In response to Russian election interference during the 2016 presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security created two task forces within the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) to help secure future elections and combat foreign disinformation campaigns — but since the midterm elections, those teams have faced dramatic downsizing, according to The Daily Beast.
Three current and former DHS officials told the publication that fears are increasing over the department’s ability to adequately prepare for election threats in the 2020 presidential race.
“The clear assessment from the intelligence community is that 2020 is going to be the perfect storm,” said a DHS official familiar with the teams. “We know Russia is going to be engaged. Other state actors have seen the success of Russia and realize the value of disinformation operations. So it’s very curious why the task forces were demoted in the bureaucracy and the leadership has not committed resources to prepare for the 2020 election.”
Two DHS officials familiar with the task forces told The Daily Beast that one team has been shrunk to half its size within the past few months, with no indication that senior political officials at the department plan to bolster staff or sustain the team at all.
The other task force also has diminished significantly since last year’s elections, which happened prior to the team producing a thorough assessment of what transpired during the midterms.
“Our key allies are wondering why the U.S. is not more coordinated and not more proactive in dealing with this,” said the DHS official. “They don’t understand why the U.S. is not getting its act together.”
But the DHS told The Daily Beast that new people are being hired to fill the roles vacated on both teams, after some people were moved to other roles in the department:
“As recently as this morning, Director Krebs confirmed election security remains a priority for CISA in his testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, laying out the Agency’s plan to work with State and local election officials on broader engagement, better defining risk to election systems, and understanding the resources to manage that risk,” said Sara Sendek, the DHS spokesperson.
“In the run up to the 2018 elections, DHS staffed the newly created elections task force and countering foreign influence task force by temporarily assigning personnel from across the Department. The work of these task forces continues to this day and is being institutionalized as a permanent effort. While some of the personnel who were brought on to serve on these task forces in temporary assignments have returned to their regular roles, we are also currently hiring new employees into permanent election positions to build out our team and support our efforts for 2020 and beyond,” Sendek added.
But current and former DHS officials told The Daily Beast that that thinning out the task forces ahead of 2020 is not a good sign, noting that such changes will make it more difficult for the teams to achieve their goals.
The election task force has worked to shield election infrastructure from foreign efforts to change vote counts. And the foreign influence task force is working to publicly reveal efforts by foreign actors to shape American political discourse on social media—in the hopes of significantly expanding Americans’ understanding of the threat. It was also designed to improve DHS’s coordination with foreign allies who face the same threat, and to help DHS better alert the private sector about threats.
“Because it’s a very difficult task and because DHS has never done it before, there’s a lot of catching up to do,” said the former DHS official. “Even with a fully resourced effort, that would be an extremely tall task. But having it be deprioritized and lacking access to senior leadership, it’s virtually impossible.”
Staffers within the DHS are reportedly frustrated by the department’s shift to emphasizing border security in a manner that they perceive is sacrificing election security.
One staffer told The Daily Beast that officials working on election security have discussed ways to get the message to the White House, but found no one willing to bring it up directly with Trump.
“It’s very clear which direction we’re headed in DHS,” one staffer told The Daily Beast. “Everything, it seems, is dictated by someone higher up the chain who is making it abundantly clear to the rest of us that immigration and border security are the real focuses.”