If there was any lingering doubt that the Russians made an all-out assault on the integrity of the American electoral system, it has been put to rest by the newly released final official report from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
“In 2016, cyber-actors affiliated with the Russian Government conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure,” the report states without qualification.
“Russian actors scanned databases for vulnerabilities, attempted intrusions, and in a small number of cases successfully penetrated a voter registration database,” it continues.
“This activity was part of a larger campaign,” it adds, “to prepare to undermine confidence in the voting process.”
This devastating, definitive report quietly released yesterday stops short of saying the Russians rigged the election to help Trump, but it provides plentiful evidence that they got inside the system and had ample opportunity to tamper with the voting.
“This should be bigger news,” reports Politicususa, “but the report was downplayed because Republicans are in charge of the Committee (which is led by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina).”
“If Democrats were in charge,” adds Politicususa, “we’d probably see headlines that announced hard evidence of Russia rigging the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win.”
As it is, the committee reports that the Russian interference went on for a long time, was aimed at federal and individual state voting and was accompanied by extensive information gathering and other covert activity.
This was in addition to the disinformation campaigns, WikiLeaks attacks and thousands of bots used to disseminate disinformation on social media.
It was all intended to create chaos, discredit our democratic system and hurt certain candidates, most notably Secretary Hillary Clinton, who Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear he hates.
“Russia undertook a wide variety of intelligence-related activities targeting the U.S. voting process,” states the Senate report.
“These activities began at least as early as 2014, continued through Election Day 2016, and included traditional information gathering efforts as well as operations likely aimed at preparing to discredit the integrity of the U.S. voting process and election results.”
Election systems in at least 18 states – and more likely 21 states – were targeted by “Russian-affiliated cyber actors in some fashion,” reads the report, admitting there may have been more that went undetected.
While the Department of Homeland Security began warning some state election officials about the attacks as early as the summer of 2016, the report concludes that our defenses were completely inadequate to handle the threat and, in some cases, state officials did not take it seriously enough soon enough.
In at least six states, the report explains, “the Russian-affiliated cyber actors went beyond scanning and conducted malicious access attempts on voting-related websites.”
“In a small number of states,” the report continues, “Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter” information such as registration.
While the report says it can’t document any vote changing by the Russians, the fact that they had intelligence about each state and, in some cases, were able to go in and delete or alter voter registrations means they may have voided the ability of many people to vote – which is in itself a form of vote rigging.
While the committee notes that the Russians only got inside the systems in a few states, they could still have an over-sized impact: “A small number of districts in key states can have a significant impact in a national election.”
Remember that Trump won in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by a slim margin.
The committee sees the fact that every state chooses its own voting system as a strength because it requires the Russians to break through many different barriers, but the ultimate conclusion is that even now the U.S. is not ready to defend against sophisticated attacks.
“Voting systems across the United States are outdated, and many do not have a paper record of votes as a backup counting system that can be reliably audited, should there be allegations of machine manipulation.”
“In addition,” concludes the report, “the number of vendors selling machines is shrinking, raising concerns about supply chain vulnerability.”
It all adds up to a disaster waiting to happen, even as we finally figure out what happened during the last election.
The report has suggestions for how to correct the problems and be prepared but the patch quilt nature of the voting systems means each state has to act on its own and that is never going to happen considering the many political, financial and technical hurdles.
The real crime is that the U.S. does not have a federal system that mandates secure systems with a paper back up that can be verified, better cybersecurity and greater attention to ensure that we have secure, fair elections where the integrity can’t be questioned.