TALLAHASSEE — Russian hackers successfully tapped into the voter registration files of two Florida counties in 2016, a startling detail revealed Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis after a meeting with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security last week.
DeSantis, speaking at a press conference, refused to identify the counties, saying the FBI made him sign a non-disclosure agreement — a remarkable move that could have questionable legal standing in a state with broad public records laws.
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“The whole situation is unprecedented,” DeSantis spokesperson Helen Ferré acknowledged.
The Russian effort to target Florida has been known for some time, but details have been sparse. In March, the state was singled out in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, which concluded that at least one county in Florida had been breached. The disclosure stunned Florida officials, who had maintained that the effort was unsuccessful and were working to shore up security ahead of 2020.
DeSantis said that the “intrusion” by Russian hackers did not affect any vote tallying, which is handled on a completely different system. He also said there is no evidence that the hackers were successful in altering any of the data that they accessed.
“There was no manipulation, or anything, but there was voter data that was able to be got,” DeSantis said.
An FBI spokeperson confirmed the details of the meeting in a written statement.
“The FBI provided information involving the attempted intrusion into Supervisor of Elections networks throughout the state. The FBI also provided assurance that investigators did not detect any adversary activity that impacted vote counts or disrupted electoral processes during the 2016 or 2018 elections,” the bureau official wrote.
Bureau officials are set to meet with Sen. Rick Scott on Wednesday and plan to give a classified briefing to the entire Florida congressional delegation Thursday. Scott will ask the FBI to declassify the information as soon as possible, his spokesperson said.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said that a long line of past court rulings make clear that Florida officials cannot agree to keep a document confidential if it is shared with them. She said that would apply even to documents DeSantis was shown but did not keep. But she said that open records law would not apply to information given to DeSantis verbally.
“I look forward to learning more this week about what happened and what the federal government is doing to prevent further cyberattacks on our elections systems,” Murphy tweeted.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who a year ago warned local election officials about possible risks, was already aware of the Russian intrusion and recently acknowledged it in an interview with The New York Times.
“Since April 2018, I have repeatedly voiced concerns about overconfidence of some Florida election officials, and have urged them to take the threat of cyberattack seriously,” Rubio said in a statement Tuesday. “These are nation state threats with significant resources and assets at their disposal. Florida is a major swing state that often decides presidential elections, making us a top target.”
When then-Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, made a similar assertion about Russian hacking last year, Scott assailed him on the campaign trail, demanding proof and calling the comment “irresponsible.” Scott, a Republican and governor at the time, unseated Nelson in November.
Nelson on Tuesday declined to comment on the latest revelation, pointing instead to a short statement he put out in April that explained why he chose to issue a warning to elections supervisors last year. “The Mueller Report makes clear why we had to take that important step as well as my verbal warnings thereafter,” Nelson wrote.
It‘s not apparent who knew about the Russian intrusion, or when. DeSantis had previously complained that he didn’t know about the hacking until release of the Mueller report. On Tuesday he said that federal officials didn’t inform the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or others high up in the Scott administration about the incident.
The FBI told DeSantis that Florida Department of Law Enforcement employees serving on a cybersecurity task force were aware of the Russian intrusion. DeSantis said it wasn’t clear why that information was not shared with top state officials.
“At the time it probably didn’t seem like a big deal” because it occurred prior to the intense scrutiny over possible Russian interference, the governor said.
Still DeSantis said he wants to know who in state government might have been aware of the hacking.
The FBI did hold a conference call with local elections supervisors in September 2016 to warn them about Russian efforts. Ion Sancho, who was in charge of elections in the state capital at the time, said on Twitter that “the FBI told local and state election officials no hack had occurred.”
Sancho, who spent nearly three decades as elections supervisor in Leon County, on Tuesday also expressed skepticism that a thorough examination has been done to make sure the hacking effort did not affect anything.
DeSantis on Tuesday said federal officials lauded Florida for being “ahead of the curve” to prepare its voting systems ahead of next year’s presidential election, but said “threats evolve so I don’t want to ever say ‘Hey, there’s no more threats.'”
State legislators set aside some $2.8 million in cybersecurity grants during this year’s legislative session, but they did not approve funding for a cybersecurity team that would be used by the Department of State.
Marc Caputo contributed to this story.