U.S. Too Passive on Elections Cyberthreat, Warns Maine Senator

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, says the federal government needs to come together to retaliate and deter more cyberattacks.

by Colin Woodard, Portland Press Herald / February 27, 2018
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(TNS) — U.S. Sen. Angus King is warning that not enough has been done to secure electoral systems across the country from cyberattacks by Russia or other foreign adversaries, and he says President Trump has been making the situation worse by dismissing the threat rather than marshaling a coordinated federal response.

“This is such a major threat, and it takes presidential leadership to coordinate an all-of-government response,” said King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and beyond. “The CIA, the director of national intelligence, the secretaries of state — these are all pieces, and it takes executive leadership to pull the pieces together and do it. He hasn’t done that.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with the Portland Press Herald, King also discussed the improving prospects for gun control legislation, the narrow failure of a bipartisan immigration reform bill brokered by Sen. Susan Collins, and the state of the ongoing Russia investigation on Capitol Hill. He also described why he remains an independent, even as he caucuses and generally votes with his Democratic Senate colleagues.

But his most pressing concern was with what he sees as the failure of the Trump administration, state election officials and congressional appropriators to give the cyberthreat to election systems the priority it deserves. He said he has probably sat through 20 hearings where “everybody says that cyber is going to be the next Pearl Harbor” and yet Washington still lacks a coordinated response.

“This is the longest windup for a punch in world history, and yet we’re not fully prepared,” he said in the interview last week.

King said he believes the country will be better prepared in the midterm elections in November — when Americans will choose 435 House members, 34 U.S. senators, 36 governors, and tens of thousands of other state and local officials — than it was in 2016, “but not as prepared as we should be.” What’s needed, he said, is a military statement of how the U.S. will retaliate against foreign cyberattacks, federal assistance to states to switch to more secure voting equipment, and leadership from the White House.

King has long argued in favor of establishing a credible deterrent to state-sponsored cyberattacks against the United States. This, he has argued, would entail the executive branch announcing to the world what sort of cyberspace actions would be considered “an act of war” and the sort of responses that perpetrators could expect. In May 2016, when Barack Obama was president, King and Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced a provision calling for the Pentagon to create just such a policy, but it wasn’t implemented, which he laments.

“If all we try to do to protect ourselves against a cyberattack is patch software and defend, that will ultimately not be successful,” he said. “If you’re in a boxing match and you have to keep your hands behind you and all you do is duck, eventually you are going to get knocked out. The other guy has to know that you’re going to hit back.”

ELECTION SECURITY MEASURE FAILED

King has been warning of the threats to election systems in media interviews and public statements for the better part of a year. Last May he wrote to his colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee asking that they devote $160 million to help states replace voting machines that do not have paper ballots or backups with ones that do, and to fund post-election audits that would detect any discrepancies between automated vote counts and the paper evidence. “It didn’t go anywhere,” he said.

The Secure Elections Act, a bipartisan Senate bill introduced two months ago and co-sponsored by Collins, would provide $386 million in federal grants to states to help them improve their election systems. It hasn’t received so much as a committee hearing.

King is not alone in his concern. A week ago, Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “the United States is under attack” by Russia, which seeks to “degrade our democratic values and weaken our alliances” and is targeting this year’s midterms.

TRUMP MUDDIES RUSSIA WATERS

Last September, homeland security officials revealed that Russian hackers targeted the election systems of 21 states in 2016 and successfully breached Illinois’ voter registration database. Maine, which uses paper ballots, was not among the states targeted, and the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, has said its low-tech system has made it relatively impervious to an online attack.

In the interview, King also criticized Trump for choosing to characterize the Russia probes as a hoax or witch hunt. He said that has made it more difficult to convince citizens that they could be targets of Russian social media disinformation campaigns, like the one that resulted in 13 federal indictments issued by special counsel Robert Mueller against Russian hackers this month.

“By continuing to deny it, he is impeding the ability of our people to understand what’s being done to them and therefore (making it easier) to shrug it off,” King said. “I’ve talked to a lot of Trump supporters up here (in Maine) and I ask them about the Mueller thing and they say it’s a hoax, that the whole thing is B.S. They see it as a threat to him, where the reality is it’s a threat to the country.”

King also said that in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, federal lawmakers appear more likely to take up gun control measures that have failed in recent years, possibly including clip size restrictions, a ban on bump stocks (which make semi-automatic weapons function as fully automatic ones), preventing people on the terrorism “no fly list” from possessing firearms, and strengthening background checks.

He also said he’s seen indications that increasing numbers of senators are seeking common ground and a return to normal Senate procedures after years of partisan rancor. He said a bipartisan bill to protect “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children — in exchange for $25 billion in funding for the president’s border wall with Mexico was defeated by just six votes Feb. 15, and might have passed had the Department of Homeland Security not issued a “scurrilous” press release just ahead of the vote erroneously claiming it would hamper immigration enforcement and offer amnesty to criminals.

King praised Collins, R-Maine, for her role in assembling support for the bill, which was drafted in her office by a group of 25 senators calling themselves the Common Sense Coalition. “Susan showed real leadership, she really did,” said King, a member of the group and co-sponsor of the bill. “She was the indispensable person on this, and she was responsible for getting most of the eight Republican sponsors on board.”

DOING BUSINESS IN THE SENATE

He said there is also growing discontent with Senate rules, which allowed Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, to unilaterally decide whether any bill receives a floor vote, a decision that in the past lay with those who chair the various committees. “We have 100 people who worked really hard and spent a lot of money to get here, and they can’t do anything unless one person says that your bill gets a vote?” King said. “I’ve heard a couple of (senators) saying, ‘I got elected just like Mitch. Why don’t I get a vote?’ ”

King also said the Senate Intelligence Committee continues to maintain a bipartisan sense of purpose on the Russia investigation, even as its House counterpart has all but collapsed in acrimony.

“I don’t want to be Pollyanna — we don’t link arms and sing a song before every committee meeting; there are issues and we work them out,” he said. “But there’s an overall sense that what we’re doing is important and that the credibility of whatever we do will relate to some extent to its bipartisan nature.”

ON NOT BEING A DEMOCRAT

King – a former two-term governor of Maine – was asked why he isn’t a Democrat, given that he caucuses and usually votes with his colleagues from that party, and was a Democrat earlier in his life while serving as a staffer to Sen. William Hathaway, D-Maine, in the early 1970s. He defended his lack of affiliation, describing it as an advantage in building relations across the aisle – especially as governor — and freeing him from toeing a party line.

“It’s sort of who I am, who I was as governor, and I’ve been in this place for 25 or 30 years and feel comfortable there,” he said. “I don’t want to overstate it — the Republicans know where I caucus — but on the other side I think I do get a little credit for being in the middle,” leading him to sometimes be called on by Republican colleagues to help shepherd cross-party initiatives.

“Plus, if I suddenly said tomorrow that I’m going to be a Democrat, I think people in Maine would sort of scratch their heads and say, ‘Who are you? Why are you telling us this now?’ ” said King, who is running for re-election this year. “It’s hard to do in a body that’s based on partisan organization, but I can’t explain except that it feels right.”

©2018 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.