Former President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary on Wednesday defended his response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, arguing the last administration’s careful characterization was intended to ensure it was not seen as taking sides in a political fight.
Former Secretary Jeh Johnson denied that there was any “delay” in informing the American people of Russian meddling when he and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Oct. 7 said the theft and release of the Democratic National Committee emails were part of a widespread campaign “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
It was not until January that the Obama administration issued a separate declassified intelligence report that assessed Moscow was attempting to tip the election in President Trump’s favor.
“There was an ongoing election, and many would criticize us for perhaps taking sides in the election, so that had to be carefully considered,” Johnson told the House Intelligence Committee, echoing other former officials who have described the decisionmaking process in the White House last fall.
He said the administration had told the American public everything “we were in a position to tell them” on Oct. 7. He also said it backed up that announcement with ongoing warnings and a concerted campaign to engage states to seek cybersecurity assistance from the department to safeguard their systems.
“One of the candidates, as you’ll recall, was predicting that the election was going to be rigged in some way,” he said of the political fears at the time. “And so we were concerned that, by making the statement, we might in and of itself be challenging the integrity of the election process itself.”
President Trump, then the Republican White House candidate, repeatedly claimed that the outcome of the election would be “rigged” against him, alleging widespread voter fraud and inaccurate polling. He provided no evidence to back up his claims, but critics feared that his rhetoric could undermine public faith in the outcome of the election.
Given the scope and breadth of the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere in the November election, the Obama administration has faced questions about the timing of its public disclosure, just a month before Americans went to the polls. According to Johnson, he was “very concerned” about signs of Russian meddling as early as the late summer.
“Why wasn’t it more important to tell the American people the length and breadth of what the Russians were doing to interfere in an election than any risk that it might be seen as putting your hand on the scale?” ranking member Adam SchiffAdam SchiffEx-Homeland Security official says politics molded Russia response Jill Stein: ‘Pathetic’ excuse by Dems that campaign was tool of Russian influence Mueller meets with House leaders amid Trump-Russia probe MORE (D-Calif.) asked. “Didn’t the public have a compelling need to know?”
Schiff pressed Johnson on why the administration did not go further than its Oct. 7 statement, which Johnson said was overlooked by the press and the public because it coincided with the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump spoke of grabbing women by the genitals.
“You shouldn’t view the October 7th statement in isolation,” Johnson insisted, rattling off a series of other public statements about election security and engagement efforts with state election officials, beginning in August.
“This was an ongoing effort to inform the public about everything we were in a position then to tell the public. It wasn’t just the October 7th statement.”
Johnson stood by previous testimony that there was no evidence any votes were changed — but said that he could not assess whether the outcome of the election had been influenced, arguing that determination required “a social scientist or a pollster.”
He demurred on the final number of U.S. states whose voting systems were scanned or probed by the Russian government, saying that he had not had access to intelligence since he left government.
In a separate hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning, a current DHS official told lawmakers that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 states leading up to the election.
Pressed by Republicans on the response of the DNC, Johnson provided little cover for the national party.
Following the attack, the DNC turned to a private cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, to mitigate the damage from the hack — not the DHS, which is responsible for safeguarding U.S. systems from cyberattacks.
The DNC also failed to provide access to its servers to FBI investigators — a fact the GOP seized on Wednesday morning.
“The DNC was the victim of a crime. I’m trying to understand why the victim of a crime would not turn over evidence to you and [then-FBI Director] Jim Comey,” asked Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyEx-Homeland Security official says politics molded Russia response House Dems: ‘Does not appear’ Flynn disclosed trip to Middle East Chaffetz: Trump administration ‘almost worse’ than Obama’s on transparency MORE (R-S.C.), who is one of three Republicans steering the committee’s investigation in the wake of the recusal of chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Johnson said. “That was a leading question and I’ll agree to be led.
“I recall very clearly that I was not pleased that we were not in there helping them patch this vulnerability.”
Johnson provided few new details about the ongoing federal investigation into Russian meddling, which covers any potential coordination between President Trump’s campaign and Russia.
He echoed previous testimony from Clapper, saying that he did not know the factual basis for the FBI to open the probe.
But, he said, Comey would not have opened a counterintelligence investigation on a mere hunch. Pressed by Schiff on whether the director would require an evidentiary basis to open such an investigation, Johnson affirmed: “Based on everything I know about Jim Comey and the FBI, yes.”
Trump has since fired Comey, citing the Russia probe, and the investigation is now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.