While it seemed as though the “Russiagate” hysteria was beginning to lose steam, corporate media outlets in recent weeks have worked to rekindle the scandal through a series of stories that purport to expose the meddling of the Russian government in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
One of those stories, first published by The Associated Press last Friday and widely shared, centered around recent findings by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which claimed that 21 states had had their election systems targeted by malicious “cyber actors.” The alleged hackers were said to have carried out preparatory activity, such as the scanning of computer systems in order to look for vulnerabilities.
Though the identity or identities of those responsible were inconclusive according to DHS data, some DHS and state election officials asserted – without evidence – that the Russian government had ordered the cyberattacks. According to the AP, the Wisconsin Election Commission said that its systems had been targeted by “Russian government cyber actors,” based on information it had received from DHS.
For most of the states notified, the DHS’ findings were the first indication they had been targeted. The DHS’ findings were also considered notable for being the first official confirmation that U.S. election systems had come under pressure from hackers – nearly a year after the election in question.
However convenient the DHS’ findings were to those seeking to perpetuate the Russiagate narrative, it wasn’t meant to be. On Wednesday, the AP reported that the DHS – in a stunning reversal – told Wisconsin election officials that the Russian government did not scan part of the state’s voting system, asserting that it was actually the state’s Department of Workforce Development that was scanned by “Russian IP addresses.”
Strangely, DHS – despite admitting that Wisconsin’s state voting system was not targeted – told AP that it “still believed” that Wisconsin was one of the 21 states targeted. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s chief elections administrator, Michael Haas, has repeatedly said that Homeland Security assured the state it had not been a target after all.
The announcement of the error caused frustration for Wisconsin election officials, who have sought answers regarding how the mistake was made. “Either they were right on Friday and this is a coverup, or they were wrong on Friday and we deserve an apology,” Mark Thomsen, the state election commission’s chairman, told AP following the DHS’ retraction of its earlier claims.
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DHS declined to elaborate as to whether it had made similar mistakes for the other states it had notified. However, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced on Thursday that, upon receiving additional information from DHS regarding the alleged attacks, that federal agency’s “conclusions were wrong” regarding the alleged cyberattacks. Padilla maintained that “California’s elections infrastructure and websites were not hacked or breached by Russian cyber actors,” as DHS had previously claimed.
Some corporate media outlets have asserted that Russians were involved in targeting and infiltrating state voting systems since the Russiagate hysteria began in earnest, only to retract those stories soon after. The Washington Post, for instance, published a story about alleged Russian hacking into Vermont’s electrical grid, which was fully retracted soon after. Other outlets, such as AP and The New York Times, have also had to make retractions regarding alleged Russian hacking efforts over the past year.
In addition, while the blame for alleged election hacking has been largely directed at Russia, there exists significant evidence that the DHS itself was involved in the attempted hacking of some state election systems last year. Last December, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp decried a hack attempt of the state’s voter database that was traced to an IP address linked to the DHS’ federal offices. DHS responded to the incident by stating that their alleged intrusion of Georgia’s voting system was not “unusual.”
Other states, including Indiana, Idaho, West Virginia, and Kentucky, later came forward claiming that DHS had also tried to hack their election systems and that the federal agency had scanned their voting systems tens of thousands of times without permission.
Feature photo | Voters use electronic voting machines at the Schiller Recreation Center polling station on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. John Minchillo | AP