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Mueller report says Russians gained access to one Florida county through spear phishing

The Mueller investigation into possible Russia - Trump campaign connection

Robert Mueller is special counsel for the Department of Justice. He oversees the investigation into Russia's possible connections to the 2016 election and Trump campaign.
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Robert Mueller is special counsel for the Department of Justice. He oversees the investigation into Russia's possible connections to the 2016 election and Trump campaign.

Russian hackers gained access to at least one Florida county’s election computer network during the 2016 campaign, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report released on Thursday.

Mueller’s report said the FBI concluded that the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, sent spear phishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for overseeing the 2016 election. The emails contained an attached Word document that included malicious software that gave the GRU access to the infected computer.

While the hacking attempts were previously reported, the spear phishing effort’s apparent success in at least one Florida county was newly revealed on Thursday.

“We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government,” the report said. Mueller’s office “did not independently verify that belief.”

Paul Lux, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said he wasn’t aware that any county-level election systems were compromised in Florida.

“It is not information that I am aware of,” Lux said in an interview Thursday. “To my knowledge, no counties were compromised. So, my presumption is that. I don’t know which county would have been compromised, and that’s nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

The Florida Department of State said it has no knowledge of any successful hacking attempt during the 2016 election.

Upon learning of the new information released in the Mueller report, the Department immediately reached out to the FBI to inquire which county may have been accessed, and they declined to share this information with us,” spokesperson Sarah Revell said in an email. “The Department maintains that the 2016 elections in Florida were not hacked. The Florida Voter Registration System was and remains secure, and official results or vote tallies were not changed.”

The GRU gaining access to at least one Florida county’s election network could have been what former Sen. Bill Nelson was referring to during the 2018 campaign when he said Russian operatives have “penetrated” some county voter registration databases in Florida. A U.S. government official confirmed to the Miami Herald at the time that Nelson was right when he said the Russians gained access to some of Florida’s county-level voting systems.

Nelson’s Republican opponent, Sen. Rick Scott, repeatedly criticized Nelson for being careless with classified information. Scott’s office said Thursday that the FBI should share additional information related to their investigation referenced in the Mueller report.

“The FBI needs to provide any and all available information in relation to what is in the report to state elections professionals in Florida and Congress in order to ensure free and fair elections across the nation,” Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline said. “Bill Nelson made claims about Russian interference without providing any evidence. Senator Scott called on then-Senator Nelson to provide evidence, which he refused to do. The Florida Department of State had no information to corroborate Nelson’s claims and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security did not provide any information to support the claim.”

The Mueller report did not detail Nelson’s claim that Russians “now have free rein to move about” after gaining access to county-level voting systems. The same U.S. government official said that characterization by Nelson overstated the GRU threat to Florida’s election systems.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is wrapping up its own investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, has repeatedly warned Florida election officials about evolving foreign threats and the need to improve communication between federal and state election officials.

“My main concern on Russia & elections systems isn’t changing votes,” Rubio tweeted in May 2018. “It’s going into county election systems & changing voter data or precincts so on election day certain people denied vote. Then all hell breaks loose.”

Rubio was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

The report also said Trump, through social media, amplified pro-Trump rallies that were instigated by Russia, including in Florida.

For example, Trump on Facebook shared photos of an Aug. 20 “Trump Sign Waving Day” in Miami. The event was concocted and organized by the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg, Russia, operation closely tied to Vladimir Putin.

“THANK YOU for your support Miami!” Trump posted.

A Russia-controlled online persona named “Matt Skiber” gushed online that Trump had promoted the event.

It also appears the campaign volunteered to promote the Florida rally in an email blast to its followers, the report said.

Mueller’s report concluded that neither Trump nor his campaign intentionally coordinated activities with Russia.

Social sharing of Russian accounts didn’t stop with Trump or the official campaign Facebook page. His son, Donald Trump Jr., on election night shared a falsified report of voter fraud in Florida. The made-up news was spread by a Twitter account @TEN_GOP. Investigators discovered that account was also linked to Russia.

“#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida,” the tweet said.

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