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US Officials Not Taking Putin Election Comments Lightly

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the 2019 Russian Energy Week forum in Moscow, Russia, Oct. 2, 2019.

U.S. security officials are not laughing at the latest comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere in U.S. elections.

Putin, speaking at an economic forum in Moscow Wednesday, dismissed U.S. allegations that Russia meddled in both the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2018 mid-term election as “ridiculous.”

“Or it would be ridiculous if it was not that sorrowful, because all we see now in the U.S. domestic politics ruins Russia-U.S. relations, and I am sure it harms the United States itself, too," Putin said.

"I'm telling you as a secret – yes, we will definitely do it (meddle in next year's U.S. presidential election) in order to deliver you the best of fun,” Putin joked with the audience. “Just don't tell anyone."

Despite Putin’s comments, U.S. security and intelligence officials have said, consistently, that they have seen indications Russia will try to interfere with the upcoming 2020 presidential elections.

But they also say the country’s election infrastructure – including the voter registration databases and vote tabulating systems that do connect to the internet – is ready.

“We’ve got all instruments of our power in our government countering it,” Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Assistant Director Jeanette Manfra told VOA Wednesday when asked about Putin’s remarks.

Manfra also said Americans should feel secure when they go to the polls in the 2020 presidential election, noting there are sensors now monitoring key systems in all 50 states and that communication between federal, state and local election officials has never been better.

“I remain very, very confident that the tally of the votes, the actual vote cast, itself, will be faithful to what the voter actually puts into the machine,” she said in response to questions during a Washington Post Cybersecurity Summit.

Still, concerns persist that Russia may try new tricks to interfere with U.S. election systems.

The U.S. Defense Department has announced it is making election security one of its enduring missions.

“We need to do more than just play goal line defense,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a security forum outside of Washington last month. “The Department of Defense has an important role in defending the American people from this misinformation, particularly as it pertains to preserving the integrity of our democratic elections.”

This past July, former special counsel Robert Mueller, tasked with investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, warned lawmakers Moscow’s meddling had never stopped.

“It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said. “They expect to do it during the next campaign.”

There are also ongoing fears about how to counter disinformation campaigns by Russia and other countries, including China and Iran, that might impact how voters decide for whom to cast ballots.

"This is where the Russians exploited us, exploited our divisiveness,” former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Wednesday “That part of the problem, I'm not sure about."

Likewise, there are indications that such election interference campaigns are becoming the norm, and no longer limited to just nation-states like Russia.

“I cannot think of an election in the last four years where there hasn’t been experimentation and mockery,” per John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, told the Washington Post Cybersecurity summit. “I’m not at all convinced we’ve got a good handle on this."