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U.S. Official: Russian Hackers Targeted Election Systems In 21 States

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. official said Russian government-linked hackers targeted election systems in at least 21 U.S. states during the 2016 presidential election campaign, the first time the U.S. government has publicly identified the scope of the Russian effort.

Jeanette Manfra, a top cyberofficial at the Department of Homeland Security, made the statement alongside other U.S. administration officials testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing June 21.

The hearing focused on the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia engaged in a sustained computer hacking and public-opinion manipulation campaign ahead of the November 8 presidential vote.

Meanwhile, the man who headed the Department of Homeland Security in 2016 told a different congressional committee that it was an unequivocal fact that Russian cyberattacks occurred and were aimed at swaying the election results.

Russia "orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the purpose of influencing our election," Jeh Johnson told the House Intelligence Committee. "That is a fact. Plain and simple."

The question of the breadth and depth of Russian penetration in election systems has alarmed local and federal officials.

The U.S. intelligence community assessment released in January said the Kremlin used computer hacking, stolen e-mails, and propaganda and misinformation to influence public opinion in the United States during the election campaign.

E-mails that were stolen from Democratic National Committee officials, and from the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton, were later leaked -- influencing public debate and U.S. media coverage during the campaign, embarrassing Clinton, and undermining her efforts to win the election.

U.S. officials later said that Russia had specifically sought to sway the campaign in favor of Clinton's opponent, and the eventual winner, Donald Trump.

"The scale and the aggressiveness” of the Russian interference in 2016 set it apart from previous "active measure" campaigns used by Moscow in the Cold War era, said Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division.

"Active measures" is a term coined by Soviet spy agencies to describe overt and covert efforts to influence or undermine foreign governments.

'Critical Infrastructure'

Also in January, the Department of Homeland Security moved to designate U.S. voting systems "critical infrastructure," putting them on the same level as things like dams or bridges, or the electrical grid, and giving the federal government more authority to intervene in state systems.

Speaking before the Senate committee, Manfra declined to identify which states had been targeted; two states, Illinois and Arizona, had previously been identified publicly.

Manfra also testified that vote tallies were not tampered with, something that government investigators have been looking closely at.

She refused to respond to pointed questions by the panel’s top Democrat, Mark Warner, about how many states had voter data stolen by hackers.

Samuel Liles, acting director of cyberdivision at the Department of Homeland Security, told the Senate committee he "absolutely" expects Russia will "continue to conduct influence operations" in the United States.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the assertions that it was involved, though a growing body of public evidence – including a recently published classified National Security Agency document detailing hacking activity of Russian military intelligence -- has undermined those denials.

In prepared remarks to the House Intelligence Committee, Johnson echoed the comments from the officials before the Senate committee -- saying there was no evidence that actual vote tallies were stolen.

"To my current knowledge, the Russian government did not through any cyberintrusion alter ballots, ballot counts or reporting of election results," he said. "I am not in a position to know whether the successful Russian government-directed hacks of the [Democratic party] and elsewhere did, in fact, alter public opinion and thereby alter the outcome of the presidential election."

U.S. officials have repeatedly pointed out that the decentralized nature of U.S. election systems is one reason it is hard for external actors to directly manipulate the vote count.

There were roughly 185,000 voting precincts spread over 9,000 jurisdictions nationwide where Americans casts ballots during the November 8 vote.

The technology and methodology used varies, sometimes widely, from precinct to precinct.

The question of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign has shadowed the White House since the election and has deepened since Trump took office in January.

Several House and Senate committees are looking at various parts of that interference, and the FBI has been conducting a criminal investigation into the past and present interactions of Trump's associates with Russian and other foreign officials.

Oversight for that criminal investigation shifted to special counsel last month after Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, raising new questions about whether Trump tried to interfere or obstruct the investigation.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.