Leading Democrats—including presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—slammed the Department of Homeland Security Thursday for dramatically downsizing two task forces assigned to securing U.S. elections.
The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that many of the people assigned to the two task forces under DHS’ Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency have been reassigned to other offices within the department. The task forces were assembled in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. One focuses in part on securing election infrastructure, and the other focuses on foreign influence efforts, including social media disinformation campaigns.
Independent experts and U.S. intelligence officials are near-unanimous in their assessment that there will be foreign attempts to interfere in the 2020 election.
“Our top military cyber official described today the persistent, unrelenting effort by the Pentagon to combat the threat of foreign interference in our elections,” Warren said in a statement. “Meanwhile, DHS is gutting its own office to address that threat in order to focus on spreading fear of immigrants and plain old divisiveness. There appears to be a serious disconnect here.”
“Donald Trump is afraid of what these teams would find, which is that Russian interests are working on his behalf, and if he has any chance at all in winning in 2020, they’re going to have to work overtime because the American people are no longer on his side,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on MSNBC Wednesday night. “But this is in line with what the Republicans did just a year ago when they took over $300 million that was slated for election funding security for the states and they zeroed it out.”
DHS officials and staffers told The Daily Beast they viewed the reorganization as a clear indication that the department was de-prioritizing election security. At the same time, they said, the top officials in the department are shuffling resources to border security.
A DHS spokesman noted that the CISA task forces were never supposed to be permanent but said the department is still committed to ensuring full election security for the 2020 elections.
“In the run up to the 2018 elections, DHS staffed the newly created elections task force and countering foreign influence task force by temporarily assigning personnel from across the Department. The work of these task forces continues to this day and is being institutionalized as a permanent effort,” said Sara Sendek, the DHS spokesperson. “While some of the personnel who were brought on to serve on these task forces in temporary assignments have returned to their regular roles, we are also currently hiring new employees into permanent election positions to build out our team and support our efforts for 2020 and beyond.”
Chris Krebs, the Senate-confirmed director of CISA, testified Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee. The hearing focused on election security infrastructure and partnerships between DHS and state election officials.
He did not address the restructuring of his task forces head on in the hearing, but offered a remark on Twitter Thursday.