“I’d Tell You, But Then…”: State Election Officials Get Classified Security Briefings

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This past weekend, state election officials were in town for the winter meetings of the National Associations of Secretaries of State (NASS) and State Election Directors (NASED). Along with the usual discussions, however, there was a new feature: classified security briefings from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other intelligence agencies. FCW has more:

State election officials in the nation’s capital for a conference received classified briefings on the cybersecurity of election systems from officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community and law enforcement, according to official readouts of the meetings.

A DHS account of the briefings for members of the National Association for Secretaries of State (NASS) and the National Association of State Election Directors stated they “focused on increasing awareness of foreign adversary intent and capabilities against the states’ election infrastructure, as well as a discussion of threat mitigation efforts.”

Not only did DHS talk with secretaries from all 50 states, the agency briefed the newly formed, private-sector, industry-centered Sector Coordinating Council for the Election Infrastructure Subsector. 

That group had met previously in December, a DHS spokesman told FCW, but adopted its official charter at the meeting over the Presidents Day weekend.

The events also included a Feb. 15 meeting of the Government Coordinating Council for the Election Infrastructure Subsector [GCC] that formed last October in the wake of mounting evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. The 27-member GCC is made up of three representatives from the federal government and 24 representatives from the Election Assistance Commission, NASS and state and local election officials from around the country.

NASS’ Director of Communications Maria Dill Benson told FCW in a Feb. 20 email that her organization’s “top priority … is to improve communication between DHS and state and local election officials. We see all of these meetings and briefings as a positive step forward.”

The briefings occurred against the usual backdrop of fierce protection of state prerogatives to administer American elections:

State election officials prize their independence from the federal government, and some have at times bristled at calls for more federal involvement in overseeing the cybersecurity of state and local election systems.

At last year’s NASS winter meeting, for instance, the group’s current president, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, questioned the need for DHS’ then-recently-announced designation of election infrastructure as critical infrastructure. At that meeting, Merrill called the designation “a broad new role for the federal government” and said she wanted written guidance from the agency on what the designation meant specifically.

The incoming NASS president, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, said that he thought DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was downplaying threats foreign powers, specifically Russia, posed to the integrity of U.S. elections.

That independent streak apparently continued in the group’s latest meetings. The Huffington Post reported that NASS’ president-elect Condos questioned Nielsen about President Donald Trump’s continued downplaying of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to an account in the Huffington Post.

 Condos’ office didn’t respond to FCW’s request for comment.

There is also news of another federal effort which could affect this issue as well:

Separately, the Justice Department announced the creation of a Cyber-Digital Task Force to examine how to enhance and improve law enforcement in the digital realm. The memo announcing the task force mentions a host of cybersecurity threats, including “efforts to interfere with our elections.”

A report from the task force is due June 30.

It’s worth watching all of these players – DHS, GCC, SCC, DOJ and others … in the weeks and months ahead. How well they work with the election community will go a long way toward deciding how effective the U.S.’ response is to external threats to American elections. Stay tuned …

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