(The Center Square) – St. Lucie County is the second of at least two Florida counties where Russian GRU military intelligence hackers successfully planted malware into voter registration systems before the November 2016 election.
That revelation, a source of speculation since state officials learned in April 2019 elections systems in Washington County and one other Florida county were breached, is among the disclosures in published excerpts of veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s book, "Rage," which hits bookshelves Tuesday.
In the book, National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency officials confirm they have classified evidence that Russian agents placed malware that “was sophisticated and could erase voters in specific districts” in St. Lucie and Washington counties’ election supervisors systems.
There is no evidence the malware was activated or that voter registration information was altered, intelligence agencies said in the book.
The excerpt from Woodward’s book is the latest revelation in a two-year dribble of information about Russian cyber espionage of elections systems in Florida and across the country.
The FBI revealed in 2018 that Florida elections offices were hacked, a claim disputed by state and local elections officials who said if that was so, the agency, to that point, had not presented evidence and was stonewalling requests for elaboration.
The assertion re-emerged in April 2019, when the Mueller investigation report said “at least one Florida county government” was comprised before the 2016 presidential election.
The Washington Post and Politico confirmed Washington County was one of the counties. Until this week, the second breached county was unconfirmed.
According to the Mueller report, Russian GRU military intelligence agents in November 2016 sent phishing emails with corrupted files to 120 Florida election officials.
The email, disguised as a message from election equipment vendor VR Systems, had a coded attachment that could give Russian agents access to election systems.
The ruse worked in at least two counties, the FBI told Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials in May 2019.
A U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report released in August 2019 indicated four Florida county elections systems had been hacked. Intelligence officials in Woodward’s book only address the two counties.
St. Lucie County, about 70 miles north of West Palm Beach on Florida’s Treasure Coast, is one of four Florida counties to vote for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, 49.5 percent to 47.1 percent, in 2016.
Washington County, in the rural Florida Panhandle, is heavily Republican. Trump received more than 77 percent of the 2016 vote..
After his May 2019 briefings by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), DeSantis ordered Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee to review election cybersecurity in all 67 Florida counties.
The state received a $19.2 million federal grant in 2018 to upgrade election systems, spending at least $3.6 million to purchase electronic pollbooks, including from VR Systems.
Among safeguards installed since 2016 is the $1.9 million purchase of the “ALBERT network,” which includes sensors to monitor and detect cyber threats.
According to the Center for Internet Security (CIS), “ALBERT is a cost-effective Intrusion Detection System which uses open-source software combined with the expertise of the CIS 24 x 7 Security Operations Center to provide enhanced monitoring capabilities and notifications of malicious activity.”
DeSantis was among the last governors to formally request a $20 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allocation for the state’s elections security efforts.
Thirteen members of Florida’s congressional delegation from both parties called on DeSantis in April to request the money sooner rather than later.
DeSantis submitted the request in mid-May. County elections officials are receiving their allocations this month.