Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday the Democratic National Committee “did not feel it needed” the assistance of the Department of Homeland Security following last year’s election hack, which U.S. officials have since attributed to Russia.
“Sometime in 2016 I became aware of a hack into systems of the Democratic National Committee,” Johnson said in prepared testimony to the House Intelligence Committee. “I pressed my staff to know whether DHS was sufficiently proactive, and on the scene helping the DNC identify the intruders and patch vulnerabilities. The answer, to the best of my recollection, was not reassuring.
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“The FBI and the DNC had been in contact with each other months before about the intrusion,” he continued, “and the DNC did not feel it needed DHS’s assistance at that time.”
Johnson’s testimony is part of the House Intelligence panel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, which is looking into possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
U.S. officials believe Russia later provided the information stolen from the DNC, possibly using intermediaries, to WikiLeaks as part of the Kremlin’s larger effort to damage Hillary Clinton and help elect Trump.
Johnson faced questions from the intelligence panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, over why the Obama administration waited until October to inform the public about Russia’s cyber campaign.
“This was a big decision, and there were a lot of considerations that went into it,” Johnson responded. “This was an unprecedented step.”
He said the administration was concerned about being criticized for trying to influence the election, especially given that Trump was calling the election process “rigged.”
He also noted that when the administration finally did decide to issue its statement about the hacking — on Oct. 7 — that it got overshadowed because that was the same day the news broke of the “Access Hollywood” video from 11 years earlier in which Trump bragged about groping women.
Schiff then asked why President Barack Obama did not do more to draw attention to the issue of Russia’s cyber campaign.
“You shouldn’t view the Oct. 7 statement in isolation,” Johnson responded. "This was an ongoing effort to inform the public."
In his prepared remarks, Johnson chronicles his attempt to sound the alarm about Russia’s cyber campaign — only to run into political obstacles. For instance, he said he wanted to declare the country’s election infrastructure to be "critical infrastructure," which would have made it a top priority for receipt of DHS services and ensured it received "the benefit of various domestic and international cybersecurity protections."
“To my disappointment,” he explained, “the reaction to a critical infrastructure designation, at least from those who spoke up, ranged from neutral to negative. Those who expressed negative views stated that running elections in this country was the sovereign and exclusive responsibility of the states, and they did not want federal intrusion, a federal takeover, or federal regulation of that process. This was a profound misunderstanding of what a critical infrastructure designation would mean, which I tried to clarify for them.”
The idea, he said, was shelved until after the election. In January, DHS made the designation of election infrastructure as critical infrastructure — and his successor, John Kelly, has reaffirmed that designation.
Johnson added that to his knowledge, Russia’s cyber attacks did not result in any actual votes being tampered with or changed.
“I am not in a position to know whether the successful Russian government-directed hacks of the DNC and elsewhere did in fact alter public opinion and thereby alter the outcome of the presidential election,” he said.