FBI, Homeland Security say Russians aren’t inside Florida election systems

Russian operatives have “penetrated” some of Florida’s election systems ahead of the 2018 midterms, says Sen. Bill Nelson, shown here at a meeting in Miami.
Russian operatives have “penetrated” some of Florida’s election systems ahead of the 2018 midterms, says Sen. Bill Nelson, shown here at a meeting in Miami. AP

The two federal agencies tasked with informing state and local officials about ongoing interference in Florida’s election systems say they have not seen any new or ongoing Russian attempts to compromise local election infrastructure.

“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,” said a letter from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “DHS and the FBI will continue to notify any victim of a successful cyber intrusion into their election network in any jurisdiction nationwide.”

The letter comes two weeks after Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson first mentioned that Russians “penetrated” Florida’s election systems ahead of the 2018 election. He declined to go into further detail, arguing that the basis of his assertion was classified.

Since then, the Miami Herald and NBC News reported that government officials say there is information that shows Nelson is right, though the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information is classified.

Nelson is in the midst of a contentious and expensive reelection bid against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who oversees the Florida secretary of state’s office.

“Secretary Detzner sent a letter to DHS and the FBI and we have now received their response which continues to offer no evidence or information to corroborate Senator Nelson’s claims,” a statement from the secretary of state’s office said.

Nelson’s spokesperson said there’s nothing in the letter that proves Nelson wrong.

“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. Rubio have tried to warn about in order to guard against Russian meddling in our elections,” Nelson spokesperson Ryan Brown said in a statement. “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.”

Scott criticized Nelson in a release from his U.S. Senate campaign, arguing that his statements alluding to ongoing Russian hacking are confusing.

“Bill Nelson has either been deeply confused or very dishonest — and an alarming possibility exists that he is both on this issue,” Scott said in a statement. “Bill Nelson’s confusion has caused chaos and he should be transparent with the state, Florida voters and the hardworking election supervisors about his unfortunate decision to undermine voters’ confidence in our election systems.”

Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County and the president of the state’s Association of Supervisors of Elections, said county-level election officials have not been informed of concrete steps they should take to inoculate themselves from the specific threat of ongoing Russian hacking attempts that Nelson has alluded to. Florida officials who do have access to classified information regarding the state’s voting systems typically receive briefings from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, though there are other federal agencies that have access to classified information.

“If the [federal] government knows something and it’s not even telling the government agency tasked with sharing it, there’s a bigger problem at hand here,” Lux said. “If one of the systems that’s been compromised is mine I would damn sure want to know about it.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049