As Senator Bill Nelson (FL-D) traveled his state for his reelection campaign, at an event on Tuesday in Tallahassee he told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that the Russians have “already penetrated certain counties in the state and that they now have free rein to move about.”
But when asked to elaborate he only responded with, “That’s classified.”
On Wednesday, however, when he made the same claim in Tampa at another campaign stop the Times’ reported, their reporter Alex Leary asked Nelson if he would elaborate on what he had told his colleague the day before, asking, “Russian’s being ‘in’ Florida’s election records, do you mean right now or were you referring to 2016?”
Senator Nelson replied, “right now.”
Nelson goes on to describe that because Rubio is a member of the Intelligence Committee and that he, Nelson, is the ranking member of what he called the “Cyber-Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Service Committee” they “were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee to let the supervisors of elections in Florida know that the Russians are in their records.”
Nelson elaborated about a letter both Florida’s U.S. Senators, Rubio (FL-R) and Nelson, jointly sent on July 2nd to Florida’s Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, including Florida’s 67 county elections supervisors, informing them about “potential threats,” which the Tampa Bay Times reported at that time, in July.
“County election boards should not be expected to stand alone against a hostile foreign government,” Nelson said, and that the Department of Homeland Security was there to assist them “with a wide range of services.”
Nelson said that he and Rubio had pointed out to them they could, “have the assistance to secure your records from the Department of Homeland Security free of charge” but that they had to reach out to them with the contact information provided to them.
He claimed that because they, i.e., the Russians, were ‘in the system’ all they had to do is “go in and start eliminating registered voters.”
You can listen to the full audio exchange here.
Governor Rick Scott, who has reached his term limit as governor, is running against Ben Nelson for the Senate seat, but Scott’s office said it has no knowledge about “the allegations made by Nelson.”
Sarah Revell, speaking for Florida’s Department of State, said in a statement they had received “zero information from Senator Nelson or his staff that support his claims” nor had they received information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
When the Times reached out to the office of Senator Burr (R-NC), who is the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, his spokeswoman declined to comment.
When Senator Mark Warner (D-Va), the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, was contacted, he said in a statement, “Russian activities continue to pose a threat to the security of our elections, as Senators Nelson and Rubio rightly pointed out in their letter…I hope all state and local elections officials, including Florida’s, will take this issue seriously.”
Florida elections officials are testing equipment and in the midst of training poll workers. Nelson’s comments have caused a stir as Florida prepares for their August primaries causing them to try to reach out to federal government agencies “in a futile attempt to find out more about Nelson’s assertion” asserting themselves they haven’t “seen any indication that we have had any penetration by any bad actions,” said Pinellas election’s office Dustin Chase.
Since Nelson has made his remarks other elections supervisors are now coming forward telling of a private meeting in May with Rubio telling them that Florida was a target. When asked in the meeting which counties, Rubio, after looking around the room, responded with, “I don’t believe it’s anybody here.”
One supervisor, Paul Lux, who was at the May meeting, commented that the meeting did happen, “but described it as so vague that it was of no value in improving election preparations against threats.”
In April Rubio spoke to the Florida Association of Counties, the Tampa Bay Times reported, saying that he “bluntly warned local Florida officials about threats to election system security” and that Florida was a “beacon for foreign actors….Most of our election officials in Florida, I believe, with all due respect, are overconfident.”
Why It Matters
It was reported by NBCNews in late September 2016, less than two months before the presidential election, that 20 states had been targeted for hacking attempts, and while not necessarily ‘breached,’ there were footprints left indicating that someone was testing states’ vulnerabilities. One DHS official at that time described it as “people poking at the systems…”
It wouldn’t be until almost a full year later the Department of Homeland Security “officially” acknowledged it to the public, confirming 21 states were targeted not only in 2016 but in the year leading up to the 2016 election when Federal Intelligence and Cybersecurity officials testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017.
Seems that neither the Federal nor State government ‘officials’ have leaned anything about communicating in a meaningful way since then. Not with each other and not with the public either.