by John Haughey
Russian hackers gained access to voter information files in Washington County, a sparsely populated Republican-dominated Panhandle county, where 77 percent of its 11,000 votes cast in the 2016 presidential election went to Donald Trump.
The revelation was reported by The Washington Post Thursday night, citing two unnamed officials “with knowledge of the investigation,” who said Washington County was one of the two Florida counties breached by the Russian military spy agency, the GRU, in the days before the November 2016 election.
The Washington Post also cites two unnamed Florida sources that the second county the FBI maintains was penetrated by the GRU in 2016 is “a mid-sized county on the East Coast of the state.”
The disclosures have further inflamed already angry state officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Florida’s congressional delegation, who are demanding the FBI and the Trump Administration be more forthcoming in discussing with them and county election officials what its investigation has uncovered.
“The public needs to know which counties were hacked and what steps are being taken to hold the bad actors accountable,” U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando, said during a bipartisan Washington D.C. press conference staged by five of the state’s congressional reps.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Pensacola, never one to mince words, was even more pointed: “I don’t know who the hell they think they are to not share that information with us.”
The FBI’s claim that Florida elections offices were hacked first surfaced last year and has been disputed by state and local elections officials, who say the agency has never presented evidence to support the allegation and stonewalled requests for elaboration.
The assertion re-emerged in April when the 448-page Mueller investigation report stated on pages 50-51 that “at least one Florida county government” was compromised prior to the 2016 presidential election.
According to the Mueller report, Russian GRU military intelligence agents in November 2016 sent phishing emails with corrupted files to 120 Florida election officials.
The email, disguised as a message from election equipment vendor VR Systems, had a coded attachment that could give Russian agents access to election systems. The ruse worked in at least one county, the report said, and as many as two counties, the FBI told DeSantis.
Last Friday, DeSantis was briefed by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security [DHS]. On Tuesday, he revealed the agency told him two, not one, counties had been breached by Russian hackers.
The revelation surprised state officials and enraged many when DeSantis said he could not further discuss the probe’s findings because the information is classified and he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.
DeSantis said this week the FBI investigation and the secrecy surrounding it is generating speculation about the sanctity of the state’s electoral systems, noting “no one ever said anything to me” until last week about the hacks.
The perceived failure of the FBI and DHS to keep state and local elections officials updated on the probe is aggravated by the agencies’ insistence that “state agents” were kept abreast of developments. State officials maintain they don’t know who or what “state agents” the report is referring to.
DeSantis and other officials have emphasized, however, that the FBI has assured them the hacking did not affect the vote. There is no evidence of “manipulation” of voter information, DeSantis said Tuesday.
Thursday’s press conference by Florida’s congressional delegation followed a classified FBI briefing similar to the one DeSantis received, meaning they also could not divulge the names of the counties believed to be hacked.
According to several Florida reps, the FBI said there was “suspicious activity” involving other counties in 2016 and afterward, further frustrating their efforts to alert local officials whose systems may have been infiltrated.
“We couldn’t get with certainly that the Russians were not actually able to manipulate the data that they had access to,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami. “They have no evidence but couldn’t say with certainty.”
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor from 2011 to early this year, said he got his own classified FBI briefing this week and urged the agency to do a briefing for all senators.
Noting in a statement that he also is under a non-disclosure order, Scott said the FBI’s reticence in sharing what it knows is creating more problems than its secrecy will prevent.
“I urged the FBI to publicly release this information as soon as they are able,” he said. “The FBI said the information is classified due to the risk it poses to national security.”
Washington County is 53rd of the state’s 67 counties in population with about 25,000 residents. The mid-Panhandle county, north of Bay County, suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Michael in October.
A GOP bastion since the 1980s, it is a “dry” county, meaning the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited.
Washington Country Elections Supervisor Carol F. Rudd declined to comment on the breach, but told the Washington Post that federal, state and local officials need to communicate confidentially in sharing critical security information. “
If each agency gets suspicious of the other’s ability to follow the rules of confidentiality, then those tenuous lines of communication quickly break down,” Rudd said. “That would set our security capabilities back years and severely compromise our ability to protect our elections. THAT would be a big win for the Russians going into 2020.”
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