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June 17, 2019

We’re not ready for 2020 hacks: Democrats must press Trump on how the administration intends to protect our voting systems from intrusion

May 24, 2019
DeSantis wants to safeguard the 2020 vote from Russian hackers. Does the other guy? (Butch Dill/AP)

With the 2020 elections fast approaching, America needs to be smarter, better focused and more disciplined about defending our elections against foreign interference.

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a review of the state’s election security after federal officials confirmed that Russian military intelligence had successfully gained access to voting systems in two of the state’s 67 counties in 2016. The breaches came after Russian operatives sent emails laden with code that had been doctored to seem as if it came from a private vendor that sells election software to local governments.

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FBI Director Chris Wray recently warned about the ongoing threat in a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think we recognize that our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game, and so we are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020,” Wray said.

At around the same time, the New York Times reported that former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried — and failed — to organize a national response to the threat of election interference. President Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, warned Nielsen against bringing up the issue of Russian meddling with the president, who apparently views any discussion of Russian interference as an attack on the legitimacy of his 2016 victory.

The same logic may lie behind the 2018 decision of National Security Adviser John Bolton to eliminate the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the White House.

All of which leaves the country vulnerable to more attacks. I recently talked about the issue with former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Phil Mudd, who spent decades at the CIA and later served as the FBI’s senior intelligence adviser.

“Do I think the Russians are going to try it again? Absolutely. Chris Wray, our FBI director, said as much,” Sherman told me. “My greatest concern is that we have not put the assets against this that we need to. That we have not had our whole-of-government plan to deal with this. ”

Mudd emphasized a need for government to help protect major American tech firms. “If you have that whole-of-government meeting at the White House, I would be telling the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency: ‘I want you in Silicon Valley, at least a year before the election. I want at least, 100 people, top secret cleared for each of those entities. You’re there to support them. To make sure an American business doesn’t get abused.’”

The need is clear and urgent. But with Trump bent on avoiding the issue, his opponents will have to sound the alarm.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. With two dozen Democratic candidates scrambling for attention in the race for president, America has entered the perilous “say anything” phase of the campaign.

We’re at the point when candidates, desperate for attention, trot out a wide range of policies and ideas — and cling to whatever lines draw applause or other positive reaction from crowds.

As several of Trump’s advisers told author Joshua Green, Trump’s commitment to building a wall on the Mexican border started out as a speechwriter’s trick concocted by two campaign consultants, Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg. The idea was a way of reminding candidate Trump to talk about restricting immigration.

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But when Trump spoke at a conservative forum in early 2015 and dutifully mentioned building a wall, the crowd went wild. The wall instantly became a solemn promise — one so important to Trump that he shut down the government over the issue.

Several Democratic candidates have introduced a bill that would require widespread use of paper ballots and implement audits of election systems to make sure they are safe from attack.

That’s a decent start. But the Dems need to say much more about exactly how they would deploy our national security agencies to deter, prevent — and, if necessary, punish — the latest attack on American democracy.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.

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