Republican and Democratic members alike from the Florida delegation in the U.S. House expressed extreme frustration on Thursday at the FBI’s lack of transparency regarding the 2016 Russian cyber-intrusion into the voter systems of two counties in the state.
After the intrusion into one of the county’s systems was revealed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report last month, it wasn’t until Thursday that the House lawmakers learned which county’s network was accessed. The FBI also confirmed during a closed door briefing with the lawmakers that a second county’s systems were also successfully intruded.
However, the FBI is demanding that the lawmakers not disclose which two counties were intruded — a demand the Bureau also made of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) when he received a briefing on the intrusions last week. The Bureau cited the need to protect sources and methods, according to lawmakers.
Additionally, other counties in Florida were targets of unsuccessful cyber-attacks, but the FBI wouldn’t identify those counties for the delegation, the lawmakers said.
“This chaotic, kind of drip dabs of information that’s coming out is doing more harm to our constituents’ faith in the electoral system than just coming out and providing some information that has been appropriately declassified,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-DL). “And thats what we’re urging them to do.”
The federal government’s confusing and ham-handed approach to informing election officials — and the public — about Russia’s cyber-campaign to meddle in the 2016 election has been a subject of controversy for nearly two years. The Department of Homeland Security first revealed in June 2017 hearing that 21 states were targeted, but only notified those states in late September 2017.
After receiving the September 2017 notification and even after the public Mueller report, Florida’s department of state continued to insist that the Russian intrusion “attempt was not in any way successful” and that, to the state’s knowledge, ” no evidence exists that any unauthorized access occurred.”
The House members on Thursday said that the FBI had a high level of confidence that no vote tallies were changed in 2016, but that the Bureau only offered that it had “no evidence” of tampering with counties’ voter records.
“We couldn’t get with certainty the verification that the Russians were not able manipulate the data that they had access to,” Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) said. “They found no evidence of that, but they couldn’t say with certainty that they did not manipulate that data.”
The FBI did not respond to TPM’s inquiry regarding the complaints voiced by the lawmakers on Thursday.
According to the delegation, the FBI has pointed to its protocol to protect the identity of victims as reason to not disclose more about the attempted cyber attacks, and that it is treating the county supervisors as the victims in this scenario.
“That rationale is ludicrous,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said. “The victims in these cases are not government office holders. The victims are voters. And the victim truly is the integrity we have to have and the trust we have to have in the American election system.”
Lawmakers said that they were calling on the FBI to change its internal policies so that the public could be made aware of the networks targeted in intrusions or attempted intrusions. If the FBI declined to do so, they’d look at legislation that would make this information more transparent, the lawmakers said. They stressed that, had it not be for the revelation in the Mueller report and a letter they sent to the FBI demanding a briefing, they’d still be in the dark about what happened in their state.
The Mueller report had described spearfishing emails that were sent to nearly 120 accounts held by “Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election.” Those emails, sent by the Russian intel agency the GRU, came with attachments containing malware that “permitted the GRU to access the infected computer,” the report said.
“We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government,” Mueller’s report said.
It is unclear whether Congress’ intelligence committees were previously informed about the cyber attacks on the Florida counties’ systems. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told TPM Wednesday he was not commenting specifically on the Florida situation, but defended the FBI’s lack if public disclosure more broadly given the “tough situation” it’s in.
“I don’t think they do it to torture everybody,” he said.