House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Saturday that he and his contacts at top intelligence agencies were unaware of Russian attempts to hack Senate candidates until the issue came up publicly at a conference last year.
Speaking to NBC journalist Kristen Welker at the Aspen Security Forum — an annual Colorado gathering of government officials, industry experts and reporters — Schiff recalled his surprise when a Microsoft representative said at last year’s forum that three Senate campaigns had been attacked by what seemed like the same Russian group that interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
“That should not be the first time the Intelligence chair is hearing that,” Schiff said at the Aspen conference. The hacking attempts were also news to the National Security Agency and CIA officials he talked to later, the lawmaker said.
“And that told me, as a matter of quality control, that something is broken here,” Schiff added.
The congressman’s story adds fuel to fears that the United States remains vulnerable to foreign interference in its elections, as the 2020 presidential race amps up and as President Trump continues to downplay the threat of Russian tampering. Last month, Trump seemed to joke about election interference with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Don’t meddle in the election, please,” he told his counterpart at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka while wagging his finger.
Trump administration officials have said they are taking threats to election integrity seriously, working with states to secure their systems and gathering intelligence on groups behind cyberattacks. Still, the revelation that Schiff and the federal officials he consulted were unaware of the Senate campaign attacks shocked experts such as former CIA counterterrorism analyst and American University instructor Aki Peritz, who tweeted about the development Saturday.
“Did the FBI know?” he wrote. “Did DHS’s [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] know? Did [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence]? If not, why not? If so, how was this intel disseminated to the rest of the community?”
Mentioning last year’s incident after telling Welker he is “not particularly confident” in the government’s ability to deter election interference, Schiff said he’s not sure whether Microsoft didn’t convey the hacking problems to the right place or whether reports of the interference got “stovepiped” — sent straight to the top levels of authority. But “we need to find out what happened,” he said.
The CIA and Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
NSA spokesman Tommy Groves said in a statement Monday that election security “is a top priority for our nation" and that the agency will continue working with government partners, the private sector and allies abroad to protect upcoming elections as they did with the 2018 midterms.
It’s normal for a private firm to inform law enforcement agencies of an issue like alleged hacking of Congressional campaigns, Groves said.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum last year, Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president of customer security and trust, did not name the three campaigns apparently targeted by the Russian-intelligence-linked group known as “Fancy Bear.” But Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who lost her Senate seat in the 2018 midterm elections, announced last July that she was one of the legislators attacked.
The hackers tried to lure campaign staffers to a fake Microsoft domain, using spear-phishing tactics similar to those employed to access the servers of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, Burt said. Spear-phishing attacks hide malicious links in seemingly normal emails to gain sensitive information such as passwords.
Microsoft removed the domain and with the help of the government prevented the attack from gaining access, Burt said.
The day before Burt’s statements, Trump had further muddied his position on Russian election interference, saying no when a reporter asked whether the country was still targeting the United States — a statement then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later said had been misinterpreted. Trump was simply refusing further questions, Sanders said.
Others in the administration have signaled that they are working hard to thwart potential interference. NSA Director Paul Nakasone, for example, announced last year that the agency and the cyberwarfare branch of the military would collaborate to stop possible Russian interference.
Lawmakers have also been pushing to improve election security. In June, the House backed legislation that would mandate verifiable paper ballots and upgrade voting equipment with $600 million in grants, among other measures. But the bill drew opposition from Republicans who said the updates weren’t necessary.
Speaking in Aspen on Saturday, Schiff told Welker he thinks Trump’s dismissive attitude toward Russian intrusions has made it harder to deter future assaults on election systems.
“He is essentially telling the perpetrator of the last attack that they’re invited to do it again as long as it’s on his side,” Schiff said. “He will not call them out.”