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US Homeland Security Head: Election Cyber Security Is Top Priority


Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, accompanied by former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, right, testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2018.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson told lawmakers Wednesday her agency is making election cyber security its top priority in an attempt to prevent foreign interference in this year’s elections.

Nielson testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee her department was "prioritizing election efforts ... over all other critical infrastructure sectors."

Despite federal efforts to enhance the nation's election infrastructure, Nielson said, "the threat of interference remains and we recognize that the 2018 mid-term and future elections are clearly potential targets for Russian hacking attempts."

She testified one day after the committee recommended Congress "urgently pass" legislation to prevent Russia from meddling in the November elections after doing so during the 2016 presidential campaign.

WATCH: US Elections Face Continued Cyberthreats

US Elections Face Continued Cyberthreats
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New legislation is among a number of recommendations that are included in the committee's initial findings after spending more than a year investigating Russian attempts to target U.S. voting systems during the 2016 campaign.

Included is a recommendation that state election officials ensure voting machines have paper audit trails and are not capable of being connected to the Internet. Another recommends that Homeland Security develop channels of communication between federal, state and local officials and that Washington "clearly communicate" that attacks on elections are hostile and appropriate agencies should "respond accordingly."

Former president Barack Obama’s Homeland Security head, Jeh Johnson, also testified before the committee, which has been critical of both administrations for not acting more quickly to limit Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections. Johnson said he agreed with the committee’s recommendations but cautioned they may not go far enough to prevent foreign meddling in U.S. elections.

"The reality is that given our electoral college and our current politics, national elections are decided in this country in a few precincts, in a few key swing states. The outcome, therefore, may dance on the head of a pin."

Homeland Security has said Russian agents targeted the election systems in 21 states before the November 2016 election and separately engaged in a social media campaign that was designed to create confusion and fuel social discord. U.S. intelligence agencies have said, however, there is no evidence the hacks affected election results, although they have concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign. Moscow has repeatedly denied interfering in the campaign.

In addition to Nielson, other intelligence officials have warned they have indications Russian agents are preparing a new campaign to interfere in the midterm elections, when control of Congress is at stake.

"This issue is urgent," said Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee. "If we start to fix these problems tomorrow, we still might not be in time to save the system for ... 2020," when the next presidential elections are held.

The hearing was held on the same day lawmakers were expected to unveil a wide-ranging federal spending measure that may include more funding for election security.

The committee’s recommendations are a preview of an election security report that is expected to be released in its entirety in the coming weeks.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting what is widely viewed as the least partisan out of the three primary congressional probes of Russia's meddling in 2016.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller also is investigating Russia's activities in 2016, as well as looking into the possibility of collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice by Trump associates.

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