Feds say no “new or ongoing” election interference, but Russians capable of “malicious cyber operations”

Leon County polling station
Leon County polling station

With controversy swirling over U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s remarks about election hacking, federal officials told Florida’s Secretary of State this week that “we have not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida.”

At the same time, “Russian government actors have previously demonstrated both the intent and capability to conduct malicious cyber operations,” according to an Aug. 20 letter written to Florida officials by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

And federal agencies will continue to “prioritize conducting assessments of cybersecurity risk; addressing vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious actors; hardening systems for future elections and planning for incident response,” the letter stated.

The letter comes as Florida’s primary election draws near on Aug. 28 and other primaries are taking place across the county.

“We are focused on assisting election officials with securing their systems for the 2018 midterms and ensuring Floridians can have confidence that when they visit the polls, their vote will be counted, and counted correctly,” the letter stated.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner wrote to the federal agencies more than a week ago after Florida Democratic Senator Nelson told reporters that Russia had “penetrated” some county voter databases in Florida ahead of the 2018 elections.

Those comments set off a major controversy, when federal authorities refused to either confirm or deny Nelson’s comments. That led Republican Gov. Rick Scott – Nelson’s opponent in the U.S. Senate race — to initially claim that the Democrat was either making it up or illegally giving out classified information.

Florida election officials say they immediately reached out to the FBI, Homeland Security and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to substantiate Nelson’s claims. They also wrote to North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In none of those cases did they receive confirmation of Nelson’s comments. But they also didn’t receive any outright denials.

Burr also did not confirm or deny the reports,  but told the state to again reach out to federal authorities.

“As the Chairman recommended, Secretary Detzner sent a letter to DHS and the FBI and we have now received their response, which continues to offer no evidence or information to corroborate Senator Nelson’s claims,” Division of Elections spokesperson Sarah Revell said in a press release.

Last Friday, NBC News reported that there was a “classified basis for Nelson’s assertion, adding that the “extent and seriousness of the threat remains unclear, shrouded for reasons of national security.”

Scott blasted Nelson in a press release, saying it was “irresponsible and reckless that Bill Nelson would attempt to undermine the voters’ confidence in their county elections systems by making confusing statements while campaigning and then walking away with absolutely no explanation.”

“In my opinion, there’s nothing in this letter that contradicts what Sen. Nelson said he was told a few months ago, and what he and Sen. Rubio have tried to warn about in order to guard against Russian meddling in our elections,” said Ryan Brown, a spokesman for Senator Nelson. “The governor of Florida has a security clearance and could have quickly and directly received answers and posed any questions he had instead of engaging in these confusing and partisan histrionics of the past week.”

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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