In a lengthy session before the House Intelligence Committee, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson demonstrated a thorough and wide-ranging knowledge of cybersecurity issues, Russian hacking, and state voting infrastructure. He also showed a firm recall of events over the past election cycle. After listening to other officials’ recent testimony that included multiple uses of don’t recall, don’t recollect, and don’t remember, watching Johnson was refreshing simply because it demonstrated that it’s not impossible for a government official to remember important conversations and information for a period of months.
Part of the Republican attempt to diminish the importance of Russian action in 2016 comes through constantly making the point that this isn’t the first time the Russians have attempted to hack into a U.S. election, and that Russian hacking is commonplace. However, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes helped burn away that cobweb by making it clear that 2016 was very different.
Himes: We had seen scanning, queries, what we might sort of generally consider espionage, trying to gather information.
Himes: But we had never seen what the Russians called active measures … the insertion of information designed to alter an outcome. That’s what makes this unprecedented?
Himes also gave Johnson the opportunity to talk about what he saw as the greatest issue of the election cycle, which wasn’t hacking email.
Johnson: What we were most concerned about, and what we were most seeing, was efforts to compromise voter registration databases.
Republicans were able to feast on DNC intransigence and refusal to accept assistance from DHS. They returned to this issue from several angles, as in this exchange with Rep. Peter King.
King: Can you elaborate more on what DHS’s connection with the DNC was, after you became aware of the hacking and they became aware of the hacking? As to what was offered them, what they accepted. Was there any level of cooperation at all?
Johnson: To my disappointment, not to my knowledge, sir.
Johnson went on at some length, obviously frustrated by the DNC’s refusal to accept the help DHS was offering and work with the intelligence community to address vulnerabilities. King then took the opportunity to do everything short of hold up a giant “STUPID” sign directed at the DNC … and it was hard to find a reason to disagree.
King, like several Republicans, went on to try and paint the idea that the Obama administration had said nothing about Russian interference before the election, but Johnson disagreed, pointing out multiple efforts to direct attention to the story before the election.
Rep. Trey Gowdy then piled on the DNC’s reluctance to cooperate.
Gowdy: The DNC was the victim of a crime.
Gowdy: I’m trying to understand why the victim of a crime would not turn over evidence to you and Jim Comey, who were both apolitical and come from apolitical backgrounds.
It’s nice to hear that Gowdy thinks that Comey is “apolitical” … though that opinion may be restricted to when Comey is dealing with Democrats. Gowdy returned to this at his next opportunity. Johnson noted that Gowdy asked a “leading question” but due to his frustration with the DNC, he would “agree to be led.”
Rep. Adam Schiff actually joined Gowdy and King in questioning why the Obama administration wasn’t more vocal in pointing out Russian interference before the election. Johnson defended the statements that had been released, emphasized the agency’s desire to be neutral in the election, and mentioned that at the time people were involved with the election and “other issues,” though he stopped short of saying ‘because the media and Congress was so concerned about what happened with the one email server in DC that didn’t get hacked.’
There was no doubt that Johnson was the star of this hearing. He didn’t need protection from any friends on the committee, he didn’t wilt under questioning, he didn’t resort to lip-quivering cries about his “honor” to get out of questions, and he didn’t try to filibuster his way out of tough questions. He gave clear answers, displayed in-depth knowledge, and owned his actions and statements.
Other members of the committee used their time to ask Johnson questions directed not just at pinning blame in the last election, but securing state infrastructures for the future.