By John Haughey, The Center Square
Gov. Ron DeSantis went into Friday’s meeting with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security [DHS] hoping to learn – and publicly divulge – which Florida county Special Counsel Robert Mueller was referring to in his report as being breached by Russian agents before the 2016 election.
In a Tuesday press conference, DeSantis revealed the FBI told him during the briefing that Russian hackers gained access to voter databases in not one, but two Florida counties in November 2016, days before the presidential election.
However, he said, the FBI assured him and Florida Department of Law Enforcement [FDLE] officials at the briefing that the “intrusions” did not “manipulate any data” or “affect the vote count.”
DeSantis, who in April said Florida voters deserve to know which county was hacked, acknowledged he signed a non-disclosure agreement with federal officials before they would brief him.
While he could not elaborate on specific disclosures, DeSantis said he is exasperated with the FBI for not sharing information with Florida officials about attempts to infiltrate voting systems in the state.
When he questioned the lack of communication between federal and state officials, DeSantis said he was further “frustrated” to learn the FBI insists “state agents” on an elections task force had “access to this information” before the 2016 election.
“We’re trying to figure out what the state knew at the time,” DeSantis said. “Obviously, the previous administration and the head of FDLE did not have that information.”
DeSantis said if any federal elections task forces had information to share prior to the 2016 election, it never “reported it up” or might not have been deemed it important.
“At the time it probably didn’t seem like a big deal; the whole Russia stuff didn’t even start when this stuff had happened,” he said.
The only Florida elected official who had an “insider” view on federal probes into Russian hacking attempts is U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, by virtue of his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Also by virtue of his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rubio cannot legally discuss what he knows. But, according to Rubio, national security officials chose to issue blank warnings rather than notify individual targets to avoid compromising the intelligence methods that identified the threat.
DeSantis said he is curious to “figure out what the state knew at the time” but has no reason to believe his predecessor, now-Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, was among “state agents” the FBI said it informed of unfolding details.
During his campaign against then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, then-Gov. Scott ripped the three-term incumbent for stating intelligence leaders had asked him to “let supervisors of elections in Florida know that Russians are inside our records.”
The DHS denied the claim, stating it had not seen “any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure” and Scott lambasted Nelson for inciting political hysteria that will “only serve to erode public trust in our elections at a critical time.”
Turns out, Nelson was, indeed, passing along a vague “general warning” that Rubio referred to although, apparently, Scott and state and local elections officials were left out of the loop.
The FBI’s claim that Florida elections offices were hacked first surfaced last year and has been disputed by state and local elections officials, who say the agency has never presented evidence to support the allegation and stonewalled requests for elaboration.
The assertion re-emerged in April when the 448-page Mueller investigation report stated on pages 50-51 that “at least one Florida county government” was compromised prior to the 2016 presidential election.
According to the Mueller report, Russian GRU military intelligence agents in November 2016 sent phishing emails with corrupted files to 120 Florida election officials.
The emails, disguised as a message from election equipment vendor VR Systems, had a coded attachment that could give Russian agents access to election systems. The ruse worked in at least one county, the report said, and as many as two counties, the FBI told DeSantis Friday.
After the report became public, the Florida Department of State insisted it had no knowledge about a successful, county-level hacking attempt in 2016 and reiterated the FBI had not shared its findings, noting in a statement, “they declined to share this information with us.”
Scott is expected to meet with FBI and DHS officials to get his requested briefing on the alleged hack — now, hacks — later this week.