WASHINGTON—The Justice Department on Tuesday unveiled a new cybersecurity task force aimed in part at combating threats to the integrity of U.S. elections, as bipartisan pressure mounts in Washington for stronger countermeasures to deter future Russian and other foreign-backed campaigns targeting the vote.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Cyber-Digital Task Force that will probe ways to fight foreign interference in U.S. elections as well as deter attacks on American infrastructure, curb online terrorist recruiting and defend against cyberattacks targeting businesses and individuals.
The announcement came days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted three Russian companies and 13 Russian citizens, alleging they were part of a sweeping, multimillion-dollar conspiracy to interfere in the U.S. election through the use of a social-media campaign replete with fake personas and U.S. rallies organized by Russians. Russia has repeatedly denied meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Trump administration’s top intelligence official said last week in congressional testimony that Moscow could undertake cyber-influence operations in the coming congressional elections, similar to those it stands accused of running in 2016, and that the U.S. intelligence community had already seen attempts to meddle in the 2018 elections.
President Donald Trump has been reluctant to embrace the notion that Russia interfered in the election, and at one point said he accepted Moscow’s assurances that it didn’t, drawing condemnation from critics. In a tweet Sunday, Mr. Trump wrote that he “never said Russia didn’t meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group.”
“It’s outrageous that President Trump continues to sit back and do absolutely nothing,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) said on MSNBC this week. “He can argue about 2016—I mean, the fact are pretty clear—but nobody should be sitting back, given what we’re facing in 2018.”
Asked what Mr. Trump has done to protect the U.S. from future interference in its elections, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday cited a meeting last week between the Department of Homeland Security and “relevant stakeholders.”
“We have spent a lot of time working on cybersecurity, focusing on protecting the fairness of our elections,” Ms. Sanders said.
She added, “President Trump and the administration have made it clear that interference in our elections will have consequences. And we’re going to continue to impose consequences in response to Russian cyberattacks.”
Separately Tuesday, a group of national-security experts and political activists backed a bipartisan bill aimed at improving voting infrastructure across the U.S., saying it was the best chance to secure the voting system before the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election.
The Secure Elections Act—introduced in the Senate by three Republicans and three Democrats—would provide money to state and local governments to upgrade voting systems. It would also establish new cybersecurity standards and help local election officials obtain security clearances to be better informed about classified threats, all steps that officials say are needed to combat cyberthreats.
Signatories to the letter include Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency; former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers ; and Richard A. Clarke, a longtime national-security official who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“We’re at a critical moment right now, both because the window on doing much for 2018 is closing, and when you’re talking about replacing equipment ahead of the 2020 election, that really has to happen next year,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the democracy program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which helped organize the letter.
***Peter Nicholas contributed to this article.