CNN Exclusive: DHS scraps plan to protect election officials from harassment during midterms



Washington
CNN

The Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity agency this summer rejected a multimillion-dollar proposal to protect election officials from harassment ahead of the election, multiple people familiar with the matter told CNN.

The rejection of the plan comes amid concern over the work of DHS and some cyber officials to combat disinformation being dismissed as “partisan,” according to several people familiar with the DHS policy discussions. Last month, DHS shut down its top Disinformation Commission after Republicans criticized the expert chosen to lead the commission as too partisan.

“DHS was very alarmed after the Disinformation Governance Commission failed, even though the message was there [from administration officials] it was clear that we cannot go back, that we cannot be persecuted by the right,” a senior US official told CNN.

The proposal, made by a federally funded nonprofit, also included plans to monitor foreign influence activity and modestly increase resources to report domestic disinformation and disinformation related to voting.

DHS officials had legal concerns about the scope of the plan and whether it could be in place by November, the people said. But the decision not to pass the anti-harassment portion of the proposal has fueled at least two election frustrations as colleagues across the nation continue to face an unprecedented wave of violent threats inspired by online misinformation.

Election officials have reported more than 1,000 interactions with the public that were deemed hostile or threatening to a Justice Department task force, but that’s likely only a fraction of the threatening behavior that has occurred since 2020.

The episode also highlights how with less than two months to go before the November election, the federal government is struggling to find an effective strategy to combat misinformation about the voting process and harassment of election workers, leaving many of them feeling vulnerable.

Having “authoritative support from our federal partners” to correct voting misinformation and misinformation is “really important,” Meagan Wolf, head of the Wisconsin Board of Elections, told CNN in an interview. “And I think what they’re giving now is less protection than what they did around the 2020 election.”

Some current and former US officials saw the imminent proposal as a mistake. And while it didn’t have unanimous support from the small group of election officials who knew about it, some believed it could improve security ahead of Election Day.

In August, election officials in Florida and Colorado wrote a letter obtained by CNN to the leaders of DHS and its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) asking them to approve part of the plan that would address doxing, or online exposure. Election officials’ personal information — “before these intimidation efforts worsen” leading up to the election.

Internet Security Center Vice President Kathy Boockvar alluded to the proposal in an interview on CNN in May.

Defending against cyberbullying is “a field where [election officials] he could really use coaching and support,” Boockvar said.

After CNN asked CISA about the letter, election officials received a response from CISA Director Jen Easterly.

“I very much share your concerns about the threats made to our nation’s election officials,” Easterly wrote in a Sept. 16 letter obtained by CNN to election officials in Florida and Colorado. “We are committed to working with you and our partners to identify mechanisms to help address this very real and troubling risk.”

More generally, calls for greater efforts to combat election-related misinformation and disinformation within and outside the federal government have increased. However, significant questions remain as to which federal agency should take the lead in protecting election officials from harassment or inspired disinformation — issues that do not fit neatly into CISA’s mandate.

Bryan Ware, who served as CISA’s assistant director of cybersecurity during Election Day 2020, said the stakes are high.

“If somebody in the U.S. government doesn’t stand up and stand up to the misinformation and disinformation, I’m sure our adversaries will take advantage of it,” Ware told CNN.

Kim Wyman, CISA's senior election security advisor.

CISA declined to comment specifically on the rejected proposal. In a statement to CNN, Kim Wyman, CISA’s chief election security officer, said the agency is “committed to building resilience against foreign influence operations that undermine our democracy or pose threats to election infrastructure or personnel.”

CISA, Wyman said, is working “side by side” with election officials to combat disinformation and “has not relented in our mission to help the American people better understand the threat of foreign influence campaigns.”

The proposal has its origins in the spring, when it was first introduced by the Center for Internet Security (CIS), a nonprofit funded in part by CIS.

Among the many concerns officials expressed about the plan was how it would be implemented. The anti-doxing component would use software to track when election officials’ personal information is being leaked online so they and potentially law enforcement can be notified. Other parts of the plan included additional funding for an online “portal” for election officials to report voter-related false information and a service provided by the New York-based firm Graphika to track foreign election influence campaigns.

While the anti-doxa and foreign influence parts of the proposal remain dormant, election officials have been working on an online “portal” to report misinformation on social media platforms since before the proposal and continues today, according to people familiar with the matter.

CIS spokesman Jason Forget declined to comment on the proposal.

Current and former U.S. officials say there are unresolved questions about whether anyone is willing to consistently counter domestic misinformation and misinformation that undermines trust in the federal government, elections, or threatens the security of critical infrastructure like voting machines.

There is a natural concern that the government is also infringing on freedom of speech while dealing with disinformation. And the variation in voting procedures between states makes state and local officials a key resource for disproving election fraud.

But the federal government can play an important role in increasing factual information from local election offices and suppressing viral rumors that could lead to violence, according to several current and former officials.

“Combating disinformation related to election security is a key mission of the Department of Homeland Security and CISA,” said Bob Kolasky, who until March led CISA’s National Risk Management Center, which works with critical infrastructure companies to understand risk, including elections. . “To the extent that information causes violence, DHS and CISA must assist state and local election officials.”

After Russian operatives probed voter registration databases in several states in 2016, DHS’s cybersecurity agency (which became CISA in 2018) took a much more active role in helping states protect their election-related infrastructure during the 2018 and 2020 elections. Other agencies, such as the FBI and the US Cyber ​​Command, are involved in various efforts to protect US elections from foreign interference, but CISA was established as the primary federal conduit between state and local election officials.

Six years later, however, that commitment is being tested.

“It felt like we failed the American public” in 2016 by not having a strong federal response to Russian interference in the US election, a senior US official told CNN. “And we’re on the brink of that again because we’re afraid of our own shadow in the face of disinformation.”

CISA continues to provide election officials with cybersecurity guidance and advice on combating disinformation. Like their predecessors, Easterly and Wyman, CISA’s chief election security officer, have met with state and local officials and offered the agency’s support.

But some election officials say they’ve seen less public messaging from CISA about election security, and it doesn’t have the same public effort to combat misinformation and disinformation as CISA did over the past year.

“I would really like to see that [federal] protection [on mis- and disinformation] really strengthen it or expand it, so that we know we can count on it when we’re working to deliver events locally or at the state level,” said Wisconsin elections official Wolfe.

In his statement, Wyman said CISA sought to “empower local election officials” to help voters in those communities get accurate voting information. At least 13 states have created their own websites to eliminate false election information.

During the 2020 election, CISA used a website called “Rumor Control” to debunk numerous falsehoods about mail-in and voting machine voting, and President Donald Trump fired the agency’s director, Chris Krebs.

The “Rumor Control” web page has not been updated since May. CISA said in an emailed statement that it updates the page when it becomes aware of “false or misleading election-related narratives that may endanger our democratic process.”

The initial 35-page draft of CISA’s “strategic plan” for 2023 to 2025, first reported by Politico, did not mention election security, worrying some current and former US officials. The latest version of the plan released this month reiterated the agency’s commitment to election security.

CISA has hired more specialists to assess the security of election facilities; The FBI has investigators focused on election-related crimes across the country. Those resources are intended for local law enforcement, but they are still far from the threat, according to some election officials.

David Becker, who runs a pro bono legal defense network for election officials threatened with violence, said he is concerned about the extent to which political violence has become normalized after the 2020 election.

“And we have dozens of them [the January 6, 2021, riots] all over the country?” Becker said. “We’re going this way because people are being lied to and told that every election that the candidate loses is by definition stolen from them.”