Neither former President Barack Obama nor any member of his cabinet warned state election officials of any Russian effort to hack or interfere with the country’s electoral systems, according to the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
“We did ask,” Denise Merrill, Connecticut secretary of state and the association’s top official, told The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group Wednesday.
“And over-and-over again, they did say there was no credible threat that they had found. And they said that right through the election, and the next administration reiterated that. Over and over again when we asked, we were told there was no actual threat that they knew of,” Merrill said.
Asked if there were any private briefings for state election officials on possible Russian interference prior to the November 2016 voting, Merrill said, “No. We were not briefed on any of that. We were not told in advance.”
Merrill also claimed the administration failed to take state officials aside about a potential or real Russian threat to election machinery.
“That’s right, because I don’t really think there was one,” she said.
Merrill is a Democrat who previously served as majority leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives. In addition to serving as president of the association representing all of her fellow secretaries of state, she also is co-chairman of the group’s Election Cybersecurity Task Force.
Obama’s former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson seemed to confirm Merrill’s comments. He was quoted Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in an NBC tweet saying “Fmr DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson says there was ‘no altering of voter counts’ in 2016 election. ‘I know of no such evidence.'”
Merrill’s comments contradict an unsigned top-secret National Security Agency document that was pilfered by Reality Winner, a 25-year old private-sector contract employee.
Winner gave the classified document to The Intercept, a three-year-old news site created by Pierre Omidyar, a close friend of President Bill Clinton. Omidyar’s wife Pamela donated $1 million to the Clinton Foundation.
Federal agents arrested Winner June 3 in her home in Georgia and charged her under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information to a news outlet. She is currently in federal detention and is scheduled to have a federal court hearing Thursday.
Winner had worked for three months for the Alexandria, Va.-based Pluribus International Corporation. The company is under contract to the Army Intelligence and Security Command, which operates within the Army and NSA.
Winner was a harsh critic of President Donald Trump and publicly said she would “stand” with Iran in a hypothetical war with the U.S., according to a news report by Business Insider.
“I think it’s unfortunate these reports are being leaked,” Merrill told TheDCNF.
Col. Jim Waurishuk (Ret.), a former senior intelligence official who spent 30 years in the field, told TheDCNF the NSA document Winner released “was an extremely high-level classified Top Secret Special Intelligence document,” which is “originator controlled,” meaning “the NSA has total control of this document. They determine who it gets disseminated to and it cannot be further disseminated unless it’s approved by the NSA.”
Waurishuk, who is vice president of OPSEC, a nonprofit association of former Special Forces and intelligence officials, was asked by TheDCNF to review the document.
“This document has nothing to do with affecting the election or with ballots,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the outcome of the election. This is merely a foreign signals intercept by U.S. intelligence officials.”
The Russians were “basically going to the office computers of a private company that served election organizations. Their malware went there, not to election balloting machinery. They were hoping office workers might be lured into a phishing effort,” Waurishuk said.
The NSA document stated the limited incursion to penetrate the office computers failed. “Three of the malicious emails were rejected by the email server” which targeted a Tallahassee company called VR systems, according to the NSA document.
“It is unknown whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised the intended victims,” the NSA document concluded.
“There is no evidence that this (hacking) has happened,” Merrill told TheDCNF. “This is the most important point, I think. Yes, there is strong speculation here, but nothing has actually happened.”
Merrill believes stories like that in The Intercept weaken public trust in the integrity of our state and local election systems.
“These kind of stories make the public think there should be a lack of trust in their elections. And that shouldn’t be the case. This is the most destructive thing about this,” she told TheDCNF.
Election tallying and tabulation systems in all 50 states work offline and are not connected to the Internet. They are managed by people, not machines, Merrill said.
“Everything has paper backup,” she told TheDCNF. “Most states have paper ballots that you vote on. There is always a paper backup of the voter registration lists.”
The NSA intelligence document suggested the Russians sought to hack VR Systems in Florida and could have had an impact on Florida election systems.
But the state doesn’t rely on any machines. It’s election system is paper based.
“All voting in Florida is done on paper ballots so we can always refer to the original record,” explained Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State in a statement to TheDCNF. “Additionally, voting machines are not connected to the internet,” she stated.
Revell said Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner participated in a September 2016 informational call with the FBI on the need to maintain security.
“But there was no indication of a Florida-specific issue,” she stated. Reveal added the FBI “did not provide any information specific to VR Systems.”
“Florida had a smooth and secure election in 2016,” Revell said.
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