MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Last November, at the Asia-Pacific summit, Donald Trump was eager to once again vouch for Vladimir Putin.
In this case, it was in regards to an issue hanging over the president's head like a Damocles sword: Did the Russian government interfere with the 2016 election? More specifically, it is a question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to defeat Hillary Clinton in the electoral vote. However, Trump has been backing Putin's denial of any interference in the election, including hacking into state election systems, regardless of whether or not his campaign had knowledge of it.
Trump praises Putin and gives him the benefit of the doubt on a regular basis. Most recently, he even refused to enforce sanctions Congress had passed against Russia for, in part, interfering with the US elections. A CNN report from the November summit once again revealed Trump's abiding faith in the veracity of Putin:
President Donald Trump suggested on Saturday he's done confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin over his country's election meddling since it's insulting to the Russian leader.
Trump said he took Putin at his word that Russia did not seek to interfere in the US presidential election last year, despite a finding from US intelligence agencies that it did.
"Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,' " Trump said. "And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."
This week a report from NBC news, however, directly contradicts Trump's avowal of trust in Putin. What is more, the claim comes from someone who is currently inside the administration and is an expert on cybersecurity:
The U.S. official in charge of protecting American elections from hacking says the Russians successfully penetrated the voter registration rolls of several U.S. states prior to the 2016 presidential election.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, said she couldn't talk about classified information publicly, but in 2016, "We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated."
Jeh Johnson, who was DHS secretary during the Russian intrusions, said, "2016 was a wake-up call and now it's incumbent upon states and the Feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again."
Whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to help Trump become president is something that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. The statement by Trump's head of cybersecurity at DHS and the former DHS secretary, however, poses an issue that is a direct threat to the functioning of democracy. It is not only the Russian government that we should be concerned about; it is also other nations and third parties. Furthermore, hackers working domestically for one campaign in an election may also be able to breach the software of electronic voting systems and swing the election for their candidate.
The vulnerability of electronic voting machines has been an issue for many years now. Allegations were particularly made that hacking and manipulating the vote count in Ohio in the 2004 election may have swung the state to Bush. Unfortunately, even when they are true, charges like these are very hard to prove, because of the evanescent nature of electronic voting.
Remember that electronic voting machines and their software are sold to states by private companies with proprietary access. State officials often know little about how the machines function and are reliant on outside consultants to remedy problems and secure the voting process in the polls. Furthermore, it is individual states that are responsible for the voting process, and many of their offices do not have the skillset to set up an effective cybersecurity barrier.
The challenge to make actual voting cybersecure becomes more daunting when one recalls that even the Department of Defense has been hacked, as have other government agencies. Major corporations such as Equifax and Sony have been targets of hacks, too. The notion that electronic state voting systems are fundamentally secure is wishful thinking.
Donald Trump does a disservice to democracy and fair elections by denying the Russian breach of the voting process. The integrity of the vote in this country is of paramount importance. The president of the United States should not be in denial about that, for any reason -- whether it be self-protection or ignorance.