DHS says Russia is 'sowing discord' in the US, but it's not as bad as 2016

U.S. intelligence officers say they have not seen any evidence of a robust campaign by foreign agents to tamper with the 2018 midterm elections, yet a top Department of Homeland Security aide told congressional investigators on Wednesday that Russia is still “creating chaos.”

“We have not seen anything certainly to the degree of 2016 in terms of specific hacking of election systems,” Christopher Krebs, DHS undersecretary for National Protection and Programs Directorate, told the House Homeland Security Committee. “But … the intelligence community continues to see Russian activity in sowing discord across the American public. And it’s not again directed necessarily at politicians or political campaigns, but it is focused on identifying divisive issues, and sowing discord, and creating chaos, and frankly undermining democracy.”

Krebs’ risk and vulnerability assessment echoes testimony given to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee by Jeanette Manfra, DHS’ head of cybersecurity, in April.

Following news that Twitter is purging fake or suspicious accounts, Krebs said DHS was working with the social media platform, in addition to Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft to combat disinformation spread online.

“This is truly a partnership. The government will be taking certain actions and then the private sector will be taking certain actions,” he continued.

Krebs, who was sworn into his role in June, emphasized that DHS’ mission statement should be to act as an information and operations aggregator to avoid coordination problems experienced prior to Sept. 11, 2001. He touted initiatives including a range of government-industry councils, the funding of the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the sponsoring of security clearances for appropriate people, and providing more audit and training services for partners.

But Krebs pressed lawmakers to pass a bill creating the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS, which would rename and reorganize his National Protection and Programs Directorate.

He added that DHS leaders were expected to meet with state and local election officials this week in Philadelphia for their national summer conference addressing the issue.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen came under fire from Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee in March for not doing enough to help counterparts protect critical election infrastructure, such as voting machines, vote tallying systems and voter databases.

Concerns that foreign actors could try to influence future elections were raised that month after U.S. intelligence officers told NBC they believed as many as 50 undercover Russian citizens tried to register to attend the Texas Democratic Convention in what appeared to be the first known attempt to meddle in the 2018 midterm cycle.

Manfra told NBC in February that voter registration rolls were “successfully penetrated” by Kremlin-linked agents in 21 states ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Trump has been criticized from both sides of the political aisle for downplaying Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. But he told reporters in June he would broach the topic when he meets Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16.

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