U.S. officials told lawmakers Wednesday there is no question that Russia engaged in widespread interference in last year’s presidential election aimed at helping real estate mogul Donald Trump win the White House, but they said there is no evidence that Moscow was able to change the vote count.
Former Homeland Security agency chief Jeh Johnson said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing that the extent of Russian hacking into computer files at the Democratic party headquarters in Washington and attempts to infiltrate state election records went significantly beyond past Russian efforts to influence U.S. elections.
“In 2016, the Russian government, at the direction of Vladimir Putin himself, orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the purpose of influencing our election — plain and simple,” Johnson said, warning that the cyberattacks against U.S. elections would worsen in the years ahead.
WATCH: Johnson on Russian meddling in election
Putin has rejected Russian government involvement in the U.S. cyberattacks. He has said that “patriotic” hackers, however, might have carried out the attacks on the U.S. election. “I can imagine that some do it deliberately, staging a chain of attacks in such a way as to cast Russia as the origin of such an attack,” the Russian leader said last month.
At a separate hearing, a current Homeland Security official, Jeanette Manfra, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the agency has evidence that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 of the 50 U.S. states. Johnson said 36 states accepted help from the federal government in trying to blunt the Russian efforts, even as many states rejected federal oversight of their state-run election operations.
The Russian computer-hacking operation led to the release by the file-sharing group WikiLeaks of thousands of emails captured from the files of Democratic party chairman John Podesta, who was the campaign chairman for Trump’s challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The emails embarrassed Clinton in the weeks before the November election, showing behind-the-scenes efforts by Democratic officials to help her win the party’s presidential nomination.
Clinton has blamed the disclosure of the emails on a daily basis as one reason for her stunning upset loss to Trump, although Johnson said he had no idea about their importance in analyzing the outcome.
In January, Trump acknowledged that he believes Russian operatives hacked into files at the Democratic party headquarters and said Putin “shouldn’t have done it.”
For months since then, however, Trump has been dismissive of several probes into Russian interference in the election, calling them a “witch hunt” and saying they are an excuse by Democrats to explain Clinton’s defeat. White House spokesman Sean Spicer declined to answer a question Tuesday about whether Trump believes that Russia meddled in the election.
Johnson said, “I have no knowledge that votes were altered or suppressed in some way.” He also said he has no knowledge, as is being investigated by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, whether Trump or his campaign aides illegally colluded with Russian interests to help him win a four-year presidential term.
Johnson said that Russian hackers were “scanning and probing around voter data bases” in state election systems for vulnerabilities. U.S. elections are decentralized, with each of the 50 states and thousands of local governments overseeing their own voter registrations, and ballots are cast and counted locally.
WATCH: Johnson on voting systems databases
At the Senate hearing, Bill Priestap, an official in the counterintelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country’s top criminal investigative agency, offered an explanation for the Russian intrusion in the 2016 presidential election.
Priestap said that since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, “Russia has substantially rebuilt, but it hasn’t been able to fully regain its former status or its former territory. The U.S. is too strong and has too many alliances for Russia to want a military conflict with us. Therefore, hoping to regain its prior stature, Russia has decided to try to weaken us and our allies. One of the ways Russia has sought to do that is by influence rather than by brute force.”
He said that Russia has “used information to try to undermine the legitimacy of our election process. One of their primary goals was to sow discord and undermine a key democratic principal: free and fair elections.”
Johnson also said he believes Russian attempts at influencing U.S. elections is “going to get worse before it gets better and bad cyber actors all the time are more and more ingenious, more tenacious and more aggressive.”
He urged the current Homeland Security chief, John Kelly, to make election security “one of his top one or two priorities,” along with counterterrorism.