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Indictment of 12 Russian agents exposes gaps in election security

Robert Mueller’s team indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on Friday for hacking into the Democratic campaign and state election operations in 2016. The indictment also revealed how state and local election boards were targeted, information on 500,000 American voters was stolen and cryptocurrencies were used to fund the operations. POLITICO's Eric Geller joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Good evening and thank you for joining us.

    One day after the United States charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with hacking into Democratic campaign and state election operations in 2016, President Donald Trump suggested the Obama administration was responsible.

    Before heading out to play golf at his Turnberry, Scotland club this morning, the president tweeted asking why didn't they do something about it. There were other tweets on a variety of subjects — but none criticized Russia or praised the justice department indictments.

    After golfing today, aides say Mr. Trump will prepare for his Monday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. At a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday, the president said he will bring up the Russian cyber-attacks but dismissed the possibility Putin will accept responsibility.

    In Philadelphia today, the main topic at the annual meeting of secretaries of state and election officials is cyber security for the upcoming midterm elections. Several state officials said the federal government is doing a better job of communicating about the risks.

    For more on the Russian hacking and what is ahead for U.S. election security, POLITICO reporter Eric Geller joins us now from Washington D.C.. Eric, we saw some of this come out last fall about secretaries of state and voter registration systems being vulnerable, what did we learn? How did they get it done?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    Well, this was a very interesting sort of two part indictment. The vast majority of it focused on the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and of course the Clinton campaign. There were also a few paragraphs in there about attacks, attempted attacks on state election systems. In one case, according to the indictment, what they did was, they broke into a company that sells software that's used to verify voters at the polls. So you walk up, you tell them your name, they look on a list what they're doing is they're using software to make sure you're on the voter registry. That software is made by a company, in this case it's believed to be a Florida company called V.R. systems based on a leaked NSA report that was published last year. So they got into this company, they looked around and then they used what they knew to send e-mails to a bunch of people in Florida — election supervisors in various counties — basically saying you know click this link, again, pretending to be from that company to establish legitimacy. It's unclear if they got into any systems maintained by those Florida counties but that was that was one of their attempts and of course, they tried in many other states too.

    The indictment also mentions that they successfully got into one the state election board — Illinois has said that we believe that that is a reference to us. They have confirmed in the past that they were hacked and the number in the indictment is 500,000 voters in Illinois.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.So Rod Rosenstein went out of his way to say that the results of the election were not compromised because of this but I guess the aim is if you can have access to voter registration data, you can kind of muck it up for people who you suspect might be on the other team coming out to vote and either suppress the other team or make your voters come out, right?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    Yeah, exactly that's the big concern for folks. For the most part, voting machines are impervious to most forms of hacking. There are certainly ways a determined adversary could get in, one by one. But the big concern, as you mentioned, is these voter registration systems where if you can drop, as Obama's former cyber coordinator was concerned about during the election, if you drop every third voter from the voter registry, that's chaos on election day and you only need to do that in a couple of states — you don't even need to do that in a swing state as long as people in swing states are hearing about chaos in other states. That's a problem.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yeah. So let's look forward. Here we are just a few months away from a midterm election. Does the intelligence community, does the Department of Justice in their indictment, does anybody feel like we are secure enough from this happening again?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    Well, you know it's interesting. Kirsten Neilson, the DHS secretary was asked about this at a cybersecurity conference several months ago. She was asked, are you confident in the security of the election system and her response was telling. She didn't answer the question. She said, I'm confident in our efforts to protect the elections, which is essentially saying, I think everybody is working as hard as they can. Again, that's not an answer to the question.

    Right now, the secretaries are meeting, secretaries of state are meeting in Philadelphia for their summer conference and election. Security is the top issue there. You have the federal government several months ago giving out almost $400 million to states to upgrade their voting machines, upgrade their registration systems. Frankly that's not enough for some states especially given that states get the money based on voter populations. So some of those states that have big problems might not be getting enough money to fix them. And even if they are, who knows if you can get those voting machines into place before the midterms.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Eric Geller of POLITICO joining us from Washington tonight. Thanks so much.

  • ERIC GELLER:

    Thank you.

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