JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two Florida counties were hacked by Russians prior to the 2016 elections, but there was no “manipulation” of voting results, Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Tuesday morning.
DeSantis said the FBI recently briefed the governor and other members of his administration on what he called an “intrusion” into the two unidentified counties.
“There was no manipulation, or anything, but there was voter data that was able to be got,” DeSantis said. “Now, that voter data I think was public anyway. Nevertheless, those were intrusions. It did not affect any voting, or anything like that.”
The meeting at the FBI offices in Tallahassee, which did not appear on DeSantis' public schedule, came following last month’s release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that said a Russian intelligence agency gained access to at least one Florida county-government computer network in 2016.
Others who attended the Friday meeting were officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum, the governor said. DeSantis said he could not identify the counties because he signed a non-disclosure agreement, at the FBI’s request.
DeSantis said he was frustrated that the FBI did not immediately provide additional information about the hacks after Mueller’s report was released. U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor at the time of the voting-related breach, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio have expressed similar frustration.
“We are trying to figure out what the state knew at the time,” DeSantis said Tuesday.
DeSantis said the FBI told him there were “state agents on a task force who had access to some of this information.”
“Obviously the previous administration and the FDLE did not have that information. So we’re trying to figure out what was the breakdown. Was it that FBI didn’t want to share, or was it just simply that the information didn’t get reported up. So we hopefully will be able to run that aground pretty soon,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis, who took office in January, said he was never told about the intrusion, either by federal officials, or by his predecessor, Scott.
“No one ever said anything to me. Granted, I took office in 2019. This happened in 2016. So I get why the FBI wouldn’t necessarily rush to tell me something that happened several years ago. But it was the position of people who were in the agencies at the time, and who are still serving, that the FBI did not brief them on this and that this was not something that they knew was going on. The FBI’s position is that there were members on the FBI task force who had access to some of the information,” he said.
The hackers used “spearfishing” through emails to access voter files, DeSantis said.
“Someone clicked on it, so someone was able to get access to things, but nothing that affected the vote count. I was pleased to hear from both the FBI and DHS during that meeting that Florida is one of the most engaged states in the country on election security, in their judgment,” he said.
The two unnamed Florida counties had been working with the FBI prior to the 2016 election, according to the governor.
After the release of Mueller’s report last month, officials with the Florida Department of State said federal officials told them in 2017 that hackers had unsuccessfully targeted Florida in 2016. The Department of State was unable to verify the intrusion, however.
“Upon learning of the new information released in the Mueller report, the department immediately reached out to the FBI to inquire which county may have been accessed, and they declined to share this information with us,” Department of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell said in a prepared on April 18. “The department maintains that the 2016 elections in Florida were not hacked. The Florida Voter Registration System was and remains secure, and official results or vote tallies were not changed.”
According to the Mueller report, the FBI believed the Russian spearfishing operation “enabled the GRU (a Russian intelligence agency) to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government.”
The election-related hacking became an issue last year in Scott’s successful bid to unseat long-serving U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Nelson, a Democrat, told reporters that “Russians are in Florida’s election records,” but he refused to elaborate.
Scott repeatedly criticized Nelson’s comment, demanding that the Democrat reveal how he received the information or admit it wasn’t true. At the time, Nelson was the ranking member of the U.S. Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity.
Nelson told reporters last summer that local election officials could get help to secure their databases and records from Russian cyber-hacking, noting the Russians had “penetrated” some voter-registration systems.
DeSantis on Tuesday said the cyber threats go far beyond elections offices.
“Really, agencies, private sector, this stuff is very, very significant, in terms of what it could affect, far beyond just this,” he said.
DeSantis acknowledged that “core information” regarding elections is “very sensitive," but said he disagreed with the secrecy involving the identification of the counties.
“I think it should be named,” he said.
As part of the budget that awaits DeSantis’ action, county election supervisors would be able to draw from a $2.8 million grant to continue cybersecurity improvements in advance of next year’s presidential election. County supervisors, in part, would be required to provide detailed descriptions of the programs being implemented.
DeSantis said he was confident that Florida's 2020 elections would be secure.
“Obviously, for me, my main concern is that people go in, they vote, the vote gets counted and we have a fair result," he said. “DHS has said we’ve taken good action. … Look, we obviously want to protect against any intrusion, but if something happens like that, there’s not a way to then get into what I would consider core election infrastructure.”