It sounds like Senator Bill Nelson is trying to put the genie back in the bottle after alleging last week that Russians “have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.” Speaking to supporters in Suwannee County Wednesday, Nelson said he was actually referring to a letter he and Senator Marco Rubio sent to local supervisors of elections on July 2. “What I said last week was exactly what the letter states,” said Senator Nelson.
Not exactly. The letter was generic in nature. It mentioned Russians targeting election systems in 2016. And it encourages state and local elections officials to work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is what they are already doing. The letter makes no mention of any current threat involving Russian interference in Florida elections.
Nelson went on to say he doesn’t know what county data systems may have been penetrated by the Russians, saying it was a closely held secret by United States intelligence agencies. “Because they don’t want to tip off the Russians that we know, otherwise they will figure out how they got that information,” said the Senator. In saying that, Nelson may have failed to recognize the irony of his statement last week announcing to the Florida Capitol Press Corps that the Russians had already broken into unnamed county election systems.
Nelson’s comments were taped via cell phone by a staff member of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which appeared to catch the Senator off-guard. The Russian statement has quickly become a political issue for Nelson, who is facing re-election in November.
His opponent, Governor Rick Scott has been critical of Nelson’s statement, even questioning if he was making it up. “The only conclusion I have is, one, if he does have classified information, how did he get it? Because I don’t think he’s entitled to it. And why would he release it to a reporter?” Scott said after a state Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “Two, if it’s not true, why didn’t he just come and say it’s not true?”
Nelson’s campaign team points out that as ranking member of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity under the Armed Services Committee, Nelson would be entitled to such intelligence information. However, the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which Nelson is not a member, has jurisdiction on national security issues.
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who serves as president of the state supervisors organization, says not one county supervisor has been told of any evidence involving Russian interference. “If the feds know they have actionable intelligence, then it’s their responsibility to find a solution,” said Lux. He adds the federal government has three options to protect against a threat: 1) take action against a direct threat, 2) do a systems scan of all 67 county election systems in order to protect the source of the intelligence or 3) declassify the intelligence so local officials will know.
Nelson’s initial comments setoff a firestorm last week. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner sent a letter to the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee asking for details of specific threats. The Chairman would not confirm or deny Nelson’s assertion of Russian interference.