In an interview with NBC News earlier this month, head of cybersecurity at that Department of Homeland Security Jeannette Manfra said 21 states were targeted by Russia in 2016 but that "an exceptionally small number" were successfully breached.
NBC News is now reporting that a total of seven states were penetrated by Russian-backed hackers, compromising websites or voter registration systems, and though intelligence officials were aware of the breaches, affected states were not informed.
Top-secret intelligence requested by President Barack Obama in his last weeks in office identified seven states where analysts — synthesizing months of work — had reason to believe Russian operatives had compromised state websites or databases.
Three senior intelligence officials told NBC News that the intelligence community believed the states as of January 2017 were Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin.
The officials say systems in the seven states were compromised in a variety of ways, with some breaches more serious than others, from entry into state websites to penetration of actual voter registration databases.
The states were reportedly told that foreign agents were meddling in their systems, but none were specifically informed that the Kremlin was behind the attacks; however, DHS officials disagreed that states were not informed in a timely manner of relevant threats.
Department spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton insisted in a pair of tweets Tuesday that NBC's story was wrong:
"As we have consistently said, DHS has shared information with affected states in a timely manner and we will continue to do so. We have no intelligence — new or old — that corroborates NBC's reporting that state systems in seven states were compromised by Russian government actors. We believe tonight's story to be factually inaccurate and misleading."
On Wednesday morning, however, Michael Daniel, the top White House cybersecurity official at the end of the Obama administration, told NBC News that the government's assessment when he left the White House in January 2017 was that networks in seven states were compromised. He said he could not account for whether that assessment had changed in the past year.
Officials in six of the seven states NBC News contacted say that DHS informed them their systems were targeted by hackers but did not indicate the systems had actually been compromised. The six states also said, according to their own investigations, that their systems were not compromised.
Bradley Moss, a lawyer specializing in national security, tried to lift the veil and find out what U.S. intelligence knew about the Russian attempts to compromise the voter system. He sued for disclosure of government files and won last week, receiving 118 top-secret pages from the intelligence community. The pages referred to "compromises" and other breaches but the pages were almost completely blacked out for security reasons.
Said Moss: "The spreadsheets show that there were documented breaches of election networks. That there were documented, numerous documented instances of attempted breaches of state election networks, and that there was a widespread concern among several agencies in the intelligence committee about the sanctity and the integrity of these election networks."
State election officials now are looking toward the 2018 midterms, trying to ensure elections go off without a hitch. Many states are currently moving or attempting to move toward paper ballot voting systems in an effort to mitigate potential foreign interference in the future.