WASHINGTON — Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, closed an online conference with a warning about “bad guys, whoever they are,” trying to “sow chaos, sow doubt” about the integrity of the U.S. election, and ended with a reassuring statement.
“I have confidence that your vote is secure, that state and local election officials across this country are working day in and day out, 24/7, that the 2020 election is as secure as possible,” Krebs said.
The cybersecurity agency has been working behind the scenes to not only help safeguard the election but also to reassure the public.
Krebs and the cybersecurity agency will be in the national spotlight, monitoring the election amid the inevitable voting glitches and delays, which could be worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Krebs warned voters this week to “be prepared for efforts that call into question the legitimacy of the election” despite some concerns about mail-in voting and some incidents in which some ballots had apparently been discarded.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency was signed into existence by Trump in November 2018 as part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Krebs and Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, spoke to journalists Thursday and said that, with tens of millions of votes already cast, there has been no sign of any foreign interference, unlike in 2016.
Still, there have been attempts to disrupt the election, including a campaign to send threatening emails to voters in several states that the cybersecurity agency and other federal agencies attributed to Iran, and election security is a widespread concern.
“It is true that the defense has gotten better since 2016, but it’s also true that the offense has gotten better still,” said Tom Warrick, a former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at Homeland Security who is now with the Atlantic Council. “I don’t know of anyone who has absolute confidence that this is all going to go well from an election process standpoint.”
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has been largely out of the public eye. It works with the state and local officials who run U.S. elections as well as private companies that supply voting equipment to address cybersecurity and other threats while monitoring balloting and tabulation from a control room at its headquarters near Washington.
Krebs, who with his collar-length hair looks more like a tech executive than a senior Trump administration official, also keeps a low profile. His carefully calibrated remarks at government or cybersecurity conferences rarely make major headlines.
Krebs should be praised for “staying focused on the mission and not getting caught up in the fray,” said Kiersten Todt, managing director of the nonprofit Cyber Readiness Institute.
“The importance of him staying in this job certainly through elections is pretty critical, and I think he feels that, too,” she said.
The agency also enjoys a good reputation among its core constituency — the state and local election officials who rely on its advice and services at a time of near-constant cyberattacks.
“They have really established themselves as kind of partners and facilitators,” said Trevor Timmons, chief information officer for Colorado’s secretary of state. “I have been really impressed with how CISA has really upped their game in the face of what is a threat to our democracy.”
The agency emerged from rocky beginnings. Just before former President Barack Obama left office, the U.S. designated election systems as critical national security infrastructure, like dams or power plants, as a result of the interference by Russia, which included the penetration of state elections systems as well as widespread disinformation.
Some state election officials and Republicans, suspicious of federal intrusion on their turf, were opposed to the designation. The National Association of Secretaries of State adopted a resolution in opposition to the move in February 2017.
But the Trump administration supported the designation, and, eventually, skeptical state officials welcomed the assistance.
FILE – In this Oct. 6, 2020, file photo, a public service announcement from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity agency. As President Donald Trump sows doubts about the election, an obscure government agency he created is working behind the scenes to inspire confidence in the vote amid unprecedented challenges. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, which Trump signed into existence in 2018, is working with other parts of the government to safeguard an election in the middle of a pandemic. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)
FILE – In this May 22, 2019 file photo, Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. “I have confidence that your vote is secure, that state and local election officials across this country are working day in and day out, 24/7, that the 2020 election is as secure as possible,” Krebs said. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)