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National Guard Using Cybersecurity Skills To Protect Integrity Of Midterm Elections


Cybersecurity has taken center stage in American elections. In the past, the job of an election official meant making sure there are enough ballots and keeping lines of voters moving along at polling places. The job changed after Russian-backed hackers tried to break into election-related systems in 2016. That happened in at least 21 states.

The National Guard is now being called up in some states to help make sure these 2018 elections are more secure. From West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Dave Mistich has more.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: In a small basement office at the State Capitol in Charleston, a man in plain clothes spends his workdays pecking at a keyboard. He's a cybersecurity specialist monitoring computer networks that are related to state elections. He's a member of the West Virginia National Guard. But since late August, he's worked full time for Secretary of State Mac Warner's office.

The Guard member isn't allowed to speak to reporters, but Warner says it's a crucial role.

MAC WARNER: We, just like every other government entity and people in business, they're getting pinged all the time. Somebody's checking to see are there any open doors, open windows for targets of opportunity?

MISTICH: In January 2017, the outgoing Obama administration designated elections as part of the country's critical infrastructure. That meant new federal resources and scrutiny. The federal government is in the process of giving security clearances to state officials so they can receive intelligence briefings. For the time being, General James Hoyer, who commands the West Virginia National Guard, says his agency has capabilities the rest of the state government does not.

MAJ GEN JAMES HOYER: This is a way to bridge the gap without causing a problem in that security system process.

MISTICH: Eric Rosenbach is a former Defense Department official who now directs a program on election security at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He says state officials are trying to figure out how to prepare for a threat they had never before anticipated.

ERIC ROSENBACH: The state election officials are the pointy tip of the spear for nation state actors like the Russians trying to attack our democracy. That's never before been their job. And if the National Guard and part of their responsibilities is to protect the things most precious to a state, it kind of makes sense that you would want them to support an effort like that.

MISTICH: Under federal law, most of the time foreign intelligence agencies and the regular military can't be involved in domestic law enforcement. Rosenbach says National Guard soldiers, who are state employees unless they're activated by the federal government, can bridge the gap.

ROSENBACH: The threat is new and we need to evolve with the times as long as it still fits in the right legal framework and we're doing something that, you know, all Americans would agree are part of our democratic traditions.

MISTICH: Not all states have National Guard cybersecurity units. But so far, at least a handful of states are deploying those who are capable. Moving forward, Warner sees his office's partnership with the National Guard continuing.

WARNER: The cybersecurity arena's one of those where we as public officials have to get it right every time. The hackers only have to penetrate one time to do substantial damage. So it's a foot race that we have to stay one step ahead and it never ends. It just goes on and on.

MISTICH: So far, the National Guard has monitored a few small elections here in West Virginia. With the state's primary election next month, the Guard's first big election cybersecurity test is already underway. For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Charleston, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.
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