The Russian Distraction

Both houses of Congress held hearings today on Russian interference in the 2016 election.  What did we learn?  Not much.  Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.  A variety of officials testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  

Indiana Secretary of State, incoming President of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), and member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, Connie Lawson, testified to separate fact from fiction in the Russia hysteria (and warn about the problems with the Department of Homeland Security's designation of election systems as critical infrastructure) (emphasis in original):

As Senator Warner noted in a letter sent yesterday (June 20, 2017) to Homeland Security Secretary Kelly, we have not seen any credible evidence that vote casting or counting was subject to manipulation in any state or locality in the 2016 election cycle, or any reason to question the results. While still alarming, there is a big difference between manipulating VOTERS and manipulating VOTES.  

Here is what chief state election officials know about documented foreign targeting of state and local election systems in the 2016 election cycle, as confirmed by DHS: No major cybersecurity issues were reported on Election Day: November 8, 2016. . . . We also learned that foreign-based hackers were able to gain access to voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois last summer, prompting the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to warn state election offices to increase their election security measures for the November 2016 election. To our knowledge, no data was deleted or modified as part of the breaches, and these are not systems involved in vote tallying. . . . Of course, in more recent days, we have learned from a top-secret NSA report that the identity of a company providing voter registration support services in several states was compromised, and some 122 local election offices received spear phishing emails as a result. . . .  

While there is clearly a pattern of foreign targeting of election systems in the last cycle, it is also very important to underscore that voting machines are not connected to the Internet or networked in any way. I say this not only for the benefit of this Committee, but for the media as well. We must understand how to label, describe and discuss election infrastructure responsibly and accurately when informing the public about elections, because there has been a great deal of misinformation publicized, including statements from the federal government. . . It is gravely concerning that election officials have only recently learned about the threat referenced in the leaked NSA report, especially – and I emphasize this – given the fact that DHS repeatedly told state election officials no credible threat existed in the fall of 2016. 

The media's and Democrat's continued focus on Russian interference in the 2016 election is distracting the nation from addressing some of the important issues facing it, as even Democrats are starting to realize.  Indeed, it is even distracting election officials from important work to address real cybersecurity concerns, such as the actual penetration of voter registration systems by both Russia and the DHS.  With every new revelation and in every new hearing, the same facts are established: no vote was changed through hacking by Russia or any other person or entity; there is no evidence of Trump campaign or administration collusion with Russia; Russia and DHS did hack or attempt to hack voter registration systems, but no voter records were changed; and Russia has long attempted to influence U.S. elections, just as the U.S. attempts to influence elections in other countries.  

Chillingly, the unswerving focus on Russia means that Russia has won, according to some observers:

Some Russia-watchers believe that the goal of the 2016 Russian campaign shenanigans was not to elect Trump but to damage Clinton before her election. That would make a certain kind of sense: Putin does not want a President Trump or a President Clinton — he wants an American president so hamstrung by political rancor, personal weakness, and petty venality that American leadership around the world is compromised. 

Mission accomplished. 

“Russia” is now shorthand for what will be an open-ended investigation of Trump and everybody around him, one that probably will last throughout his term. That may not have been part of Putin’s plan, but it unquestionably serves Putin’s interests. That is something worth keeping in mind.

We hope that Democrats and the media can put aside this hysteria over Russia to focus on real policy issues and the actual threats to election security that come from places like Russia.