TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis met with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last Friday to discuss the revelation in Robert Mueller’s report that “at least one” Florida county had its election information accessed by Russian hackers in 2016.
DeSantis told reporters Tuesday that he had been briefed on that breach — which he said actually happened in two counties in Florida — but that he couldn’t share which counties had been the target.
“I’m not allowed to name the counties. I signed a (non)disclosure agreement,” DeSantis said, emphasizing that he “would be willing to name it” but “they asked me to sign it so I’m going to respect their wishes.”
DeSantis emphasized that while the counties had experienced “intrusion into the supervisor of election networks,” no information was manipulated or changed, and said it’s possible they obtained voter information that was public record anyway. Voter registration databases are not connected to the vote tabulation systems.
DeSantis’ comments came during a surreal Capitol news conference during which he wouldn’t elaborate on the highly unusual situation of the federal government asking a governor to sign a nondisclosure agreement, especially in a case involving that governor’s own state. After some questions, he paused to consider how much he was allowed to share with the public.
Just last month, DeSantis expressed outrage at the FBI for revealing the successful hacking attempt in Mueller’s report on Russian interference, rather than communicating directly with his office.
“They won’t tell us which county it was. Are you kidding me? Why would you not have said something immediately?” he said then. DeSantis also promised to make public whatever information he learned, except if it’s “somehow” classified.
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On Tuesday, DeSantis was more than willing to cut the FBI considerable slack.
“I get why the FBI didn’t rush to tell me something that happened several years ago,” he said.
Still, DeSantis seemed unsure Tuesday of the FBI’s rationale behind the nondisclosure agreement.
“I think they think if we name the counties, that may reveal information to the perpetrator that we know what they did, but you’d have to ask them,” he said when asked why the FBI had him sign it. “I think it should be named.”
Years of case law suggests that confidentiality agreements signed by Florida government officials aren’t enforceable because of the state’s broad public records law, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government group that counts the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald as members.
Legally speaking, “the promise of confidentiality is an empty promise in Florida,” she said. If DeSantis was shown any records related to this investigation, they would be considered public unless there is a specific state or federal exemption, Petersen added.
DeSantis said the meeting with the federal authorities happened recently in Tallahassee. Also attending were Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials and DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum.
In a statement, an FBI spokesperson confirmed Friday’s meeting with DeSantis, saying the federal agency “provided assurance that investigators did not detect any adversary activity that impacted vote counts or disrupted electoral processes during the 2016 or 2018 elections.”
DeSantis said that the successful information breach was the result of a spear phishing email. While he said county elections didn’t necessarily deserve blame for the breach, he did say it was the fault of a “private vendor they were using.”
It had been previously reported that phishing emails, made to look like they came from a vendor that maintains voter registration information called VR Systems, were sent to some local elections officials. It’s unclear if that vendor, though, was what DeSantis was referencing and if those emails were the source of the successful attempt. No counties have identified themselves as being the ones that were hacked.
The mystery of which counties were affected was muddled further by DeSantis, who seemingly contradicted a key statement made by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to the New York Times last month. Rubio said in an April 26 story that the victims of the intrusion weren’t told about it and that a general warning was issued instead so that intelligence methods were protected.
“I don’t believe the specific victims of the intrusion have been notified,” Rubio told the Times. “The concern was that in a number of counties across the country, there are a couple of people with the attitude of: ‘We’ve got this; we don’t need your help. We don’t think we need to do what you are telling us we need to do.’”
When asked Tuesday if the two counties that had been hacked were notified, DeSantis replied: “The two counties at issue here, the FBI was working with them in 2016, to identify and to take whatever actions happened. So they just asked me not to name the two counties for whatever reasons, so I’m respecting that. But this was something that the counties knew about prior to the 2016 election.”
DeSantis said the more pressing concern that his administration would address is why information that was shared never reached the upper levels of state government, a failure that he called a “breakdown.”
“The FBI said that there were state agents on a task force that had access to some of this information,” DeSantis said. “Obviously the previous administration and the head of FDLE did not have this information so we’re trying to figure out what was the breakdown. Was it that the FBI didn’t want to share? Or was it simply that information didn’t get reported up?”
Back in 2016, shortly before the election, the FBI had a secret conference call with Florida supervisors of elections, warning them of threats.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor then, said Tuesday that Scott has a briefing with the FBI scheduled for Wednesday. Scott has asserted repeatedly that he had no knowledge of any Russian intrusion during the 2016 elections.
Hartline did say that he wasn’t aware that Scott had signed a nondisclosure agreement that would prohibit him from sharing what the FBI tells him.
U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Democrat whose district includes part of Miami, has said in the past that she disagrees with the affected counties’ identity being kept under wraps.
“I don’t know why that is a secret,” she said shortly after the Mueller report was released. “It’s not protecting anyone’s privacy.”
Florida’s Congressional Democrats have their own meeting with the FBI scheduled for Thursday. The delegation did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Miami Herald staff writers David Smiley and McClatchy Washington Correspondent Alex Daugherty and Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Steve Contorno contributed to this report.