Federal officials this week advised Florida’s top elections official they “have not seen new or ongoing compromises,” as Gov. Rick Scott and Republicans ratchet up political attacks over a statement by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson that “Russians are in Florida’s election records.”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher Wray --- in a response late Monday to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner --- said that, “Although we have not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida, Russian government actors have previously demonstrated both the intent and capability to conduct malicious cyber operations.”
Detzner, a Scott appointee, had earlier asked Nielsen and Wray for “an official response that confirms your previous statement that you ‘have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure’ and reaffirms your commitment to sharing any future knowledge of potential threats to Florida’s voting systems.”
In their letter, Nielsen and Wray stated that their goal is to ensure “Floridians can have confidence that when they visit the polls, their vote will be counted, and counted correctly.”
More than 1.1 million people have already voted in the Aug. 28 primary.
In announcing the Nielsen-Wray letter, Detzner’s office said “Secretary Nielsen and Director Wray are very clear in their response that ‘…we have not seen any new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida...’ ”
Detzner’s release omitted the line about Russian actors.
Florida was a target of unsuccessful Russian hackers in 2016.
The controversy comes amid a heated campaign in which Scott is trying to unseat Nelson, the longtime Democratic senator.
Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown said in an email that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security letter doesn’t conflict with Nelson’s prior statements.
“In my opinion, there’s nothing in this letter that contradicts what Sen. Nelson said he was told a few months ago, and what he and Sen. (Marco) Rubio have tried to warn about in order to guard against Russian meddling in our elections,” Brown said in the email. “The governor of Florida has a security clearance and could have quickly and directly received information, answers and posed any questions instead of engaging in these confusing and partisan histrionics of the past week.”
Nelson, who is the ranking member of the U.S. Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, told reporters Aug. 7 in Tallahassee that local election officials could get help to secure their databases and records from Russian cyber-hacking, noting, “The Russians are in Florida’s election records” and that they had “penetrated” some voter-registration systems.
When pressed at the time on the issue of election-system breaches, Nelson, said details of the information remained “classified.”
Nelson has sought to clarify his comments but has not backed down from the statements.
Nelson had been asked in June to work with Rubio to get elections supervisors in Florida to push for federal cyber-security assistance as a follow up to attacks on the state system in 2016. The request by leaders of the Intelligence Committee was intended to provide a more bipartisan front to the push.
The Nielsen-Wray letter drew Scott’s Senate campaign to issue a statement that Nelson was attempting to “undermine voters’ confidence in elections systems.”
“Late last night, DHS and the FBI confirmed once again that Russians have not penetrated our elections systems like Bill Nelson claimed a few weeks ago to reporters,” Scott said in the campaign release.
The governor’s office daily schedule listed Scott in a morning phone call with Nielsen on Tuesday. The governor’s office later sent out a copy of Detzner’s release.