The U.S. intelligence community has concluded there is no doubt the Russians meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, leaking stolen e-mails and inflaming tensions on social media. While Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller investigate Russian interference, including whether the campaign of Donald Trump colluded with Russia, we have been looking into another vector of the attack on American democracy: a sweeping cyber assault on state voting systems that U.S. intelligence tied to the Russian government. Tonight, you’ll find out what happened from the frontline soldiers of a cyberwar that was fought largely out of public view, on digital battlegrounds in states throughout the country. The threat Russia posed to our democratic process was deemed so great, the Obama Administration took the unprecedented step of using the cyber hotline – the cybersecurity equivalent of the nuclear hotline – to warn the Kremlin to stop its assault on state election systems. Russian operatives had launched a widespread cyberattack against state voting systems around the country.
It began with a call from a staffer at the Illinois Board of Elections headquarters in Springfield to Steve Sandvoss, the executive director. “I picked up the phone. And it’s like, ‘Steve, we got a problem.’ And I said, ‘Okay, what happened?’ He says, ‘We’ve been hacked.’ I said, ‘Oh my God.'” The server for the voter registration database, with the personal information of 7.5 million Illinois voters, had slowed to a crawl. The IT team discovered a malicious attack. “I suppose you could analogize it to a fast-growing tumor– in the system. It was unlike anything we had ever seen,” Sandvoss recalls.
Today, seven months from the midterm elections, key members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence tell Bill Whitaker much more needs to be done to secure the election infrastructure at the heart of America’s democracy. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) and Senator James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) say the U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy to fight cyber war but concede upgrading systems around the country by the 2020 presidential election will be a challenge. They are backing legislation to set minimum cyber security standards.
“This could be the Iranians next time, could be the North Koreans next time,” says Lankford. “This is something that’s been exposed as a weakness in our system that we need to be able to fix that, not knowing who could try to test it out next time,” he tells Whitaker.