WASHINGTON ― The Obama administration’s top homeland security official warned on Wednesday that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was far more advanced than previously reported.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson lamented that there was not enough public awareness and urgency on the issue, while defending the former administration’s reticence to publicly discuss the information in the months leading up to the election.
“In 2016, the Russian government, at the direction of Vladimir Putin himself, orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the purpose of influencing our election. That is a fact, plain and simple,” Johnson said, testifying before the House Intelligence committee, which is conducting one of several investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Echoing the testimonies of other government officials, Johnson warned that Russian interference would continue, urging congressional leaders and members of President Donald Trump’s administration to prioritize cybersecurity and take steps to prevent further intrusions into U.S. elections.
Yet Trump, whose campaign is under investigation for potentially colluding with Russian officials, has maintained that reports of Russian interference were “fake news.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement official, testified before the Senate last week that he had never received or asked for a briefing on the issue.
Johnson also said during his testimony that the Democratic National Committee refused the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to help them with security precautions, after hackers obtained and released DNC emails last July.
“I recall very clearly that I was not pleased that we were not in there helping them patch this vulnerability,” he said.
Members of the House panel repeatedly pressed Johnson on why the Obama administration was slow to go public with their reports on Russia’s role in the cyberattacks.
Johnson defended the former administration’s cautious approach, for fear of “injecting ourselves into a very heated campaign,” he said.
Without referring to Trump directly, Johnson noted that in particular, “one of the candidates, as you recall, was predicting that the election was going to be ‘rigged’ in some way.”
But Johnson said that he had raised the issue with other intelligence officials and with state election officials over several months. And when he and James Clapper, then the director of national intelligence, released a public statement about the matter on Oct. 7, Johnson said that the public and the media largely ignored it. “It did not get the attention it should have” because it came on the same day as the bombshell tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault, he said.
Much of the problem in the administration’s inadequate response was that the sophistication of the Russian interference was “unprecedented,” he said, particularly their ability to “dump information into the public space to influence the election.”
“No one knew how far the Russians were going to go,” Johnson said, adding that “in retrospect, I should have bought a sleeping bag and camped out in front of the DNC.”
While Johnson testified that he had no evidence suggesting the Russians directly altered votes, he was still deeply concerned and had made the issue “a top priority” during his time at the DHS.
“We were pushing information out the door to everybody,” he said.
Johnson testified that throughout the early fall, he had offered cybersecurity support to state election officials, but some ignored the DHS’ warnings.
When asked for his recommendations, Johnson said that the onus was on state election officials to adopt greater cybersecurity protections and suggested grants to fund them.
Johnson’s warnings of future Russian interference echoed those of fired FBI director James Comey, who told the Senate intelligence committee earlier this month that the issue was “about as unfake as you can possibly get” — a clear reference to Trump’s claim that it was “fake news.”
Johnson on Wednesday shed light on his working relationship with Comey, describing Comey as “the cop, and I am the fireman,” referring to the FBI’s role in identifying threats and the DHS’s role in “patching vulnerabilities, detecting bad actors in the system.”
But he did criticize the delay in communication about the DNC hack between the FBI and DHS, noting that “there were glitches, instances where we did not communicate as effectively as we could have.”