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October 15th, 2019

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Top intelligence, homeland, cyber officials brief Congress on election security

 Karoun Demirjian

By Karoun Demirjian The Washington Post

Published July 11, 2019

Top intelligence, homeland, cyber officials brief Congress on election security
WASHINGTON - The full House and Senate were briefed about election security Wednesday by the Trump administration's top intelligence, homeland security and cybersecurity officials as the parties continue to battle over how to protect the 2020 elections against foreign threats.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency and Cyber Command Director Paul Nakasone and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan were among the senior officials who spoke to the full complement of House members and senators in back-to-back briefings.

They told the lawmakers about the state of election security, including the new tools the government has equipped itself with to identify and avoid future organized attempts to interfere with federal elections.

Both Democrats and Republicans left the sessions expressing confidence in the officials' efforts, even while the parties remain bitterly divided as to whether President Donald Trump is taking election security seriously enough.

That division has played out in Congress as a standoff between the leaders of each major party, who spent Wednesday accusing each other of attempting to politicize election security to achieve partisan objectives.

Before the meeting Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats had "already made up their minds . . . that a brand-new, sweeping Washington D.C. intervention is just what the doctor ordered" to promote election security.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., meanwhile, accused McConnell of blocking worthwhile measures and needed funding from advancing through Congress.

During the briefing, the president's advisers told lawmakers that they didn't need any extra resources from Capitol Hill, according to members present at each sessions.

"They were quite clear that they have the resources. 'If there's something we would need to secure the election, we'll come back to Congress with the request,' " House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told reporters, describing what the briefers said.

Yet Thompson and several other Democrats have endorsed measures to pump more resources into election security. Several of those members insisted following Wednesday's sessions that even if the Trump administration would decline extra dollars, the states are expressing a clear need for help.

"There's a number of states that unquestionably need more money, the administration disagrees," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said. "I think we should err on the side of making sure we have all the resources available and if states are asking for money, I don't know why we wouldn't provide it to them, when the stakes are this high."

About two dozen state attorneys general have written to Congress requesting more resources to implement changes. But Republicans are wary of the federal government assuming too much of the bill.

"I'm of the view that if 98% of the population of the country and 94% of the states have figured out how to be responsible for this mostly on their own, that there has to be a substantial level of responsibility left to New Jersey and Louisiana and Georgia" and other states undertaking more recent efforts to update their systems, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters Wednesday.

"Most of those states still have some money available to them," he added, referring to an allocation of $380 million by Congress last year to states to improve the security of their election systems.

Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Mark Warner, D-Va., also said on Wednesday that he thought Congress "missed an opportunity" to dictate terms and conditions for the types of security measures on which federal money ought to be spent.

The briefings come one week before the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to put out a detailed report with recommendations for election security, the first final, bipartisan report to emerge from Congress since lawmakers began investigating what happened during the 2016 election. It also comes a week before two House panels are expected to question former special counsel Robert Mueller, who wrote an extensive report detailing the nature of Kremlin-directed interference during the 2016 election, indicting over two dozen Russian actors in the process.

Lawmakers of both parties are in agreement that Russia used a campaign of disinformation and influence to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, though in the House they are still largely divided over whether the Kremlin's aim was to sow general discord or help Donald Trump's chances, as the intelligence community has determined.

Republicans and Democrats are also divided about what measures are necessary to identify and deter future election interference, remaining at odds over Democrat-endorsed measures such as bills to require online platforms to disclose who pays for advertisements and to require campaigns to report any overtures from foreign actors to the FBI.

Also taking part in Wednesday's briefings were Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity Director Chris Krebs; the Pentagon's assistant secretary for homeland defense, Kenneth Rapuano; and Assistant Attorney General John Demers of the Justice Department's national security division.

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