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Watchdog says DHS still hasn't got a 2020 election security plan

Zack Whittaker
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seal hangs on a wall before a speech by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, not pictured, at the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, July 6, 2018. The U.S. will return immigrant children under five who were separated from their parents after crossing the Mexican border by July 10 to comply with a court order, the Health and Human Services Secretary said Thursday. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Homeland Security's cybersecurity advisory unit "has not yet completed" its plans to secure the 2020 presidential election, a government watchdog has said.

The report, published on Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, said the unit, CISA, is "not well-positioned to execute a nationwide strategy for securing election infrastructure prior to the start of the 2020 election cycle."

The watchdog said the unit should "urgently finalize" its plans to help state and local officials secure their election infrastructure.

But CISA said it was unlikely to complete half of its operations plan dedicated on protecting political campaigns and raising awareness of the threats of foreign influence.

Those same two issues caused major disruption during the 2016 presidential election following the hack of the Hillary Clinton's campaign, and a massive coordinated disinformation effort by the Russian government.

The report said as of November, CISA had carried just 161 vulnerability assessments, aimed at preventing remote access to election infrastructure, at the local level, out of the thousands of local jurisdictions across the United States. The watchdog also said that CISA "has not developed plans" for how it will respond in the event of a security incident on Election Day.

The watchdog blamed an ongoing reorganization at CISA as partly to blame for the lack of plan. The Homeland Security division has reportedly faced low morale and at least one high-profile departure. Last year, Jeanette Manfra, CISA's assistant director for cybersecurity, whose responsibilities included election security, left the government for a new role at Google.

The report's damning verdict came just days after the chaotic Iowa caucus, which saw results delayed for days after the state's Democrats used a result-reporting app that failed to work as planned. The caucus marked the first effort by the Democrats to nominate a candidate to run against the incumbent, President Trump.

Sara Sendek, a spokesperson for CISA, said the agency had spent three years working to secure elections and that the cybersecurity unit was "prepared and ready" to support the election community.

"Our work is not done, we continue to build and grow every day, but we understand the threat and the need to take action to keep our systems safe, and we are ready for 2020," said the spokesperson.

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