The pushback comes after claims Russian agents had breached some county election systems.
(TNS) — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The heads of two of the nation’s top security agencies refuted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s claim that Russian agents have infiltrated the election systems of some Florida counties.
In a letter to the Florida election officials late Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen and FBI director Christopher Wray stated that no election system in Florida has been hacked. The letter was released nearly two hours after Nielsen spoke with Gov. Rick Scott on the phone about election security.
“Although we have not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida, Russian government actors have previously demonstrated both the intent and capability to conduct malicious cyberoperations,” the letter states. “DHS and the FBI will continue to notify any victim of a successful cyberintrusion into their election network in any jurisdiction nationwide.”
Nelson, D-Orlando, made the assertion on Aug. 7, in the midst of his re-election campaign against Scott, a Republican, and sending state and local election officials scrambling to find out more information. He told reporters Russian operatives “have free rein to move about” in “certain counties” in Florida.
In a statement, Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown said, “there’s nothing in this letter that contradicts what Sen. Nelson said he was told a few months ago, and what he and Sen. Rubio have tried to warn about in order to guard against Russian meddling in our elections.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, has consistently raised alarm bells about the threat to Florida’s election systems from Russian hackers. He and Nelson sent a letter to local supervisors of elections in June alerting them to the threat.
But Nelson’s comments went further, asserting there had already been a breach. Rubio released a statement after Nelson’s initial claim that reiterated his warning about the cybersecurity threat but neither confirmed nor denied Nelson’s contention.
Florida Department of State Secretary Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee who heads the agency in charge of elections, sent letters to Congressional leaders, to DHS and the FBI.
“When Senator Bill Nelson made unsubstantiated claims that ‘Russians are in Florida’s election records,’ the Department began aggressively pursuing answers,” Detzner spokeswoman Sarah Revell stated in an email. “None of these agencies had information to corroborate Senator Nelson’s claims.”
Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel said he’s been in contact with DHS and the FBI, and there’s been no breach. Nelson’s comments have raised alarm among some voters, he said, but while there’s been no breach so far, that doesn’t mean the threat has subsided.
“There was no intrusion in ’16, none in ’17, none in ‘18, and we’ll prosecute anyone that attempts to,” Ertel said, adding that “you’ve got to be careful not to pump your chest up so much that you cause someone to see you as a potential target.”
Scott’s campaign has hounded Nelson since he made the claim, saying he either made a false charge or inappropriately released classified information.
“It is irresponsible and reckless that Bill Nelson would attempt to undermine the voters’ confidence in their county elections systems by making confusing statements while campaigning and then walking away with absolutely no explanation,” Scott said in a statement released by his campaign.
Last week, Nelson’s campaign pointed to an NBC News story citing three anonymous intelligence officials, who indicated there remained a threat from the 2016 hack of an elections vendor, Tallahassee-based VR Systems. The campaign said that vindicated Nelson’s claims.
Brown blamed Scott for publicly bashing Nelson and politicizing the issue.
“The governor of Florida has a security clearance and could have quickly and directly received information, answers and posed any questions instead of engaging in these confusing and partisan histrionics of the past week,” Brown said.
©2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.