Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced he is convening a task force that will focus on cybersecurity, including efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.
The announcement from the country’s top law enforcement official comes on the heels of a special counsel indictment Friday that alleged a group of Russian Internet trolls ran an extensive, years-long campaign to trick American voters in the run-up to the 2016 election. The indictment accused 13 individuals and three companies of engineering an online campaign to push voters against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and toward her opponent, Donald Trump.
In ordering the task force, Sessions did not mention that indictment , but said that exploring digital efforts to interfere with elections would be a priority. A Justice Department official said the task force had been planned before the indictment was announced.
“The Internet has given us amazing new tools that help us work, communicate, and participate in our economy, but these tools can also be exploited by criminals, terrorists, and enemy governments,” Sessions said in a statement. “At the Department of Justice, we take these threats seriously. That is why today I am ordering the creation of a Cyber-Digital Task Force to advise me on the most effective ways that this Department can confront these threats and keep the American people safe.”
The Justice Department said the task force will be chaired by a senior official appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, and it will have representatives from the department’s Criminal Division, National Security Division, the FBI and several other Justice Department components. Sessions ordered the task force to submit a report with initial recommendations by June 30.
Justice Department and Homeland Security officials have been under pressure to develop a plan to prevent Russian interference in the upcoming midterm elections, as more is being revealed publicly about what the Kremlin did in 2016.
The indictment Friday by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was the latest example of Russian efforts being exposed. Officials have said previously that the Russians tried to hack voter registration files or public election sites in 21 states. Mueller is investigating whether the Kremlin might have coordinated its effort with the Trump campaign, although the indictment his prosecutors brought Friday said that those in the Trump campaign who communicated with the charged Russians did so unwittingly, as the Russians were posing as Americans.
While the Justice Department said election interference would be a priority of the task force, that is not its only mission. Sessions also directed the group to explore efforts to interfere with critical infrastructure; the spread of violent ideologies online; and the mass theft of government, corporate and private information.