- Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen backed up US intelligence findings on interference in the 2016 US presidential election Tuesday, saying “it was the Russians.”
- Speaking at a cybersecurity conference, Nielsen offered a sharp condemnation of Russian hacking and cybersecurity threats as a chief concern of the department.
- Nielsen’s comments come two weeks after President Donald Trump earned harsh blowback for failing to hold Russia accountable for election interference at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Nielsen was speaking at the department’s Cybersecurity Summit in New York when she warned about the threat of cyber attacks, which she said put “our democracy itself in the crosshairs.”
“Two years ago, a foreign power launched a brazen, multi-faceted influence campaign to undermine public faith in our democratic process and to distort our presidential election,” Nielsen said. “That campaign involved cyber espionage, leaks of stolen data, cyber intrusions into voter registration systems, online propaganda, and more.”
Nielsen continued, “Let me be clear: Our intelligence community had it right. It was the Russians. It was directed from the highest levels.”
US intelligence officials have reportedly been pointing to the upper levels of the Russian government since the beginning of Trump’s first term in office, but President Donald Trump in particular has waffled on blaming Putin.
Nielsen’s comments come two weeks after Trump earned harsh criticism for failing to hold Russia accountable for election interference at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
After saying he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible for the election meddling in front of Putin and the press, the next day Trump claimed he misspoke and instead meant to say he didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.
In the same statement, Trump declared his support for US intelligence, but reiterated his earlier assertions that other entities besides Russia might have been responsible.
“I’ve said this many times,” Trump said, reading from a written statement. “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”
Nielsen also offered a pointed warning for hackers in her comments Tuesday, three months ahead of November’s midterm elections.
“The United States will no longer tolerate or accept your interference,” Nielsen said. “You will be exposed. You will pay a high price.”
Despite the administration’s response with sanctions and the special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of Russian agents, Nielsen said there are continued, Kremlin-led efforts to interfere with US affairs.
The summit also marked the announcement of several new initiatives for increased protective measures, including a new “Elections Task Force” among “a vast array of services, programs, and partnerships nationwide to help our partners secure our election infrastructure.”