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U.S. Still Hasn’t Finalized Election Security Plans—and the Midterms Are Weeks Away

Maybe you were hoping the government would have its election security act together by now. If so, there’s bad news below.

Erin Banco10.15.18 5:05 AM ET

The midterms are less than a month away. But working groups inside the intelligence community charged with overseeing election security are still trying to finalize plans for countering foreign interference in the 2018 elections, three senior officials involved with the efforts told The Daily Beast.

The issue came up in a meeting this month that included current senior intelligence officials and former officials who were asked to attend and provide advice. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency were pinpointed as two of the departments that had made the most progress. The Department of Homeland Security, however, is lagging behind, according to officials inside the meeting.

The concern around election security is attributed, at least in part, to a lack of information-sharing between government agencies, officials said. But even if there was smooth inter-agency coordination, officials said they would still face one major hurdle: the White House’s unwillingness to talk about the main meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, Russia.

“We should have been doing meetings and talking about this two years ago,” one individual who was involved in a recent election briefing said. “There’s only been one or two meetings with the president on this because people have learned that if you want to keep your job you don’t bring up Russian interference in the White House.”

Officials across three different agencies told The Daily Beast the government as a whole has largely failed to coordinate efforts to curb outside meddling, which has many inside the intelligence community worried the country is yet again vulnerable to interference in its elections. President Trump has at times snapped at officials who broach the Russian meddling subject and instead, current and former senior intelligence officials said, has turned the conversation to what some believe is a red herring— China.

We should have been talking about this two years ago... There’s only been one or two meetings with the president because people have learned that if you want to keep your job you don’t bring up Russian interference in the White House.

In general, officials said the White House took too long after the 2016 presidential election to address the threat and has put too little emphasis on ensuring the midterm elections are secure.

“Russia is definitely changing their tactics,” one senior homeland security official said. “We just don’t know what those tactics are yet. We probably won’t know until they’re carried out.”

So far, cybersecurity researchers have found little, if any, evidence of direct Russian interference in this year’s races for the Senate and the House of Representatives. But Kremlin operatives sometimes wait until the 11th hour to strike. That’s what happened in  last year’s French election, when Russia’s military intelligence agency dumped its emails stolen from the Macron campaign in just before the election.

Meanwhile, these researchers see an ongoing propaganda campaign to hammer the hot-button issues splitting apart American society.  And Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign involvement in the 2016 campaign continues. Earlier this year, his team indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for crimes committed while interfering in the 2016 presidential election. They were charged with hacking computer networks of members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. According to the indictment, they allegedly coordinated to release damaging information to sway the election. It’s unclear, though, if their efforts would have changed the outcome of the election.

The vulnerability of voting machines is still a major concern for U.S. intelligence agencies. For the midterms, the government has conducted on-site assessments of local election systems in preparation for any kind of foreign meddling. But officials inside the Department of Homeland Security say those systems could still be vulnerable to hackers even though many are not connected to the internet. And across the country, states are relying on outdated voting machines with antiquated software and hardware.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and others, to coordinate on election security. Collectively, an inter-agency working group is supposed to draft recommendations that the U.S. government, as a whole, can take to counter foreign influence in the elections, officials said. Those recommendations eventually make their way to the president who is supposed to sign off.  

“We’re supposed to be organizing in a comprehensive way so we’re operating on the same page,” one senior official inside homeland security said. “That’s just not happening. There’s supposed to be a clear process and policy that is coordinated.”

The government also has a smaller working group that is tasked with drafting and overseeing an inter-agency approach to the election issue, but “they are focused primarily on structural and policy issues,” one official said.

Officials inside the Department of Homeland Security said it has succeeded in working with local election officials to boost their security but is still lagging behind other agencies in implementing plans for the midterms.

“Some of the working groups didn’t even get together until recently and some of the officials who were tasked with looking at this issue were just appointed in September,” one official in the department said.

There are two working groups in the Department of Homeland Security tasked with overseeing the security of elections in the United States—one that works directly with the nation’s cybersecurity infrastructure and one that works to counter maligned influence such as social media manipulation campaigns.

“These working groups are relatively new within the last several years and I think they are still trying to figure out exactly how to approach the issue,” the source in the recent briefing told The Daily Beast. A DHS spokesperson said its officials “consistently meet on election security.”

In August, the White House issued a statement saying President Trump held two National Security Council meetings about the issue—one in May and one in July. The meetings focused on a “whole-of-government approach to election security,” the statement said.  

Officials scoffed at the characterization. Officials at DHS briefed on the National Security Council meetings said only one of them included conversation that focused on election security and Russia.

“I can tell you that approach definitely isn’t there,” one senior intelligence official said, describing the government efforts instead as “piecemeal.”