Florida Politics

Mueller says the FBI thinks Russians hacked a Florida county. The FBI says... nothing

Special Counsel Robert Mueller says the FBI believes Russian agents gained access to “at least one” government computer network in 2016 while seeking to hack their way into Florida’s elections system. Florida’s elections supervisors and the state’s elections chief say they have no reason to believe that’s true.

And the FBI — the one agency able to clear the whole thing up — isn’t saying anything.

Five days after a single vague sentence amid 448 pages in Mueller’s Russian interference report seemed to upend public knowledge of 2016 elections hacking attempts in Florida, the FBI has yet to explain whether it indeed believes that Russia phished its way into the voting system. Both Florida’s secretary of state and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott say the FBI has declined or ignored their requests for additional information, and neither the federal agency nor Mueller’s office responded to requests for comment.

“The Department reached out to the FBI to inquire which county was referenced in the Mueller report and they declined to share that information with us,” Florida Secretary of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell said Tuesday. “The Department does not have any additional details to share at this time.”

Revell insists that the state’s elections system remains secure and that it wasn’t hacked in 2016. But the FBI’s silence leaves an uncertainty around whether hacking attempts in Florida three years ago were indeed successful and if so, to what extent.

During August 2016, a Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU sent more than 120 emails containing a malware-infected Word attachment to “accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 election,” according to Mueller. He wrote in his report that the FBI, which investigated the hacking attempts, believes the GRU was able to gain access to “at least one” Florida county’s computer system through this method.

But just as they have for more than a year, state and local elections officials insisted last week that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security explained in 2017 and again last year that there’s no evidence that their networks were breached. And Mueller wrote that his office didn’t try to confirm whether the FBI’s belief that an attempt had succeeded was, in fact, accurate.

“It’s very disturbing. It’s troubling,” Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters Florida, said about the lack of clarity. “We need to know the facts.”

If the GRU was able to gain access into a computer network, elections officials stress that hackers would have accessed the voter registration network, so the system that processes and counts ballots is separate and would have remained pure. The state also released millions of dollars in federal security grants ahead of the 2018 election.

But questions still linger:

When Mueller referred to the GRU gaining access to “the network of at least one Florida county government,” was he referring to an independent, county-level elections supervisor or simply a county government? And if he was referring to an elections office, how many does “at least one” actually refer to?

And what elections vendor was mentioned in the report as being hacked by the GRU to the point that malware was installed on the company network? It’s known that the GRU attempted to hack into VR Systems, a popular software vendor for Florida elections officials, but the company has been adamant that it was not breached and the Mueller report redacted the hacked company’s name in order to spare it embarrassment.

Scott, who was governor in 2016 and unseated Bill Nelson in November, requested in a letter last week that the FBI provide clarity on the situation by this Friday.

“It is my goal to have free and fair elections with zero fraud, which is why, as Governor, I invested millions of dollars in cyber security, hired additional cyber security staff, and secured election security grants for all 67 counties in Florida,” Scott wrote. “This is a very serious issue that needs the immediate attention of the FBI.”