The Obama administration feared that acknowledging Russian meddling in the 2016 election would reveal too much about intelligence gathering and be interpreted as “taking sides” in the race, the former secretary of homeland security said Wednesday. “One of the candidates, as you recall, was predicting that the election was going to be ‘rigged’ in some way,” said Jeh Johnson, the former secretary, referring to President Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation before Election Day. “We were concerned that by making the statement we might, in and of itself, be challenging the integrity of the election process itself.” Mr. Johnson’s testimony, before the House Intelligence Committee, provided a fresh insight into how the Obama administration tried to balance politically explosive information with the public’s need to know. That question also vexed federal law enforcement officials investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Mr. Johnson said he became increasingly concerned about the vulnerabilities of the nation’s election infrastructure, particularly after the hacking at the Democratic National Committee last summer. The administration formally accused the Russian government of hacking into emails from the D.N.C. and other institutions and individuals on Oct. 7.
He said he considered having elections systems designated as “critical infrastructure,” a classification that would allow for the same cybersecurity protections available to the financial services and transportation sectors.
But the reactions to that idea, at least from several state election officials who control elections, “ranged from neutral to negative,” Mr. Johnson said.