Senate Russia Panel Urges Safeguards Against Russian Interference

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Robert Donachie Capitol Hill and Health Care Reporter
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Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee urged their colleagues Tuesday to pass a bill that would strengthen election cybersecurity and protect against future attacks in the 2018 midterm elections.

GOP Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, along with Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, rolled out a number of recommendations Congress should ensure the stability and security of the nation’s election infrastructure going forward.

“Let me say this with a great deal of confidence, it is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system highlighted and some of the key gaps. There’s no evidence that any vote was changed. Russia attempted to penetrate 21 states, we know they were successful in penetrating at least one voter database,” Burr said Tuesday. “Russia was trying to undermine the confidence of our election system. We’re here to express concerns but also confidence in our state and local governments.”

The committee’s recommendations center around the need to strengthen defense for the American election systems, but provide little details and are generally more guidelines than hard policy changes.

The senators propose having the U.S. government “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act.” The group also suggests improving information sharing between agencies, upping the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) cybersecurity capabilities and updating outdated election infrastructure.

Other recommendations include the federal government providing financial or legislative support for state governments.

Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, reminded those present that the committee is only making recommendations and those are not something voters should expect will come out of the committee legislatively.

“I think what members will share with you today is the recommendations that we will come with, they’re not recommendations that you should expect legislatively action from our committee. We have no jurisdiction,” Burr said, adding that the committee will continue to work closely with federal and state-level agencies to help secure our nation’s electoral system from outside attacks. 

Russian agents targeted 21 states in the 2016 presidential election, according to the DHS. Additionally, Russian agents launched a social media campaign to target voters in an effort to sow discord and confusion in the American electorate. There is no evidence to support the claims that Russians were successful in swaying voters, but the fact that a foreign government attempted to interfere in a U.S. presidential election has many concerned.

Top U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia will once again try to interfere with U.S. elections in the upcoming November midterms, according to a Director of National Intelligence report from mid February.

Collins noted the intelligence community’s findings in her comments Tuesday, using that as another reason Congress needs to act quickly to shore up election security heading into November.

“The Russians were relentless in the 2016 elections and they will continue their efforts to undermine public confidence in western democracies and in the legitimacy of our elections,” Collins said Tuesday. “The leadership of the intelligence community is unanimous in their assessment that the Russians continue to under take sophisticated attacks to exacerbate the divisions in our country.”

“The past tells us that the future will probably hold another set of threats if we are not prepared to meet those threats,” Harris said Tuesday. 

The committee has yet to make a definitive statement on whether or not Trump campaign officials colluded with Russian agents leading up to the 2016 election, although the panel has one ongoing investigation into the matter.

The parallel House Intelligence Committee probe concluded its investigation into President Donald Trump and Russian collusion earlier in March, claiming it found “no evidence” of collusion between Trump officials and Russian agents.

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