DES MOINES, Iowa — Those entrusted with securing the nation’s voting systems must remain nonpartisan as a myriad of complex and growing risks continue to threaten U.S. elections, one of the nation’s top cybersecurity officials said Saturday.
Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said in an interview with The Associated Press that she was focused on ensuring that the federal agency stays out of politics, builds trust among state and local election officials, and continues to provide critical support and guidance on how to increase cyber defenses.
“It’s incredibly important that we develop the right collaborative partnerships with all state and local election officials so that they know, regardless of what party they are, we are here to provide resources to help them ensure the safety and security and resilience of their elections,” Easterly said.
How to combat misinformation and disinformation without drawing partisan objections will be a major challenge for the agency as the 2022 and 2024 elections draw closer.
Easterly has been at the helm of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency for just over a month after being confirmed by the Senate on July 12. She takes over as election officials seek to defend the nation’s electoral process from potential cyberattacks from hostile nations seeking to undermine American democracy, ransomware attacks from cyber criminals looking to make money, and a swirl of misinformation and disinformation surrounding the 2020 election and voting in general.
On Saturday, Easterly was in Des Moines to speak with state election officials who are gathered for the National Association of Secretaries of State’s summer conference. She urged officials to work with her agency to combat misinformation and disinformation.
“With respect to getting that information out, this absolutely has to be a team sport and, frankly, a whole-of-nation effort,” Easterly told the election officials. “Ensuring that we can tap into all of you to help amplify getting the facts out and busting the myths that are out there that prevent people from having full faith and confidence in our election system is something that we’re going to have to do together in close partnership.”
A former senior NSA official who also worked on counterterrorism and cyber issues in the Obama administration, Easterly takes over an agency that is still relatively new with a wide portfolio of responsibilities.
While state and local governments administer elections, CISA is charged with protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, which includes voting systems. The agency works closely with election officials on sharing threat information, while also providing cybersecurity resources and services such as comprehensive security reviews.
The 2020 election proved to be a major test for the agency, faced with concerns that Russia and other hostile nations could seek to interfere. Agency officials had been focused on boosting cyber defenses at state and local election offices, and the pandemic only exacerbated those challenges. And then there was a flood of misinformation and disinformation, both foreign and domestic, surrounding voting.
One of CISA’s initiatives during the last election was a Rumor Control page on its website in which the agency debunked various conspiracy theories that had arisen before and then after the election. This included providing information on how ballots are handled by election officials and how voting systems are tested to ensure they operate as intended.
This drew criticism from former President Donald Trump and his allies, who were making unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud. The head of CISA at the time, Chris Krebs, was fired by Trump after the agency — along with various other federal, state and local officials — issued a statement calling the 2020 election the “most secure” in U.S. history.
Easterly said the Rumor Control initiative would continue and described the dangers posed by misinformation and disinformation as a “generational issue.”
“The American people need to have the facts to be able to make the best decisions and to have confidence in the integrity of our elections,” Easterly said. “There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than a safe and secure election that the American people have confidence in.”
During a question-and-answer session after Easterly’s speech, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, said he was concerned that the agency had veered into politics and asked her to “depoliticize” the agency.
Easterly responded by drawing on her background, calling herself an independent who has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and referenced her career with the U.S. Army.
“I am in this business because I believe in the national security of the United States of America. It’s why I deployed three times in combat,” Easterly said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Later, Warner said he was concerned that people with concerns about the 2020 election are not being heard and instead are being dismissed as conspiracy theorists or worse.
“You’re going to continue to have questioning of the elections, and when you have questioning of elections, you lose confidence,” Warner said. “We don’t want another Jan. 6. We don’t want things to boil over to the point where we have civil unrest.”
Arizona Secretary of State Kattie Hobbs, a Democrat, said it’s imperative that CISA continues to address misinformation and disinformation. Hobbs said she is still fighting conspiracy theories surrounding the election, noting the ongoing Republican review of ballots in Phoenix’s Maricopa County, to which she has objected.
“It’s sad how partisan all of this has become,” Hobbs said. “Having folks who are focused on the integrity of the process regardless of their political affiliations, it’s so necessary.”
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, was among those who said they were pleased with the work CISA did last year. She credited Krebs with helping to “save democracy.”
Griswold said state election officials play an important role in pushing the federal agency to do more to support election offices and encouraged agency officials to think broadly and critically about ways to help increase public confidence in elections regardless of which party is in office.
“Just because you happen to be a Democratic administration, just like Trump’s administration was Republican and the leadership of CISA was Republican, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to get good information to the American people,” Griswold said. “It does mean you have to do it in a bipartisan way, but I’m confident that the United States of America can figure that out.”