and that the campaign welcomed that help. Mueller found multiple instances where all three elements for charging criminal obstruction of justice were met. Trying to fire the special counsel in order to stop the investigation, trying to have people lie and cover up for him for the same purpose, trying to limit or impede or constrict the special counsel's investigation, trying to tamper with witnesses, tamper with witnesses cooperating with investigators. All of these were found with evident great evidence.”

Democrats may or may not follow through on impeachment, but these charges are going to underlie much of their interaction with Trump on cybersecurity in general and election security in particular.

House Dems II: Appoint election-security coordinator

Against that backdrop, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) wrote to Trump on Wednesday charging that the president has failed to lead on election security. They said it's his responsibility “as Commander in Chief, to address the threat of cyber-attacks, influence operations, disinformation campaigns, and other activities that undermine the security and integrity of U.S. democratic institutions.”

“To the best of our knowledge, you have not designated any individual at the White House to coordinate interagency efforts to defend our elections against foreign interference, nor have you requested or received a recent joint briefing from the officials leading election security efforts across the Federal government,” the Democrats wrote. “If this is accurate, it is deeply troubling and suggests a total disregard of a proven threat to our national security and our democratic system of government.”

They called on Trump to “designate an individual to coordinate a whole of government effort to secure our elections and that you receive an in-depth briefing from the Intelligence Community on Russian interference – and any other foreign interference - in our 2020 election. It is imperative that you respond appropriately to contain the influence that Russia and other malign foreign actors are attempting to exert on our elections.”

A national election-security coordinator is an idea at least worth discussion, but considering that the administration jettisoned cyber coordinators in the White House and State Department, it's unlikely to get much uptake.

And, as mentioned, it seems to be getting increasingly difficult to view anything election-security related through a nonpartisan lens. – Charlie Mitchell (