February 15, 2019
At just the time when the United States should be defending the sanctity of its electoral process, the Trump administration is cutting back on efforts to fight foreign interference at ballot boxes nationwide, The Daily Beast reported on February 13.
Indeed, two teams of federal officials assembled to fight encroachment are polling places by foreign powers are being dramatically downsized, three current and former Department of Homeland Security officials told the daily news outlet exclusively And now, those sources say they fear the department won’t prepare adequately for election threats in 2020.
“The clear assessment from the intelligence community is that 2020 is going to be the perfect storm,” said a DHS official familiar with the teams. “We know Russia is going to be engaged. Other state actors have seen the success of Russia and realize the value of disinformation operations. So it’s very curious why the task forces were demoted in the bureaucracy and the leadership has not committed resources to prepare for the 2020 election.”
The task forces, part of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), were assembled in response to Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. One focuses in part on securing election infrastructure and the other focuses on foreign influence efforts, including social media disinformation campaigns.
According to The Daily Beast’s report this week, one of the task forces is now half the size it was a few months ago—and there is no indication that DHS senior political leadership will staff it up or sustain it. Instead, there are concerns it will completely wither away. The other task force also shrank significantly shortly after the midterms, according to the Beast’s sources, and before its members produced a thorough assessment of what happened during the 2018 elections.
“Our key allies are wondering why the United States is not more coordinated and not more proactive in dealing with this,” said one of the DHS officials. “They don’t understand why the U.S. is not getting its act together.”
A DHS spokesperson confirmed that some people have been taken off the task forces and moved to other roles in the department. The spokesperson added that the department is bringing on new people to do election security work.
“As recently as this morning, Director [Christopher] Krebs [of CISA] confirmed election security remains a priority for [the agency] in his testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security—laying out the agency’s plan to work with state and local election officials on broader engagement, better defining risk to election systems, and understanding the resources to manage that risk,” Sara Sendek, the DHS spokesperson, told the Daily Beast.
“In the run up to the 2018 elections, DHS staffed the newly created [the] Elections Task Force and Countering Foreign Influence Task Force by temporarily assigning personnel from across the department. The work of these task forces continues to this day and is being institutionalized as a permanent effort. While some of the personnel who were brought on to serve on these task forces in temporary assignments have returned to their regular roles, we are also currently hiring new employees into permanent election positions to build out our team and support our efforts for 2020 and beyond,” Sendek assured the news outlet.
“In some sense it’s not surprising that these changes are happening,” he said. “There was nothing set in stone that said these teams were going to stay in formation. At least that was my understanding.”
Others said they found the change concerning.
“The Trump administration intelligence chiefs in their worldwide threat assessment clearly stated that the use of influence operations from countries like Russia, China and Iran poses a significant threat to the country,” said John Cohen, the former deputy undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis at DHS. “If these reports are true, it’s highly disturbing that the department and the administration are not more focused on dealing with that threat.”
“It won’t be 2016 all over again—the threat is changing,” said a former DHS official. “A thinly staffed task force working on that is not going to be equipped to keep up with the adversary.”
The changes appear to reflect the White House’s lack of interest in beefing up election security, Paul Rosenzweig, formerly deputy assistant secretary for Policy at DHS, told the news outlet.
“If the president isn’t interested and there is no strategy, it’s no surprise that DHS is not wasting its time,” said Rosenzweig, now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. “The failure of the White House to take this seriously is perhaps its single most significant dereliction of duty.”