Russian troll bombshell gives election hacking bills new life

By:  Martin Matishak

Senate lawmakers stumping for election security legislation are trying to ride the recent wave of Russia attention to resurrect their fitful attempts to get a bill passed before the 2018 midterms.

Senators on both sides of the aisle are eyeing new strategies for moving their long-stalled proposals, including reintroducing proposals and attaching their offerings to bills likely to actually move through Congress, such as a Department of Homeland Security authorization bill or the massive spending package Congress must take up before the end of the month.

"It's hooks in the water," said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who is working with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to tack the less controversial portions of a broader election security bill (S. 2261) onto the DHS legislation.

"The more hooks you put in the water, the more opportunity you have to catch a fish."

These lawmakers hope to capitalize on the sudden attention election meddling has received in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller's bombshell indictment of Russian trolls for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

The detailed charges laid out, in granular detail, Moscow's years-long effort to upend the presidential contest by using social media platforms to widen the country's social gaps and help put President Donald Trump in the White House. The stunning specifics had lawmakers and officials of all political stripes conceding that the world finally had the proof it needed to affirm the Russian meddling allegations that Trump has regularly questioned, dismissed or sidestepped.

The Kremlin's interference is "undeniable at this point," said Harris. Mueller's whirlwind of activities is "further verification of the fact that this is something that did happen," she added.

Even Trump's own national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, called the evidence gathered by Mueller's team "incontrovertible."

And on Capitol Hill, lawmakers long worried that Congress would fail to pass even the most anodyne election security bill suddenly have renewed hope.

"I just feel like we have an opening here," said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who is pushing a bill (S. 2035) with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would speed through security clearances for top election officials, giving them access to classified information on hacking threats.

"We're going to try and take the most advantage of it that we can," he added.

However, moving a bill remains a tall task and the 2018 primary season is only days away. There is a smorgasbord of election security bills and no consensus on which one has the best chance of becoming law — though people involved in the discussions believe the Senate will move before the House does.

Experts also warn that lawmakers will have to get buy-in from state officials leery of federal mandates and grapple with GOP leadership's loyalty to Trump, who bristles at any suggestion the Kremlin was involved in helping him get elected.

However, said Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, "the biggest stumbling block is: It's just really hard to get anything passed in Congress."

Still, there's an increasingly bipartisan agreement that Capitol Hill must act. And in addition to Mueller's indictment, several other events will keep the spotlight on Russia's online malfeasance in the coming weeks.

Most notably, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release an eagerly-awaited report on election system vulnerabilities in the next month or two. The bipartisan document — part of the panel's broader probe into Russia's 2016 election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign — will suggest ways for states to patch those flaws, some of which will likely overlap with legislative proposals already on the table.

Another ongoing factor is reports of Moscow's digital disruptions in elections around the globe, in places such as Italy, France and Germany. And alleged Russian Twitter bots continue to pop up around shocking social events, like the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Taken together, the episodes show that Russia is "not dissuaded from mounting these disinformation campaigns by the fear of getting caught," said cyber warfare expert Claire Finkelstein, director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, echoing comments made this week by National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers, who also helms U.S. Cyber Command.

And with the 2018 midterms only eight months away, "there's been a general coalescing that something needs to happen soon," said Norden.

At this point during the 2016 election cycle, for instance, Russian hackers had been rooting around the Democratic National Committee's networks for several months. And according to Mueller's indictment, a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency had spent two years gathering intelligence for the disinformation campaign that pervaded the 2016 race. Numerous national security leaders have warned that the Kremlin has not abated these efforts since 2016, with Rogers confirming on Tuesday that Russian hackers are currently targeting the U.S. election system.

Lankford said the push to pass legislation combating these threats has reached critical mass because lawmakers have spent months coordinating with each other — and officials back in their home states — to arrive at "good text" that satisfies everyone.

Indeed, Lankford's bill attracted what Heinrich described as a "who's who" of support. In addition to Harris and Heinrich — two Intelligence Committee Democrats — the bill is co-sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a vocal Democrat on cybersecurity issues, as well as Collins, a moderate Republican, and hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The measure would provide federal grants for states to implement voluntary digital security guidelines established by an outside group of experts. It would also ensure security clearances for state officials and direct federal officials to promptly share any hacking threat intelligence with those officials. Separately, the bill would direct vendors operating election systems to report cyberattacks to the authorities and offer rewards to researchers who report voting system flaws.

But the bill's supporters realize that it might be impossible to push through all of those suggestions at once.

On Wednesday, Lankford and Harris said they would try to spin off some of the less controversial ideas — namely the security clearance and information-sharing clauses — into an amendment offered for the DHS authorization bill, which sets policy at the key agency.

"If we can break it into pieces, then we'll take that," Lankford told POLITICO.

"I think that's a great basis for starting, and then I'm for all an open process to see what we add or change along the way," said Heinrich, who focused on the information-sharing angle in his bill with Collins.

"I'm a big believer in 'take whatever vehicle you can find,'" he added.

These lawmakers are also contemplating whether to try and attach election security language to the upcoming budget bill, which must go through before government funding runs out on March 23.

Still, GOP leadership has not vocally gotten behind any components of the various election security proposals on the table, a position that critics say springs from a fear of crossing the White House.

And while front-line election leaders have expressed support for accelerated security clearances, better lines of communications with Washington and even federal election security grants, some have grated at the prospect of any new mandates or regulations.

Election security advocates like Susan Greenhalgh, a government affairs specialist at the National Election Defense Coalition, see this hesitancy as a "lack of understanding of the severity of the threat."

"This needs to move in a timely way," Heinrich warned, "to really be able to give the maximum amount of protection before the fall elections."

"We're quickly missing the primary season."