Nelson and Rubio warned Florida election officials to be on high alert for Russian cyber-intrusions. We take no issue with their July 2 letter.
Nelson, however, went on to make a specific and alarming claim several times: that Russia currently has access to Florida’s election systems and could purge voters from the rolls. Not a single speck of evidence backs him up, and we have serious doubts whether the classified information he cited even exists.
In his letter to Burr, Florida’s top election official said the state asked DHS and the FBI whether Russia had access to Florida’s election systems and was told “they have no information that corroborates Senator Nelson’s statement.” Burr replied that “any briefings or notifications about ongoing threats would, rightfully, come from those agencies,” meaning DHS and the FBI. Reading between the lines, Burr seems to be contradicting Nelson’s claim.
He wouldn’t be the only one. DHS contradicted Nelson’s claim. Wray’s comments from Aug. 2 contradict Nelson’s claim. Local election officials in Florida contradict Nelson’s claim. Neither Rubio nor Warner confirmed what he said.
Making matters worse, Nelson misquoted his own letter from July 2 several times (it made no mention of an ongoing breach) and inaccurately said Burr, Rubio and Warner reaffirmed his assertion that Russia has access to Florida voters’ records.
Without minimizing the threat of Russian interference in this year’s elections, we give Nelson’s claim Four Pinocchios.
The Republican governor of Florida, who happens to be running against Nelson for his U.S. Senate seat this fall, has blasted his claim as irresponsible. The top Florida elections official, also a Republican, said he had seen no indication it’s true. And the Washington Post weighed in Friday with a 2,717-word fact check that all but accused Nelson — without evidence — of making it up.
However, three people familiar with the intelligence tell NBC News that there is a classified basis for Nelson’s assertion, which he made at a public event after being given information from the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The extent and seriousness of the threat remains unclear, shrouded for reasons of national security.
The episode illustrates the extent to which secrecy, politics and state-federal rivalries can stand in the way of a unified response to the threat from Russian attacks on a diffuse U.S. election system run by state and local officials. Through a spokesman, Nelson declined to comment.