DHS Manfra: Russians successfully penetrate some US state election systems
DHS Manfra: Russians successfully penetrate some US state election systems

Russian hackers successfully penetrated voter registration rolls in a number of US states, US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cyber-security chief Jeanette Manfra said Wednesday.

While declining to discuss classified data, Manfra told NBC News that “We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.”

Her former boss, Jeh Johnson, who headed the US DHS under during the Obama administration, called 2016 “a wake-up call” and said it's now “incumbent upon states and the Feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again."

While Johnson had designated election systems as part of the US's critical infrastructure, he said states haven't done enough “to actually harden their cyber-security,” a sentiment that Manfra didn't share. “I would say they have all taken it seriously.”

Last September, the US DHS notified 21 states, including Oklahoma, Alabama, Colorado, Virginia, Connecticut, Washington, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Ohio, that their election systems had been the targets of hackers representing the Russian government.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Vice Chairman Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said in a statement at the time that he was "relieved that DHS has acted upon our numerous requests and is finally informing the top elections officials in all 21 affected states that Russian hackers tried to breach their systems in the run up to the 2016 election."

In November two Democrats leading the Election Security Task Force asked the House Appropriations Committee to carve out US$ 400 million (£287 million) that they said was “desperately needed” to help states secure election systems and modernise their voting technology. 

“We believe this money is necessary to protect our elections from future attack,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., wrote in a letter to the committee, noting that election meddling by a nation-state is akin to an attack on the U.S.  “We cannot leave states to defend against the sophisticated cyber tactics of state actors like Russia on their own.” 

Representatives from 18 of the 21 states whose elections were targeted by Russia   asked House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in a December letter for a full briefing to be delivered to Congress by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI and for him to direct the proper Congressional committees to investigate the attack.

“When a sovereign nation attempts to meddle in our elections, it is an attack on our country,” the letter stated.