WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee, in a new report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, said Thursday that systems in all 50 states likely were targeted in some manner, that the federal government fell short in warning states about the threat and that vulnerability persists heading into the 2020 campaign.

The panel’s investigation found that Russia’s 2016 interference began as early as 2014 and continued into at least 2017, and it echoed findings from other federal officials who have said there’s no evidence that no votes were changed and no voting machines were compromised.

Notably, though, the heavily redacted report says U.S. officials believed that Russians probably “scanned” systems in every state – including activity such as basic research on “election-related web pages, voter ID information, election system software, and election service companies.” The Department of Homeland Security disclosed two years ago that Russian government hackers had targeted 21 states during the 2016 election cycle.

The intelligence committee found that, leading up the election, the federal government’s communication with the states about the nature and seriousness of the threat was unsatisfactory. It encouraged the Department of Homeland Security to improve its coordination with state election officials – while stating firmly that states would remain in the lead on running elections.

“State election officials, who have primacy in running elections, were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a hostile nation-state actor,” the report says. The federal government “provided no clear reason for states to take this threat more seriously than any other alert received.”

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, who are members of the Intelligence Committee, both weighed in on the report Thursday.

Over the past two years, the panel “has investigated Russia’s relentless efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and its continuing efforts to undermine our democratic institutions,” Collins said in a statement. “This issue is far too important for it to break down along partisan lines, and I am pleased that the committee’s examination, which involved multiple public hearings and interviews with more than 200 witnesses, remained bipartisan.”

She added that “the release of the first chapter of the Committee’s report today provides irrefutable evidence of Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere in our electoral process and to influence and divide public opinion in our country. It is clear that Congress must take strong action to deter foreign nations from attempting to disrupt our elections. We should also move forward with securing our electoral process, the cornerstone of our democracy, by providing additional training and support to state election officials who are on the frontlines.”

King said the report was the product of an intensive, thorough and bipartisan effort to understand the breadth of foreign interference in the 2016 election.

“Our findings are at once deeply concerning and fully expected – as has been previously and unequivocally stated by the Intelligence Community, it is clear that the Russians executed a sophisticated and serious attack on our democratic process,” King said in a statement.

“There should be no further confusion about who attacked us: it was the Russians, and we need to protect ourselves because if we remain vulnerable, they or other hostile actors will attack us again,” he added. “This volume puts forward important recommendations as to how we can defend our elections in the future – but it has to be a bipartisan effort.”

King said he was puzzled by the actions of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who on Thursday blocked votes on two bills designed to combat election interference, accusing Democrats of pushing the bills for political purposes. King said the bills seek to improve the nation’s electoral infrastructure.

“And I just can’t understand why” they were blocked, King said. “Elections are the backbone of our system of government – as is our confidence in them. We need to act now to protect them in 2020 and beyond.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote a minority opinion disagreeing with the report’s recommendation that states remain in charge of running elections.

“We shouldn’t ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia’s cyber army,” Wyden wrote. “That approach failed in 2016 and it will fail again.”

While efforts have been made to improve communication and better secure election infrastructure, the report says the threat “remains imperfectly understood.”

The committee report comes just one day after former special counsel Robert Mueller appeared before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees to highlight his report on Russian election interference and delivered similar warnings.

“They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign,” Mueller said.

The findings constitute just the first chapter of the panel’s two-and-a-half-year-long review of the intelligence community’s determination that Russia intervened in the 2016 president contest to aid Donald Trump’s chances, as well as its investigation into the role of social media in that campaign, and its assessment of how the Obama administration and the Trump campaign and transition teams responded to it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation is the only bipartisan probe of Russia’s election interference, and its findings have the added gravitas of being backed by both parties, despite sharp disagreements between Democrats and Republicans across Congress about whether the Trump administration shares blame for the effects of Russian election interference in 2016.

“In 2016, the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure,” the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a statement, noting that both federal and state agencies had “dramatically changed” their approach to securing election systems since then. “The progress they’ve made over the last three years is a testament to what we can accomplish when we give people the opportunity to be part of a solution.”

“Our bipartisan investigation identified multiple problems and information gaps that hindered our ability to effectively respond and defend against the Russian attack in 2016,” the panel’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement. “Since then – and in large part as a result of the bipartisan work done on this issue in our Committee – the intelligence community, DHS, the FBI, and the states have taken steps to ensure that our elections are far more secure today than they were in 2016.”

The report quotes Michael Daniel, who was on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, saying that by August 2016, he’d concluded that Russia had attempted intrusions in all 50 states.

“My professional judgment was we have to work under the assumption that they’ve tried to go everywhere, because they’re thorough, they’re competent, they’re good,” Daniel told the committee.

“Intelligence developed later in 2018 bolstered Mr. Daniel’s assessment that all 50 states were targeted,” the report states.

The panel recommended that states make improvements to election infrastructure, such as ensuring that voting machines produce verifiable paper ballots. Congress approved $380 million in grants for states to improve their election security systems last year to help that effort.

Democrats have called for further funding, but the report’s recommendations stop short of endorsing that appeal, calling instead for an evaluation of how the existing funds have been spent, before Congress determines how to appropriate additional money.

Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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