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Washington, D.C. – At a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing today, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) highlighted the threat posed by future foreign interference in U.S. elections.
 
Rubio asked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson whether it was possible foreign adversaries are capable of sowing mass chaos and distrust in our democratic system, a point that both secretaries agreed with.
 
A video of the exchange is available here. A rough transcript of the exchange is below:
 
RUBIO: Thank you both for being here. This is an important topic that I think is misunderstood. A lot of people focus on it as far as that they change the results of the election. So, I sat down last night and I thought to myself, you know, if you were to write -- if you were one of these -- ‘what's a hypothetical that could point to people how serious a problem this can become in the future.’
 
So here's a hypothetical scenario and I want you both to kind of opine whether that's something that could happen, whether I’m right in my assumptions. Let's assume for a moment that the year is 2020 or 2024 and there's a foreign leader who's tired of being lectured about democracy in their own country and they decide they want to create chaos in the United States and create doubts about our legitimacy so he or she orders an operation against our presidential election. And now for the last five or six years, this foreign power has identified ways to penetrate election officials at the state and the county level across America. There's so many of these that there's just this target-rich environment.
 
And one of the things they've perfected over the years, for example, in this hypothetical is the ability to inject misinformation into the bloodstream of the internet. And they watch as this misinformation spreads like a virus until a significant number of people believe it. They've also perfected, by the way, strategic leaking of altered or factual information which the mainstream media picks up on and it fits perfectly into their red versus blue dynamic that plays out on cable news, making them unwitting agents.
 
So the plan of this foreign power in 2020 or 2024, in this hypothetical, would not be to change the election results, it would be to create doubts about the validity of the election and then spread those doubts using social media and media driven by red versus blue conflict and ultimately call into question the legitimacy of a new president and potentially even trigger a constitutional crisis. So, what they do is they penetrate the voter database of local election officials and strategically located counties or states, and then they use analytic information they may have gotten from who knows where or voter -- to identify specific voters or maybe just party registration, maybe the stolen data of a campaign with identified supporters, and they use that information to go into the database and they change the addresses of individuals, thereby their precincts move around, maybe they even delete some people from the rolls.
 
And the result is that on election day, we start getting reports about thousands of voters in different parts of the country who can't vote because when they show up, they're not registered. They're not in the system. Or they show up and they're told that their voting place is halfway across town somewhere else. Interestingly, a significant number of these voters who start complaining about this happen to be either of the same party or at least self-identified partisans of let's just call it Candidate A and they live in a county or in a state that miraculously happens to be controlled by government officials of the opposite party. These reports start getting out there and suddenly, magically, a bunch of these names on social media start spreading all these reports about what’s going on in election day.
 
Here's the other thing this foreign government's been able to figure out. This is all hypothetical. They've also been able to mess with the system that kind of posts the results early, not the ultimate results, but just like unofficial results and so that evening, these results start coming up and surprisingly candidate A is doing better than candidate B and people are surprised by it. But  then the official results come back and it's a total reversal.
 
So what happens is you can imagine at that point candidate A refuses to concede, there's this all-out fight going on in American society, and the months to come, millions of people march on Washington to try to force the electoral college not to certify. The reverse millions come out the other side. Come January, we don't even know if we can swear in a president. The military doesn't know who the commander in chief is. We're in an all-out constitutional crisis, total chaos for the first time in 200-something years the American republic is under duress from the inside out. That sounds like something from a novel or a dramatic presentation in the movies. How far-fetched is this given the capability of foreign adversaries?
 
Is this not the central threat that faces us when it comes to elections and the integrity of our election systems. And the reason why I ask is not because anyone on this committee doubts it, but because we also have local, state officials across the country who do not have this perspective, this broader perspective. To them it's just about whether or not they can change the tallies. You don't have to change the tallies to create all-out chaos. Is that not the central threat here?
 
Johnson: Yes, senator, I actually believe that the first half of your hypothetical is not a hypothetical. The second half of your hypothetical insofar as votes was my biggest concern in the fall of 2016 when we saw the scanning and probing around voter registration data. And that's a very real threat, in my judgment.
 
The other point i'd like to make about your hypothetical, in the fall of 2016, prior to the election, I thought long and hard about where the single points of failure are that could create that scenario and the thing that occurred to me was Associated Press. Associated Press for years has been the entity on which we rely to report state election results to the rest of the media, and so I actually picked up the phone and called the CEO of the  Associated Press to go over with him to ensure that he had enough redundancies in their system if there was a failure on election night and I was satisfied that they did. But it's something to also focus on. But I think your hypothetical is a very good one, and I think all Americans should be concerned about it.
 
Nielson: I agree. I think what you have highlighted are all the various parts at which we need to make sure that we are securing the system, because any one of those, as you say, can create that doubt, which in and of itself is perhaps what the adversary is trying to accomplish. So from a DHS perspective, moving forward, we're looking very carefully at how we can help entities at all of the places that you described protect their databases as we saw in December of 2016 with the structured query language, the SQL injections and attempts to manipulate the databases. We'll be scanning for that should someone take us up on our offer. Provisional ballots become very important for the reasons you've described. States should plan for what happens on election day if a variety of voters appear and suddenly they're not on the rolls but believe that they should be. We will have people in SOCs throughout the country. We will be stood up 24/7 on any election day to provide immediate instant response should anything come up. And then as the secretary mentioned, on election night, it's very important to work with A.P. and others before the election results are formally certified and audited to ensure that there's not information that's put out. So, what I would suggest is that we all look at your -- what you would call a hypothetical, but as the secretary rightly points out, is probably closer to a very good possibility and walk through each of those and make sure that we are providing the tools and resources we need to state and locals so that they can prevent, identify, track and then respond to any such issues.