Florida lawmakers once again railed against the FBI on Thursday for its handling of the investigation into Russian election tampering in the state, and expressed skepticism that the intrusion didn’t alter voter rolls.
After a briefing with the FBI about its investigation into the 2016 cyberattacks, members of the state’s congressional delegation blasted the bureau for not even revealing the names of the affected counties for almost three years.
“I don’t know who the hell they think they are not to share that information with us,” said Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Congressional lawmakers just found out Thursday the identities of the counties but did not reveal the names to reporters following the closed-door meeting with FBI officials.
Thursday’s briefing marked the latest chapter in the ongoing saga since March, when special counsel Robert Mueller issued his redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, which concluded that at least one Florida county had been hacked.
While the FBI and Department of Homeland Security say they have “no evidence” the voter databases were tampered with by Russian hackers, “there’s more to follow there,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said during a Capitol Hill press conference that followed a classified briefing from the agencies.
“We have a lot of questions across our delegation on how the FBI came to that determination,” added Waltz. He noted bureau officials were “very clear” that voter rolls were not manipulated and that the election results were not impacted by the breaches.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) likewise said lawmakers weren’t able to get with “certainty” that the databases had been left alone, explaining the FBI told them hackers were able to “enter the garage” but “not the house” of the two county networks.
Still, the revelations that Russian hackers were able to penetrate another Florida county do raise new troubling questions about the scope of Moscow’s attempts to tamper with the 2016 presidential election, which has been the subject of much confusion.
When incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, asserted that Russians had successfully hacked Florida’s systems, Sen. Rick Scott assailed him on the campaign trail, demanding proof and calling the comment “irresponsible.” Scott, a Republican and governor at the time, unseated Nelson in November.
Scott, who had his own briefing a day earlier, said in a statement he had urged the FBI to divulge the name of the two counties the Russians successfully targeted but that he was “confident” in Florida’s election security efforts.
He also defended his attacks on Nelson, saying “the FBI could not provide any evidence to support the claims about security during the 2018 election made by then-Senator Nelson, which confirms the conclusion of both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security at the time.”
Scott’s statement, however, is not completely accurate. His campaign also assailed Nelson for asserting that the Russians obtained access in 2016. Additionally, the DHS last year said the Russians were unable to access “vote tallying systems” in 2016. They said nothing at the time about accessing voter information records.
After a meeting with the FBI and DHS last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday held a press conference where he revealed that two counties had been breached. However, the FBI made him sign a nondisclosure agreement to not reveal details of the meeting.
Waltz said the FBI sent “multiple warnings” to state officials about the possible threat, held a conference call with local leaders and had a “back and forth” with vendors responsible for the voter database software.
While the FBI argued it couldn’t reveal the names in order to “protect sources and methods” and because the bureau had labeled the supervisor of elections in the counties as the “victims,” members still expressed bipartisan outrage over the level of secrecy surrounding the 2016 hacks.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who along with Waltz originally requested Thursday’s briefing, called the lack of transparency “counter-productive” and predicted it would erode confidence in the election systems.
Lawmakers said they asked FBI and DHS to go back and review their notification system, adding they asked a lot of questions about the nature of the communications between the bureau and local and state officials.
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said it was “critical” that members come together to support legislation that would require DHS to brief the congressional delegations of states that had been targeted or successfully hacked.
Murphy said the delegation had asked the FBI to review if the information shared Thursday could be made available before the 2020 elections.
There is “more work that needs to be done,” she said.
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