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Acting DHS secretary says he expects Russia to attempt to interfere in 2020 elections

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Friday that his agency “fully expects” Russia to attempt to interfere in U.S. elections in 2020.

“As we saw in 2016, we fully expect Russia to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections to sow public discord and undermine our democratic institutions,” Wolf said during an event hosted by the Homeland Security Experts Group in Washington, D.C.

Wolf also highlighted cyber threats from China and Iran. 

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According to the report compiled by former special counsel Robert Mueller and to findings by the U.S. intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russia launched a sweeping interference effort in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, using both hacking and disinformation tactics. 

Wolf, who has served as acting secretary since November, stressed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies have taken measures to prepare for potential Russian interference efforts since 2016, and pointed to the 2018 midterm elections as being “the most secure elections in the modern era.”

“Let me be clear: We are prepared,” Wolf said. “More importantly, the state and local officials who run our elections are prepared. We are working with our federal partners to make sure those officials on the front lines of our elections have the information and the tools they need to combat Russian interference.” 

He also noted that the issue of election security is “front of mind” for the full federal government, including the White House, and that agencies are “laser-focused” on securing the 2020 elections.

Despite this focus, Wolf acknowledged that “100 percent security is never realistic.” But he touted reforms made since 2016 that means that “over 90 percent of votes cast in 2020 will have a corresponding paper ballot.”

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The use of voting machines that print out a paper record of how an individual voted has been a security upgrade touted by experts as a way to prevent foreign interference and to check the accuracy of the vote tally. While many states have switched to these types of machines, according to a report put out by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice last year, about 16 million Americans are expected to vote in 2020 on machines with no paper record. 

Beyond election security, Wolf also used his speech on Friday to discuss cyber threats from countries including China, which Wolf described as the “most persistent nation state threat in the cyber realm.”

“Through cyber espionage and other activities that impact our economic prosperity and intellectual horsepower, it is pursuing a long-term ‘whole-of-nation’ effort to threaten and undermine the United States,” Wolf said of China. “While we value our partnership with Beijing to promote global prosperity, we are working to hold Chinese bad actors accountable for their malign activities.”

Potential Iranian cyberattacks on the U.S. have also been a concern since the beginning of 2020 following the targeting and killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. 

Wolf addressed this issue during his Friday speech, emphasizing that while there is currently “no credible, specific threat to the homeland,” DHS is “operating with an enhanced posture” in order to counter any physical or cyberattacks.

He pointed to a bulletin issued by DHS’s National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) last week as being a resource for information on Iranian threats. 

“As the NTAS bulletin mentions, we remain especially vigilant regarding cyber-enabled attacks from Iran against a range of U.S.-based targets — including our critical infrastructure,” Wolf said.

The speech marked one of the first times Wolf has publicly addressed his priorities for DHS.

Wolf is the third person to lead DHS in the past year, having stepped into the role of acting secretary in November following the departure of former acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who in turn took over after former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April.

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