The lead official for the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday she is urging state election officials to push Congress for increased election security funding and calling on the Senate to pass a long-standing bill to operationalize a cyber protection office in the department before the year’s end.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told attendees at a Washington Post cyber summit that officials haven’t detected threats from foreign adversaries targeting election infrastructure ahead of the upcoming November midterm elections, but said critical resources to detect possible intrusions will be utilized to correct for previous lags in information sharing and threat detection.
“The information sharing is much stronger than it ever has been before. We’re working very closely with the intelligence community, from the moment that we see something significant,” Nielsen said. “For election day, we’re setting up a situational awareness room, sort of a virtual place where everybody can share quite quickly. We are actually pre-deploying some incident response teams so that, should there be any concern, we’ll be there to support our partners if they need that.”
Nielsen addressed claims the president made last Wednesday that China was working to interfere in the November elections, saying DHS does not have evidence of active plans to hack into voting infrastructure.
“We currently have no indication that a foreign adversary intends to disrupt our election infrastructure. Then I will immediately follow that with, this is a point in time, we know [China] has the capability and we know they have the will, so we’re constantly on alert to watch. But what we’re seeing China right now is the the influence campaigns,” Nielsen said.
DHS is still citing a need for states to remain aware of potential interference attempts, with Nielsen adding that state election officials should push Congress for further funding needed to improve the security of their voting infrastructure.
“I think they need consistent funding, and that’s always a difficulty across the homeland enterprise,” Nielsen said. “The states are our partners. The states need more money. They should absolutely go to Congress and ask for money.”
The most recent budget included $380 million for states to replace outdated voting systems, which top DHS officials have previously said may not be enough to transition to completely new equipment (Defense Daily, July 12).
Nielsen also called on the Senate to pass a long-standing bill that would rename the department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency, while also making the office an operational agency on par with the Coast Guard and FEMA.
The House passed the bill in December 2017 and Nielsen predicted the legislation would be approved before the end of year after the Senate settles back in following the midterms.
“We are not aware of any holds. Early on, there were some holds because there was some concern that the bill gave DHS new authorities. It doesn’t do that,” Nielsen said. “I am very hopeful that we get this on the president’s desk for signature this year.”
In response to a question regarding criticism her department faced after taking a year to inform several states that their election systems had been scanned by Russian actors, she said the new procedures are in place to ensure the issue is corrected for the midterms.
“We have network intrusion sensors out, such that about 90 percent of the people who vote in this election will be voting in an area that’s covered by a sensor,” Nielsen said. “We really and truly are throwing anything and everything we have at it at the request of state and local officials in support of their efforts.”