It’s a good question, and it’s not just the New York Times asking it. The FBI demanded that Florida governor Ron DeSantis sign a non-disclosure agreement before briefing him on their findings, which conclude that Russians successfully accessed voter data but not the voting process. Why are the identity of the two impacted counties still classified?
Almost everyone, it seems, has been told which Florida voter registration systems were breached during the 2016 presidential election — except for the voters whose information was targeted.
Elected leaders in Washington and Tallahassee want to tell them, but they say they can’t. The F.B.I. has kept the information classified, refusing to publicly identify the two counties where Russian hackers had access to voter data that could have allowed them to wreak havoc for voters on Election Day.
On Thursday, the F.B.I. faced a torrent of bipartisan fury from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Florida, who, one after another, denounced the federal agency’s lack of transparency, calling it unacceptable that it has taken three years for the authorities to reveal to them which counties were hacked.
The anger over the FBI’s decision to classify the information is bipartisan in Florida. Lawmakers briefed on the hacking spoke out yesterday to call the decision “ludicrous,” and demanded that the Department of Justice release the information:
Angry members of the Florida congressional delegation demanded the FBI tell the public which two counties were successfully infiltrated by Russian hackers in 2016, with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz calling the bureau’s reasoning that the counties were victims under FBI protocol “ludicrous.”
Members also revealed that while the FBI said there was “no evidence” that voter rolls were changed, “they couldn’t say with certainty [the hackers] did not manipulate data,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said Thursday.
DeSantis came in for some criticism from other Republicans for signing the NDA in the first place. DeSantis was a frequent critic of the FBI while in Congress, and some wonder whether the NDA was a form of payback:
Even DeSantis was uncomfortable with the situation he was in after learning the identity of the two counties from the FBI. He decided not to keep the meeting quiet, holding a Tuesday press conference to disclose that the bureau had given him some information. By Wednesday, he was expressing regret that the identity of the two counties was kept secret.
“It’s over-classified,” DeSantis told reporters on Wednesday in Coral Gables.
When asked how he squared his FBI-bashing in Congress with his decision to sign the non-disclosure agreement, DeSantis said it was born of necessity.
“I share the frustration of your question. But my situation is if I didn’t sign that, I wouldn’t have gotten any briefing. And I would have gotten even less,” DeSantis said. When he learned from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Florida counties had been hacked, his administration asked for more information but was stonewalled.
“We immediately called the FBI — we thought it was only one county at the time — and said, ‘Hey, which Florida county?’” DeSantis said. The FBI’s reply, he said, was, “We won’t tell you. We can’t tell you. We can’t do it.”
The FBI may need to refresh those NDAs, however. Late yesterday, the identity of one county leaked out despite the classification placed on the information. Washington County’s 25,000 voters will want some answers from election officials. Those officials point out that they can’t give answers when they’re not even supposed to acknowledge the questions:
The Russian military spy agency, the GRU, was responsible for the penetration of Washington County’s database, according to the two officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. The county has a population of about 25,000.
Carol F. Rudd, county elections supervisor, declined to comment on the breach but said it’s important for federal, state and local officials to be able to communicate confidentially. “If each agency gets suspicious of the other’s ability to follow the rules of confidentiality, then those tenuous lines of communication quickly break down,” she said in an email. “That would set our security capabilities back years and severely compromise our ability to protect our elections. THAT would be a big win for the Russians going into 2020.”
Then-Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he was “prohibited by law from commenting.” But “the citizens deserve and have a right to know important things with regard to their election security. Over time, it’ll come out.”
Well, now we know the identity of one county, and the second county won’t be far behind. Congress isn’t exactly known for its ability to keep secrets, which is why the Mueller report got redacted in the way it did for all but twelve members. In this case, though, the classification seems much more difficult to justify. How does withholding the identities of the counties protect national security, especially after the mechanics of the hacking conspiracy has been spelled out in public indictments and the Mueller report?
When this finally does get declassified, the information had better show that the FBI had a good reason for the NDAs. Otherwise, William Barr’s investigations are going to get a lot more popular on Capitol Hill.