US warns foreign actors: Stay out of Super Tuesday or 'face sharp consequences'

Leaders from across the government said Americans must remain aware.

March 2, 2020, 6:22 PM

Top officials from the State Department, Department of Justice, Homeland Security Department, the FBI and U.S. Cyber Command issued an unusual joint warning on Monday to countries or other foreign actors that might try to interfere in the nation's Super Tuesday primaries: Stay out or face "sharp consequences."

"We continue to work with all 50 states, U.S. territories, local officials, political parties and private sector partners to keep elections free from foreign interference," they said in the statement.

"Americans must also remain aware that foreign actors continue to try to influence public sentiment and shape voter perceptions. They spread false information and propaganda about political processes and candidates on social media in hopes to cause confusion and create doubt in our system. We remain alert and ready to respond to any efforts to disrupt the 2020 elections. We continue to make it clear to foreign actors that any effort to undermine our democratic processes will be met with sharp consequences," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, U.S. Cyber Command Commander and National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs, said.

In conversations with secretary of state offices and other state elections officials with the 14 Super Tuesday states, most expressed high confidence in the security of their elections systems and their ability to guard against any potential attempts to interfere. Meanwhile, cyber experts ABC News spoke with are calling for increased vigilance among both voters and elections officials.

"We're in for a wild ride," Michael Hamilton the former CISO of the city of Seattle and current founder of cyber security company CI Security.

Hamilton continued that it might not be the voting systems themselves that are compromised, but the technology used to tabulate the vote.

"So the tablets are being used for voting, the tablets are being used by precinct volunteers to activate systems into pulling the tally of the votes," Hamilton said.

He noted that that elderly precinct volunteers often aren't up on all the latest technology and introducing more into the voting systems could cause problems.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the press following the US-Taliban deal signing ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha, Feb. 29, 2020.
Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Officials in Alabama say they're prepared for Super Tuesday.

"We remain confident that our local election officials are as prepared as they can be. They've instructed their poll workers and their election officials as to what needs to be done and everything is in places they're ready to move ahead for the election next Tuesday," Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said.

Elections happen on a local level. The federal government provides support and helps the states conduct and run elections.

Officials in Oklahoma said they are using a multi-tiered approach.

"Oklahoma has an intricate, multi-layer election security system in place. We work closely with multiple agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department of Homeland Security, State Cyber Command, the FBI, and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management," Misha Mohr the Public Information Officer Oklahoma State Election Board told ABC News.

In neighboring Texas, the state with the second most delegates at stake, officials say all systems are a go ahead of the primary in their state.

"Texas voters can rest assured ahead of Tuesday's primary election that our office, as well as those of local and county elections officials, are committed to working hand in hand to ensure smooth elections as well as the integrity of our electoral process," Stephen Chang, the spokesman from the Texas Secretary of States office told ABC News in a statement.

Officials in several states have told ABC News they have assigned staffers to keep a close watch specifically on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and alert the company as well as the news media in the event they see something suspect. Specifically, they're worried about social media posts that have incorrect information on poll closing times or erroneous location changes, things that could specifically affect voter behavior on the day of the vote.

Attorney General William Barr speaks at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, Feb. 26, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey/AP

A former DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity told ABC News, said that on a federal level, during the 2018 midterms, the strategy of the cyber arm of DHS, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), was to try to inform the public what was going on as much as possible and trying to "build some resilience in the public around the idea of disinformation."

This former official said that they wanted to make sure that DHS was concerned with election management systems, and secretary of state websites provide valuable information for people ahead of going to the polls.

Another concern is the social media misinformation that the U.S. saw in 2016 and, according to one expert, it is still prevalent.

"I think that clearly, foreign actors are trying to influence or impact our elections. I think our elections are critical to our foundation, our Constitution, and that every attempt should be made not just, two days before, Super Tuesday, but this should be an ongoing effort to look at how do we better protect the infrastructure that supports our right to vote as well as how do we do a better job of helping to improve the security of all the campaigns," Craig Harber, a former National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command officer told ABC News. Harber is chief technology officer at Fidelis Cybersecurity.

Harber said it is a whole of government approach to securing the elections, pointing to the fact that U.S Cyber Command is involved in securing the elections, scanning for any time of malicious interference.

The greatest concern in these primaries, according to both state and federal elections officials, is the spread of disinformation on social media -- influence campaigns geared at confusing or dividing the public like we saw from the Russians' sweeping effort in 2016.

"One of the things they're going to be obviously, essentially trying to do, is influence perceptions, again, through social media," Harber said.

"After 2016, security has been revamped, and is the number one concern for every election officer out there," Daniel Mahoney, deputy director of the of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, told ABC News. "It's really been brought to the forefront. And I can tell you, every election officer I've talked to, is taking it extremely seriously."

He said that, because of the information sharing that goes on between fusion centers, if malicious activity is detected in one voting state, it will get shared and communicated throughout the country.

"Fusion centers tomorrow and all the election officers that we've spoken to are all in a state of readiness. And if something if something is to happen, we're going to be aware of it on a national level and we're going to address it on a national level," Mahoney said.

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