Time's Running Short to Stop 2018 Election Hacking, Senators Say

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. needs to do more -- and quickly -- to prevent a repeat of hacking into voting systems by Russians or others ahead of this year’s midterm elections, the Senate Intelligence Committee warned.

“The Russians were relentless in attempting to meddle in the 2016 election, and they will continue,” Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine told reporters Tuesday as the panel issued a bipartisan report on recommendations to prevent a repeat. “We are already in an election year,” she said. “The need to act now is urgent.”

In its report, the committee said the U.S. should “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.” This finding amounts to a tacit criticism of both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump for failing to act aggressively enough.

The committee, which will hold an open hearing on the subject Wednesday, found the nation’s “election infrastructure is fundamentally resilient,” but more needs to be done to address vulnerabilities, according to a summary of its draft recommendations.

Seeking Vulnerabilities

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said “it is clear the Russian government was looking for vulnerabilities in our election system” in 2016. He said hackers probed databases in 21 states and successfully penetrated at least one although “there is no evidence that any votes were changed.”

Burr called for funding as soon as this week’s omnibus spending package to harden election systems as well as a tougher approach with adversaries like Russia.

The senators said they wanted to see additional steps to “better defend against a hostile nation-state.” Those include urgent passage of more federal assistance to states, which administer elections, to harden their systems. They said states need to update outdated voting machines to ensure they produce paper records of votes that can be audited and that they aren’t connected to WiFi systems that can be hacked.

The State and Defense departments should also “engage allies and partners to establish new international cyber norms,” the senators said. The Department of Homeland Security should also expedite security clearances for state election officials.

Intelligence agencies should “put a high priority on attributing cyberattacks both quickly and accurately” and work to declassify information rapidly to provide warnings to state officials, the lawmakers said. Meanwhile, “policymakers should make plans to operate prior to attribution” of a breach to a particular source.

Committee members of both parties joined in summarizing the findings for reporters, underscoring that the Intelligence panel is the only congressional committee still maintaining a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

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