Russian hackers breached elections computers in two – not one, as previously reported – Florida counties before the 2016 elections. And, apparently, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents knew it but didn’t inform superiors, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday.
“There was no manipulation or anything” of the actual election, but the hackers did access voter data, DeSantis said during a news conference. “That voter data, I think, was public anyway. Nevertheless, those were intrusions. It did not affect voting or anything like that.”
DeSantis said he learned the information during a recent briefing by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security at the bureau’s Tallahassee office. “I’m not allowed to name the counties. I signed a [non]disclosure agreement. I would be willing to name it for you guys, but they asked me [not] to do that, so I’m going to respect their wishes.”
Previously, officials in the Florida Department of State had denied knowledge of any successful hacks before the 2016 elections. Now, “we’re trying to find out what the state knew at the time,” DeSantis said.
“Apparently, the FBI said, there were state agents on a task force who had access to some of this information. Obviously, the previous administration and the head of the FDLE did not have that information. We’re trying to figure out what was the breakdown – was it that the FBI didn’t want to share, or was it just simply that the information didn’t get reported up? Hopefully, we’ll be able to run that to ground very soon,” DeSantis told reporters.
Asked specifically which state officials served on that task force, he said: “I think it was FDLE members.” He didn’t know their rank. “We’re going to figure out what the deal was.”
The officials might not have appreciated the gravity of the intrusion, DeSantis said. “They may not have viewed it as significant.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into alleged collaboration between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence service mentioned the reported Florida hack, although it mentioned only in one county.
Former Sen. Bill Nelson’s claim that Florida’s election had been hacked became a major issue in his failed re-election bid against then-Gov. Rick Scott.
DeSantis said he doesn’t know what, if anything, Scott knew at the time, but he did say that top elections officials told him they’d received no FBI briefing back then.
The governor’s briefing included FBI and DHS officials from Washington and Tallahassee, plus the FDLE, DeSantis chief of staff Shane Strum, and Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
Immediately upon publication of the Mueller report, state officials including DeSantis complained the feds wouldn’t release information about the breach.
Tuesday, DeSantis speculated that federal officials were reluctant to risk revealing to the perpetrators what they knew. This even though Florida figured in the July 2018 federal indictment of a dozen Russians for tampering with U.S. elections. The Florida Phoenix reported later that month about vulnerabilities in Florida’s elections system.
“Their position is that this was something that was known at the time,” the governor said during his news conference.
Specifically, the FBI had been working with the two counties to figure out what happened, DeSantis said. “This was something the counties knew about prior to the 2016 election.”
VR Systems, a Tallahassee vendor supplying elections supervisors in Florida, has been identified in published accounts as the alleged conduit for the infiltration. It has denied that, saying it had warned supervisors to be wary of hacking attempts.
DeSantis said: “I guess I can say that the reason why those counties got affected was not necessarily the counties, but it was because of a private vendor they were using.”
He described it as “a spear-phishing-type attack,” whereby bad actors use misleading email messages to sneak malware onto a target computer.
“It was described to me as relatively sophisticated as those things go,” DeSantis said. “I was told that it was not out of the realm of possibility that a reasonable person could think this was legit. It wasn’t like Nigerian gold – we’re going to give you $1 million. That’s not what this was.”
Leading into the 2020 elections, state elections overseers are conducting training sessions in hopes of preventing attacks, the governor said.
“We can offer support for these counties. Some of these counties, they don’t necessarily have all the resources to mount some of this stuff,” DeSantis said.
“The threat’s evolved. I don’t ever want to say, ‘Hey, there’s no more threats.’ It’s something you’ve always got to be vigilant about.”