Federal officials developed strong evidence last year that Russian-backed hackers compromised websites or voter registration systems in Wisconsin and six other states, according to an NBC News report.
Wisconsin and federal officials denied central aspects of Tuesday’s report, saying there were no signs that hackers were successful in their attempts to penetrate Wisconsin systems.
The NBC report, based on anonymous sources, suggested hacking efforts in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election went further than previously disclosed, raising questions about what might be tried in this year’s elections.
NBC’s report stated that Russian-tied hackers compromised systems in Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin.
It did not specify what systems were affected in Wisconsin or provide details about what might have been compromised.
Wisconsin officials last year said Russian agents targeted—but did not access—systems here in July and August 2016. Their efforts were aimed at a Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development system as they looked for vulnerabilities in the state government’s IT infrastructure, according to these officials.
Wisconsin officials were aware of the hacking attempts at the time but not that Russian government actors were involved. They didn’t learn of the Russian involvement until a year later, when informed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Last fall, the Homeland Security Department provided the state with conflicting information about Russian attempts to target Wisconsin systems.
State officials have expressed frustration about the flow of information from the federal government about hacking attempts but have said in recent months they believed it had gotten better.
Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave state officials assurances Wednesday and on other recent days that there had been no intrusion of Wisconsin’s systems.
“We are not aware of any new Russian targeting of Wisconsin systems beyond the scanning attempts from 2016 we reported in September 2017 as soon as we were notified by (the Department of Homeland Security),” Magney said in a statement that was earlier provided to NBC.
He said the state’s elections systems were well protected and noted that more than 9 million times a year hackers from around the world scan Wisconsin state government systems as they look for weaknesses they can exploit.
NBC’s report was based on comments from unnamed officials who said as of January 2017 the intelligence community believed systems in the seven states had been compromised. The targeted systems included voter registration databases but not vote-tallying machines.
In a statement, Homeland Security acting press secretary Tyler Houlton said the NBC report was based in part on “working documents” and not confirmed intelligence.
“We have no intelligence—new or old—that corroborates NBC’s reporting that state systems in seven states were compromised by Russian government actors,” his statement said.
He stood by past claims that Wisconsin’s systems were scanned by Russian actors but not penetrated.
“That remains true to the intelligence—new or old—available to the department,” his statement said.
The debate over hacking comes at a time of turmoil for Wisconsin’s elections commission. On Tuesday, the Elections Commission’s director, Michael Haas, announced he would be leaving his post. There is no connection between his departure and the NBC report, Magney said.
Republicans in the state Senate last month voted to reject Haas’ confirmation to the post because of his involvement in an investigation of Republicans that the state Supreme Court shut down in 2015 after it found no one did anything illegal.
Haas had said his role in the matter was limited and not grounds for him to leave his job. But Tuesday he said he would leave because the issue was creating a distraction.