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Capitol Hill Hearings Probe Russian Efforts To Hack U.S. Elections


Russia tried to break into election systems in almost two dozen states last year, and they are likely to try again. That's what law enforcement officials told Senate and House intelligence committees today as part of ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in U.S. elections. There's no evidence the hackers changed people's votes this time, but lawmakers say more needs to be done to prevent that from happening in the future. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The first question is, what exactly did the Russians try to do in last year's elections? Samuel Liles of the Department of Homeland Security told senators that his agency determined in September that election networks in 21 states had been the targets of Russian cyberattacks. He said for the most part, hackers scanned computer systems, looking for weaknesses.


SAMUEL LILES: Analogous to somebody walking down the street and looking to see if you are home.

FESSLER: And in a few cases, the attackers rattled the doorknobs but couldn't break in.


LILES: Finally, a small number of the networks were successfully exploited. They made it through the door.

FESSLER: Those doors apparently involved voter registration databases in two states, Arizona and Illinois. No information was altered or deleted. But in Illinois at least, intruders had access to almost 80,000 voter records for three weeks before they were detected. Bill Priestap, assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI, said even if no votes were changed, the attacks revealed an increasingly sophisticated Russian campaign.


BILL PRIESTAP: The primary goal in my mind was to sow discord and to try to delegitimize our free and fair election process.

FESSLER: But with democracy under attack, lawmakers said they were frustrated by the lack of information. Mark Warner of Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, said it didn't make sense not to reveal the identities of the 21 states targeted, information the witnesses refused to share citing ongoing investigations.


MARK WARNER: We are not making our country safer if we don't make sure that all Americans realize the breadth and the extent of what the Russians did in 2016 and frankly, if we don't get our act together, what they will do in 2018 and 2020.

FESSLER: He and others on both the House and Senate panels said they're worried that the U.S. isn't getting its act together fast enough. Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House panel about his decision before leaving office in January to designate U.S. elections part of the nation's critical infrastructure. This allows the federal government to give more security help to state and local election offices.

But Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson told the Senate panel the arrangement has been far from ideal. She called it gravely concerning that election officials only recently learned that Russian hackers tried to use a vendor's email account last year to break into local election computers.


CONNIE LAWSON: Especially given the fact that the former DHS secretary, Jeh Johnson, repeatedly told my colleagues and I that no specific or credible threats existed in the fall of '16.

FESSLER: Lawson then made the startling admission that she still doesn't know whether her state was among the 21 targeted. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine also noted that no secretary of state has yet been given a security clearance to get classified information from the federal government. And she asked FBI official Priestap, even if no votes were changed this time...


SUSAN COLLINS: Is there any evidence that the Russians have implanted malware or back doors or other computer techniques to allow them easier access next time?

PRIESTAP: I'm sorry, Senator. I just can't comment on that because of our pending investigations.

FESSLER: Lawmakers say they'll try to get more answers when they meet with intelligence officials later behind closed doors. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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