WASHINGTON - Senior U.S. officials say they are already busy buttressing the nation’s defenses against foreign interference for the 2020 presidential election. Only they admit the public may be kept in the dark about attacks and intrusions.
Intelligence and election security officials have warned repeatedly that Russia, among other state and nonstate actors, remains intent on disrupting the upcoming elections and that the Kremlin may even have gone easy on the U.S. during the 2016 midterm elections, seeing the ability to impact the 2020 presidential race as the bigger prize.
At the same time, election and security officials have come under increased scrutiny for failing to reveal the size and scope of Russia’s efforts to hack into voter databases and other critical systems.
That scrutiny further intensified this past April when Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his report into Russia's 2016 election interference efforts, informing voters for the first time that Russian agents managed to infiltrate critical systems in at least one county during the 2016 presidential election.
In response, two Florida lawmakers, Republican Michael Waltz and Democrat Stephanie Murphy, wrote to the FBI and Justice Department, demanding a classified briefing on the full extent of Russia’s exploits.
“Florida voters have the right to know the extent to which foreign actors may have breached our state’s election security systems, and what the federal government is doing to prevent it from happening again,” Murphy said in a statement.
Senior Trump administration officials, however, cautioned Monday they may decide to keep information like that from the public.
“There are hard choices to be made,” one official told reporters while briefing them on efforts to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference.
“The ultimate question is going to be whether the federal or national interests in doing so -- publicly disclosing it -- outweigh any counter veiling consideration,” the official added.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials said the ability to disclose information can often be limited by the need to protect the sources and methods that discovered the attacks or intrusions in the first place.
Impact on victims
There are also concerns about the impact on the victims.
“Victims who work with the FBI do so because they trust that we’ll protect and handle their information appropriately,” a senior law enforcement official said. “For example, the majority of technical information that we were able to give election officials during the 2016 time frame was initiated from this type of trusted outreach.”
In cases involving foreign influence campaigns, the decision to make them public can be even more difficult.
“Disclosing a foreign influence operation might do more harm than good because it might draw more attention to an operation that would otherwise go unnoticed,” the senior administration official said.
A senior intelligence official agreed that in some cases, the less said, the better.
“It’s less about highlighting for the public that there might be a problem,” the official said. “We actually want to stop it from happening, whether we do that through cyber channels or diplomatic channels or other operations.”
With the 2020 presidential campaign getting under way, intelligence agencies, along with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, have set about briefing the candidates and making them aware of the resources available should their campaign come under attack.
There are also increased efforts to reach out to U.S. state and local officials to make sure they have the information they need to protect their voter databases and election systems from attacks.
Officials said there have even been ongoing discussions with the private sector, both those that provide voting machines and other election infrastructure, as well as with social media companies.