Peters, Klobuchar, Durbin Seek Answers from Department of Homeland Security On Election Security

Recent reports indicate that the Department of Homeland Security cut staff at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, despite warnings that foreign adversaries continue to target U.S. election infrastructure

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, joined colleagues U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) in seeking answers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) following recent reports that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the DHS entity charged with coordinating efforts to secure election infrastructure from physical and cyber threats, gut its election security task forces. The Intelligence Community continues to warn that elections remain a target for foreign adversaries and there is broad consensus that federal, state and local entities must take steps to fortify election systems. In a letter to DHS, the senators asked Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to clarify the reported changes to election security staffing and explain how the Department is working to strengthen protections ahead of the 2020 election.

“We write to request information regarding the Department’s efforts to address election security. Given clear warnings from Intelligence Community officials that the 2020 presidential election remains a target for our adversaries, it is vital that we take strong action now in order to ensure our systems are secure on Election Day,” the senators wrote. 

“We strongly support the work of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Chris Krebs and applaud the important strides that have been made to provide state election officials and other key stakeholders with information and resources vital to securing our elections. These efforts have made our democracy stronger, but we need to further bolster our election infrastructure ahead of 2020,” they continued.

The full text of the letter is copied below and available here.

Dear Secretary Nielsen:

We write to request information regarding the Department’s efforts to address election security. Given clear warnings from Intelligence Community officials that the 2020 presidential election remains a target for our adversaries, it is vital that we take strong action now in order to ensure our systems are secure on Election Day.

Intelligence Community officials have clearly indicated that U.S. elections continue to be at risk of foreign influence and interference. Last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a joint statement of concern about “ongoing campaigns” by foreign actors, including Russia, China, and Iran, to “undermine confidence in democratic institutions.” Specifically, the joint statement noted “ongoing and persistent threats to election infrastructure [were detected]. Some state and local governments have reported attempts to access their networks, which often include online voter registration databases....”  

On January 29, leaders from our intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that adversaries targeted the midterm elections with sophisticated misinformation campaigns, and that cyber threats to our critical infrastructure remain a top concern. They explained, “We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections.”

These warnings follow Russia’s significant efforts to maliciously interfere with the 2016 election—including hacking into the computer networks of campaign organizations and orchestrating a month-long cyber-attack on the Illinois State Board of Elections. In the wake of the 2016 election and the designation of election infrastructure as a critical infrastructure subsector, DHS prioritized election security and made significant progress working to enhance it by coordinating with election officials. Among the many important steps DHS implemented to fortify the nation’s election infrastructure, the Department created election security task forces focused on working with the public and private sectors on this issue. We strongly support the work of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Chris Krebs and applaud the important strides that have been made to provide state election officials and other key stakeholders with information and resources vital to securing our elections. These efforts have made our democracy stronger, but we need to further bolster our election infrastructure ahead of 2020, which is why Congress recently provided the Department with an additional $33 million in election security funding.

In order to better understand how DHS is working to strengthen election security ahead of the 2020 election, we respectfully ask you to provide us with the following information by March 1, 2019:

  1. Recent reports allege that the CISA has deprioritized election security by reducing the capacity of the election security task forces. At its peak, how many personnel were assigned to the task forces at CISA before the 2018 election and how many are assigned to the task forces presently?

  2. Prior to the 2018 election, what was the chain of command for the task forces within the Department?  Is that reporting structure presently in place? If not, please describe the current reporting structure.

  3. Please discuss initiatives occurring across DHS on election security, including the election security and resilience work the National Risk Management Center (NRMC) is conducting. How is the NRMC election security line of effort different than the work the task forces perform?

  4. Has CISA documented what occurred during the 2018 election and lessons learned that can be used to inform the Department’s and the broader government’s 2020 posture?  If so, please provide those documents.

  5. Director Krebs publicly noted that CISA is in the process of hiring additional election security personnel.   How many additional staff will be hired and for what positions? When will these staff be in place? What are CISA’s plans for ensuring these new election security personnel are brought up to speed with previous task force work, given the changes to the task forces?

  6. What other steps is DHS taking to increase its capacity to adequately address threats associated with the 2020 elections? 

  7. Since 2016, DHS established communication and coordination lines with other government agencies, state and local election officials, and private sector stakeholders.  Given reports of drastic staff changes, what steps is the Department taking to maintain and enhance those efforts and relationships to ensure that no muscle memory is lost?

 Thank you for your prompt attention to this serious matter.

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