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'Possible' More Counties Than Now Known Were Hacked In 2016, Fla. Delegation Says

May 16, 2019
Originally published on May 20, 2019 7:47 am

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

Florida lawmakers were angry Thursday when they emerged from an FBI briefing that left them with unanswered questions about the two county election offices in their state that were breached by Russian cyberattacks in 2016.

The bipartisan group of members of Congress was most frustrated with not learning about the hacks sooner. The first word of at least one intrusion came from a single line in special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report, which was released publicly in April.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis then confirmed on Monday, after his own briefing with the FBI, that Russian attackers actually breached two Florida counties.

"This chaotic dribs and drabs of information that's coming out is doing more harm to our constituents' faith in the electoral system than just coming out and providing some information," said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat who represents Florida's 7th District.

The lawmakers were briefed on which of Florida's 67 counties were successfully breached, but they, like DeSantis, said they could not disclose that information.

Members of Congress and election officials both say they're frustrated that more than two years after the 2016 election — and after the release of the Mueller report — they're still learning about exactly what happened in the wave of interference.

Rep. Michael Waltz, a Republican who represents Florida's 6th District, was asked if he thought there were more U.S. counties breached in 2016 that the public still doesn't know about.

"It's possible," he said.

Lori Edwards, a supervisor of elections in Polk County, Fla., said she couldn't think of a good reason not to disclose what happened, given how long it has been since the 2016 election.

"I just honestly cannot make sense of why people are trying to keep a secret from three years ago. And as a matter of fact, I think they are making it worse by doing so," Edwards said. "It's kind of like a noise in the dark — a lot worse than when you can see what really happened. People are just assuming the worst."

Cyber-campaign

Mueller's office has charged a group of intelligence officers in Russia's military spy agency, the GRU, in connection with the cyberattacks that targeted a number of state election officials and vendors around the United States.

The Russians appear to have focused on trying to discover what was contained in state and contractor databases, although public information remains incomplete as to the full nature of the cyberattacks.

DeSantis and other officials have stressed that there is no evidence that cyberattacks changed any votes.

Lawmakers confirmed on Wednesday, however, that the Russian hackers did gain adequate access to be able to change voter registration data if they'd wanted, although there is no evidence that they did so.

The systems used to tabulate results are not connected to the registration systems.

"What the FBI has come forward with is that they have no evidence that the voter database was tampered with," Waltz said. "But their level of confidence was unclear."

The Florida lawmakers made a point of trying to show that concerns about election security aren't partisan.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican who represents Florida's 1st District, has been among the leading critics of Mueller's investigation into President Trump's campaign. On Thursday, Gaetz said voters in Florida need more information about Russia's interference efforts in 2016.

"The victims in these cases are not government officeholders [who were hacked] — the victims are voters," Gaetz said. "And the victim truly is the integrity we have to have, and the trust we have to have, in the American election system."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Russian cyberattacks compromised the voting systems of two counties in Florida in 2016. But the state's members of Congress didn't learn which counties until late last week during a closed-door briefing by the FBI. Now lawmakers are frustrated that it took so long for them to find out. NPR's Miles Parks covers election security. He's in studio this morning. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So we have been talking about interference in the 2016 election for so long. There have been so many investigations. Why are we learning about these cyberattacks now?

PARKS: So law enforcement says it's to protect the sources and methods that it used to gather information about the attacks. As for the counties that were actually attacked, we have to think back to 2016. And they may have been worried about confidence had they disclosed the breaches publicly right before this very polarized election. Now, though, it's been three years. And the lawmakers, the election officials I've talked to seem to think that secrecy is doing more harm than good. Here's Lori Edwards. She's the election supervisor in Polk County, Fla.

LORI EDWARDS: I just honestly cannot make sense of why people are trying to keep a secret from three years ago. And as a matter of fact, I think they're making it worse by doing so. It's kind of like a noise in the dark. It's a lot worse than if you can see what really happened.

PARKS: So this is someone who is trying to prep for the 2020 election. She's in charge of half a million voters in Florida - in the same state where these hacks occurred. And she doesn't have information. This kind of gets back to this idea that there hasn't been an exhaustive, all-inclusive public report about what happened in terms of Russian interference in 2016. We thought the Mueller report - special counsel Robert Mueller's report might be that source of information. But it's clear there's more - there was more that we still have yet to learn.

KING: Including in Florida, where there's - these hackers did something. Do we know what they did? Did they change anyone's vote?

PARKS: No. So lawmakers and election officials have been very clear - there is no evidence any votes were affected by this. They were able - the hackers were able to breach registration systems, which are not connected to the systems that actually count and tally votes. They were able to break into the systems. They could've changed information about the level of access they gained. But there's no evidence that they did so. The Washington Post reports that one of the counties that was breached was Washington County, a small county in Northern Florida. Still unclear on what the second county was. What's also unclear is what we still don't know. I pressed the lawmakers last week about whether they thought it was possible that other counties in the United States saw similar breaches in 2016. They said it is possible and that we still may not know about other breaches.

KING: Wow. So that information may come forward. I mean, you talked about the importance of having confidence in the election in 2020 - not a small deal. What is Congress doing? What are states doing to stop this from happening again categorically?

PARKS: So Congress allocated almost $400 million last year to the states to improve election security. That's probably it from the money front. There's probably not going to be an influx of cash from the federal level to improve other levels of hardware. The biggest thing, though, and what's really interesting is that the thing the federal government has really touted as improved looking ahead to 2020 as opposed to 2016 is communication - that they're sharing information about threats from the local level to the state level, all the way up to the federal level. But here we see there is a lot of work still left to be done on the communication front, especially when it comes to letting the public know about breaches, so they can have confidence that if something has gone wrong in an election they voted in, they're going to know about it. And they're not going to know about it three years later.

KING: Likely to be a very big story as we head into 2020. NPR's Miles Parks is covering it. Miles, thanks so much.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.