Ex-cyber chief Krebs calls election conspiracies ‘corrosive’

Detroit News staff and wire reports

The U.S. cybersecurity chief fired by Donald Trump last month said Wednesday that continued efforts by the president and his allies to question the election results now that Joe Biden has officially won are having a “corrosive” effect on American institutions.

One example he provided of election disinformation was a recent report on voting technology in Michigan's rural Antrim County, which he called "factually inaccurate."

“Continued assaults on democracy and the outcome of this election that only serves to undermine confidence in the process is ultimately, as you both have said, ultimately corrosive to the institutions that support elections,” said Christopher Krebs, the first director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Krebs was speaking to the members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Christopher Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, testifies before a Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss election security and the 2020 election process on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Trump fired Krebs last month after the former CISA director and other officials called the Nov. 3 election “the most secure in American history,” saying he ignored fraud in the election. Krebs also used CISA’s website before the election to debunk claims of voter fraud from the president and his supporters.

Those moves undercut Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud and a “rigged” election, a position he continues to stake out even after dozen of legal challenges failed and the Electoral College on Monday confirmed Biden’s victory.

Trump even criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just after midnight on Wednesday for recognizing Biden’s victory following the Electoral College vote.

Krebs — who won rare bipartisan praise after he was fired — told the committee he’s seen nothing since the election to question his assessment, based on the preparations ahead of voting, cooperation among state and federal officials and the use of paper ballots to confirm the results.

“While elections are sometimes messy, this was a secure election. Of that I have no doubt,” he said.

Krebs brought up Antrim County, where a judge this week allowed Trump supporters to publicly release and discuss information they collected through a forensic analysis of tabulators and data. Trump, who lost Michigan by 154,000 votes, claimed in a tweet that the report showed "massive fraud."

But Krebs said the group misinterpreted what they saw in the computer coding and is using it to falsely "spin" that voting machines used across the state can't be trusted. 

"I'm seeing these reports that are factually inaccurate continue to be promoted. That's what rumor control is all about. That's what I'm continuing to do today, based on my experience and understanding and how the systems work," Krebs said. "We have to stop this. It's undermining confidence in democracy."

Krebs said it was not that 68% of the votes in Antrim were errors, as the report claimed, but that 68% of the election management system's logs had some sort of error alert rate. 

There was only one error example provided, Krebs said, which he indicated could be traced to a coding problem related to the programming language C# that the Microsoft Windows-based machines run on. 

"So it may be that it's just not good coding, but that certainly doesn't mean that somebody tried to get in there and 'zero'" or wipe out votes, Krebs said. "They misinterpreted the language in what they saw in their forensic audit."

Dominion Voting Systems, which is used in Antrim County, said in a statement this week that there were no software glitches in the county or anywhere else. The problems there were "isolated human errors not involving Dominion."

Officials had failed to update the programming in their tabulators after requiring changes to their ballot, the company said.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the committee’s chairman, said he called the hearing despite criticism because, although he doesn’t challenge the outcome of the election, he believes there was fraud and said it’s important to expose it.

“We must restore confidence in the integrity of our voting system,” Johnson said. “This effort should be bipartisan.”

Johnson accused the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of "politically attacking" him for organizing the hearing.

Johnson argued that a large percentage of the American public does not believe the November election results are legitimate, and that problem "threatens our republic."

"I do not say that lightly," he added. 

But Democrats and Republican Sen. Mitt Romney urged that the hearing not take place.

Peters called the hearing “dangerous,” saying it provided another opportunity for Trump and his supporters to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about the election, which Biden won. 

"It's a destructive exercise that has no place in the United States Senate," Peters said. 

He noted that courts around the nation have rejected 60 lawsuits over the election results. Peters also blasted Republican elected officials for either "turning a blind eye or parroting" Trump's rhetoric and false claims about the election and not speaking out against them.

“These claims are false, and giving them more oxygen is a grave threat to the future of our democracy,” Peters said.

"I understand the chairman's desire to ensure our elections run smoothly, and I agree we need to restore faith in our election process. But I'm concerned that today's hearing will do more harm than good by confusing a few anecdotes about human error with the insidious claims the president has aired."

Johnson argued the hearing was not spreading disinformation. "We're not going to be able to move on without bringing up these irregularities, examining them and providing an explanation," he said. 

Johnson and Peters later got into a tense exchange, in which Johnson claimed Peters had "lied repeatedly in the press" about him disseminating Russian disinformation about Hunter Biden, the president-elect's son, as part of a separate committee investigation. 

"That was an outright lie, and I told you to stop lying and you continued to do it," Johnson said, jabbing a finger toward Peters. 

"Mr. Chairman, this is not about airing your grievances. I don't know what rabbit hole you are running down right now," Peters retorted. "This is terrible what you're doing to this committee. All the great work that you talked about —" 

"It is what you've done to this committee," Johnson interjected. "Falsely accusing the chairman of spreading disinformation. Nothing could be further from the truth, and you were spouting it again, which is why to I had respond." 

"Oh, come on," Peters said. "This is outrageous." 

Peters told Johnson that he had nothing to do with the report he cited.