U.S. official: Russia using social media to divide Americans
The U.S. homeland security secretary said on Saturday there are no signs that Russia is targeting this year’s midterm elections with the same “scale or scope” it targeted the 2016 presidential election.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen spoke at a convention of state secretaries of state, an event that’s usually a low-key affair highlighting voter registration, balloting devices and election security issues that don’t get much public attention. But coming amid fresh allegations into Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 election, the sessions on election security have a higher level of urgency and interest.
Nielsen said her agency will help state and local election officials prepare their systems for cyberattacks from Russia or elsewhere. She said U.S. intelligence officials are seeing “persistent Russian efforts using social media, sympathetic spokespeople and other fronts to sow discord and divisiveness amongst the American people, though not necessarily focused on specific politicians or political campaigns.”
The conference of top state election officials she addressed was sandwiched between Friday’s indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers alleged to have hacked into Democratic party and campaign accounts and Monday’s long-awaited meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump has never condemned Russia over meddling in the 2016 election despite the findings of all top U.S. intelligence agencies, and the Kremlin has insisted it didn’t meddle in the U.S. election. In the past, Trump has reiterated Putin’s denials, but this week he said he would bring up the issue when they meet on Monday in Finland.
“All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ ” Trump said days ago at a news conference in Brussels. “And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”
Some of the state officials who run elections say it’s important for Trump, a Republican, to take a tougher stance to avoid having the public’s confidence in fair elections undermined.
“I believe as commander in chief he has an obligation to address it and, frankly, put Putin and any other foreign nation that seeks to undermine our democracy on notice that the actions will not be tolerated,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in an interview this week.
Some of his peers declined to go that far.
“I don’t go around telling the president what to do,” said Jay Ashcroft, the Republican secretary of state in Missouri.
Trump portrays the investigation as a partisan attack, but not all Republicans see it that way. This month, the Republicans and Democrats on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee backed the findings of an assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election and acted in favor of Trump and against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
As part of that effort, Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states ahead of the election and are believed to have breached the voter registration system in at least one, Illinois, investigators say. Without naming the state, Friday’s indictment said the Russian intelligence officers stole information on about 500,000 voters from the website of one board of elections, a breach undetected for three weeks.
There’s no evidence results were altered, but the attempts prompted the federal government and states to re-examine election systems and tighten their cybersecurity.
Federal officials also say it’s possible that malware might have been planted that could tamper with voting or paralyze computer systems in future elections.
President Vladimir Putin has denied Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. President Trump said he said he would bring up the issue when they meet on Monday.