Russian government hackers tried to enter election systems in 21 states, officials tells senators

WASHINGTON – People connected to the Russian government tried to hack election-related computer systems in 21 states, a Department of Homeland Security official testified Wednesday.

Samuel Liles, the Department of Homeland Security's acting director of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division, said vote tallying mechanisms were unaffected, and the hackers appeared to be scanning for vulnerabilities – which Liles likened to walking down the street and looking at homes to see who might be inside.

But hackers successfully exploited a "small number" of networks, Liles said, likening the act to making it through a home's front door.

Liles was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia's efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, and his remarks add some clarity to the breadth of the Kremlin's cyber mischief. Officials in Arizona and Illinois had previously confirmed that hackers targeted their voter registration system, though news reports suggested the Russian effort was much broader.

Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Russian hackers "hit" systems in 39 states, and The Intercept, citing a classified intelligence document, reported that Russian military intelligence "executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November's presidential election."

Officials declined to say which 21 states were targeted, or identify those which actually had data – such as voter registration lists – removed from their systems. Jeanette Manfra, the acting deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications, said she could not do so because it was important to protect the confidentiality of those victimized.

In addition to scanning voting systems for vulnerabilities, U.S. intelligence committees have said Russian hackers hacked and engineered the release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.


FBI Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Bill Priestap testified Wednesday that Russians also pushed false news reports and propaganda online, using amplifiers to spread their message. He said Russia has for years tried to influence U.S. election, but the "scale" and "aggressiveness" of the its efforts in 2016 made the attempts more significant.

"The internet has allowed Russia to do so much more today than they've ever been able to do in the past," Priestap said. He said Russia's goal was to "sew discord" in the United States and to "denigrate" Clinton and help her then-opponent, Donald Trump.