ASPEN, Colorado—CIA officials learned about a Russian hacking attempt targeting Senate candidates only when Microsoft publicly revealed the effort at a national security conference, according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. Schiff said he and his contacts in the National Security Agency (NSA) learned of the attempt at the same time.
Schiff made the comment in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum with NBC’s Kristen Welker, after she asked how confident he was in the U.S. government’s ability to deter future election interference.
“I’m not particularly confident,” he said. “I think back a year ago to this conference, when one of the representatives of Microsoft was on a panel and revealed that two or three Senate campaigns had been the target of spear-phishing attempts by an actor that appeared to be the same Fancy Bear actor, the same Russian GRU unit, that brought us the intervention in the 2016 election. Well, that was the first time I was hearing that. That should not be the first time the Intelligence chair is hearing that. And I went back to D.C. and I talked to my contacts at NSA and CIA and I said, ‘Did you know this?’ And they did not. And I said, ‘This should not be the first time you’re hearing this.’ And that told me as a matter of quality control that something is broken here. Either it didn’t get communicated to the right place by Microsoft or it did and it was stovepiped, or whatever. But we need to find out what happened.”
It’s a stunning statement from the Intelligence Committee chairman, and points to what may be a major deficiency in the ability of America’s national security agencies to communicate with each other about election security. Spokespersons for the CIA and the NSA did not immediately return requests for comment.
Schiff learned of the targeting from Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president of customer security and trust. Burt made the comment at the Aspen security forum in 2018, and did not name the campaigns the Russians had targeted. The Daily Beast later revealed that one target was then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat in a tight race. McCaskill went on to lose her re-election.
Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst, tweeted that the revelation was surprising. “Did the FBI know? Did DHS’s CISA know? Did ODNI? If not, why not? If so, how was this intel disseminated to the rest of the community?” he wrote.