The Other, Much Worse Hacking Story

Michael Thielen Executive Director, Republican National Lawyers Association
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Russia tried to interfere with our election last year. Part of that interference was the unethical release of true but confidential information from the DNC regarding how the DNC tried to rig their primary for party-insider Hillary Clinton against party-outsider Bernie Sanders.   Russian interference is a matter of concern and unfortunately interference is something that adversarial countries often attempt.

What other countries have tried to interfere in another country’s elections?  The United States, for one. Then-President Obama and his allies in the State Department funded a group called “OneVoice.” According to a bipartisan staff report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Senator Portman (R-OH) and Senator McCaskill (D-MO), OneVoice “developed a political strategy designed to defeat the incumbent Israeli government. That strategy relied on grassroots voter outreach and mobilization using campaign infrastructure built, in part, with State Department funds.”

Democrats may argue that, unlike the Obama administration in Israel, the Russians tried to directly affect the election results by hacking into voter registration databases in Arizona and other states before the 2016 election.  Hacking state voter registration databases is a serious and potentially damaging event that can compromise individual citizens’ personal information and alter important voter registration information, affecting a person’s eligibility to vote.

However, once again the Obama Administration also did it.  Cybersecurity experts have confirmed that the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security attempted to hack into states’ voter registration systems in Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia.

Fortunately, as then-FBI Director Comey said: “the [voting] system in the United States . . . is very, very hard for someone to hack into because it’s so clunky and dispersed.”  So a hacker from a foreign government—or our own federal government—could not change the election results.

Back in December of 2016, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp went public with findings from his office that a “third-party cybersecurity provider detected a ‘large unblocked scan event’ on the morning of Nov. 15, several days after the election.” He further alleged that the event began as far back as February of that year.  The “scan event” turned out to be one of 10 unsuccessful attempts to penetrate Kemp’s firewall, the same one protecting his election systems.

What’s more, the hacking attempts occurred on key election dates and also happened to coincide with Kemp’s public statements pushing back against a DHS plan to designate state election systems “critical infrastructure.” That new designation would allow federal intrusion into state election systems because the federal agency would be allowed to provide “extra security” to those systems, opening them up to federal oversight. (And critics say helping to eliminate the sort of dispersed systems that Comey said made our system difficult to hack.)  Kemp felt the effort was an intrusion into the sovereignty of state elections and said so publicly. The timeframe for the hacking attempts matched up with key dates in the 2016 electoral process and with Kemp’s pushback, including when he testified to Congress about election security and against the critical infrastructure designation.

Most damning? The cybersecurity firm discovered the hacking attempt originated not from some foreign country far away but from a workstation located under the umbrella of DHS—on Capitol Hill, in Southwest Washington, DC, in an office affiliated with then-President Barack Obama’s DHS, under former Secretary Jeh Johnson.  Federal agencies were not allowed to access state databases at the time without permission from the state. DHS Secretary Johnson was hoping to change all that with his new “critical infrastructure” classification.

All of this led to an investigation by the DHS Inspector General and a series of different explanations from DHS.  On December 9, DHS suggested the attempted hack originated with an employee’s misconfigured workstation.  On December 12, Sec. Johnson wrote that the attack was nothing more than a contractor accessing public portions of the Georgia Secretary of State’s website through “normal Microsoft Internet Explorer interaction” and that no scanning occurred. On December 16, DHS held a conference call with all state election officials and claimed the attack against Georgia was caused by a contract employee at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers using an older version of Microsoft Word that created an open option call against the Georgia firewall.  In other words, Microsoft Word did the hacking?  These excuses rank up there with the dog ate my homework excuse of a child.

Kemp found these varying explanations unsatisfactory and wrote a letter to Trump asking for a review.  Likewise, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called for an investigation by the DHS Inspector General.

Since then, Indiana and Idaho have joined Georgia in public announcements and Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia have shared with other secretaries of state that the DHS also tried to access their state election systems.  There were even attempts to hack and sell login credentials for the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan agency charged with assisting states in administering their elections.

Meanwhile, Johnson did manage to have state election systems classified “critical infrastructure” in January on his way out the door, to the chagrin of many secretaries of state. So far, new DHS Secretary John Kelly has not reversed Johnson’s 11th hour change.

So while lawmakers and the media wring their hands over what Russia may or may not have done to interfere with the 2016 election — they are so vocal it begins to look, to the public, like Russia is the only potential hacker worthy of consideration — the reality is there’s more evidence linking a US federal agency under Obama to state election hacking than there is linking Russia to the presidential election.

No one should forget that the Obama administration had previously made such an effort.  Beginning in 2010, the Obama administration’s attempts to improperly influence U.S. elections even extended to non-profit organizations through the IRS targeting of conservative non-profit groups in an attempt to prevent them from influencing or turning out voters.  This targeting still continues despite the story breaking in 2013 to public outcry, congressional investigations, and lawsuits filed by many of the affected groups.  Protecting Americans from unlawful interference from their own government in their elections is just one of the many important tasks facing the new Trump administration.

The Russian attempt to interfere with our elections is troubling.  Democrats do not come to this argument with clean hands, as the Obama Administration also tried to interfere with the elections of one of the United States’ staunchest allies, Israel.  The US and Russia are most often not allies, making the attempt to interfere in Israel’s election much worse since Israel is arguably our strongest ally.

Whatever comes of the investigations into Russia’s efforts in 2016 and/or what the DHS was searching for by hitting state election databases, one thing is crystallizing: there is a problem in the US election system. Outside interests are trying to illegally interfere with and influence the process. Unfortunately, those “outside” interests may not be outside the country. Hacking into databases and targeting groups with different viewpoints is likely only the tip of the iceberg.

The Obama administration spent years trying to try to interfere or illegally influence the US elections through vehicles such as the IRS after 2010 and DHS in 2016.  The real hacking scandal may not involve Russia, which any American government would be foolish to trust, but rather the appointees of the last President, whom all Americans should be able to trust not to interfere with fairly run elections.

Michael Thielen is the executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association.