Feds Draw Criticism for Florida Election Hacking Secrecy

The refusal on the part of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to reveal which counties were breached in 2016 election drew sharp criticism from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state.

by George Bennett, The Palm Beach / May 17, 2019
Florida Capitol Building Shutterstock/Felix Mizioznikov

(TNS) — The FBI and Department of Homeland Security drew bipartisan criticism from members of Florida's congressional delegation on Thursday for refusing to reveal which two of Florida's 67 counties had their elections systems breached by Russian hackers before the 2016 election.

"The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have not been sufficiently forthcoming with the American people or members of the United States Congress," said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a prominent ally of President Donald Trump, during a news conference in Washington after the Florida congressional delegation was briefed on the hacking.

"Today's classified briefing was important, but much of this information can and should be shared with Florida voters and the American people, and I asked the FBI to reconsider their decision to block the disclosure of the information," said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who received his own briefing on the matter last week, said Tuesday that while hackers gained access to voter records in the two counties, "there was no manipulation" of data.

"It did not affect any voting or anything like that," DeSantis said Tuesday after revealing for the first time that two counties had been hacked.

But U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, sounded less confident after Thursday's congressional briefing.

"We couldn't get with certainty the verification that the Russians actually were not able to manipulate the data that they had access to. They found no evidence of that, but they couldn't say with certainty that they did not manipulate that data," Mucarsel-Powell said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor through 2018, said Thursday that the FBI had no evidence that any hacking occurred last year — when the issue arose during Scott's Senate campaign against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Nelson was blasted by Scott and Republicans last August when he said Russians had not only hacked Florida election systems in 2016 but were "in Florida's records" in 2018 as well.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, emerged from Thursday's briefing saying she was "particularly alarmed" that former Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher was the only Florida elections chief in 2018 to decline a special server that detects attempts to hack into state or local government networks.

"I have been assured by our new supervisor that she is in the process of adopting these safeguards," Frankel said.

The Department of Homeland Security offered grants of roughly $18,000 to each county last year to buy a server and pay for one year of monitoring to detect hacking attempts.

DeSantis removed Bucher from office in January, accusing her of mishandling the 2018 election and three statewide recounts. Bucher's decision to "refuse and reject Department of Homeland Security-sponsored servers" was among the reasons DeSantis listed in his executive order removing Bucher and appointing Wendy Link as her replacement.

Link said Thursday she has accepted the Homeland Security grant, which covers $7,079 for the server and its installation and $11,280 to cover the first year of monitoring. Bucher could not be reached on Thursday.

Deputy Elections Supervisor Robin Rorapaugh, who served under Bucher, said she believed Bucher declined the server because of "timing" issues and planned to use it after the 2018 elections.

DeSantis and members of Congress have given differing explanations for why federal authorities won't reveal which counties were hacked. DeSantis said he was sworn to secrecy on the two counties to "protect sources and methods."

But Gaetz said federal authorities said the counties are not being revealed because the breached elections offices are considered crime victims.

"That rationale is ludicrous," Gaetz said at a news conference in Washington. "The victims in these cases are not government officeholders. The victims are voters. And the victim truly is the integrity that we have to have and the trust that we have to have in the American election system."

©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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