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Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen and former Sec. Jeh Johnson. Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday that only about 20 of 150 state and local election officials have security clearances to obtain election security intel as they try to shore up vulnerabilities in light of Russia’s efforts to meddle in U.S. elections. Nielsen said DHS is sponsoring up to three election officials per state to obtain the necessary clearance.

Why it matters: As former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the committee Wednesday, "Given that our electoral college and our current politics, national elections are decided in a few precincts, in a few key swing states. The outcome therefore may dance on the head of a pin." The U.S. is in an election year, and several high-ranking intel leaders have told lawmakers that Russia is already showing signs it is meddling in this year's elections.

Details on clearances: Nielsen said DHS is working with the interagency process to bypass the security clearance process as needed if there is intel that must be shared with local officials urgently. “We’re not waiting for clearances,” Nielsen said. DHS is also prioritizing these clearances over other clearances for other sectors, per Nielsen.

Other highlights from the hearing:

  • DHS considers swing states priorities when it looks at election security needs, Jeanette Manfra, DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Assistant Secretary for the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, told lawmakers.
  • Nielsen said it "is absolutely a national security concern" when "there is no way to audit the election" through paper ballots or a paper trail of ballots.
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she wants state vulnerabilities and breaches to be made known to the American people so they can try and hold their states accountable: "I think states have to know that it’s going to be known by the public if they don’t" fix their systems.
  • On whether vendors of election systems are producing secure systems: When asked about vendors allowing remote-access software on election systems, which can open up elections to breaches, Manfra said she doesn't have "perfect insight into the machines that the states buy."
  • On the to do list for DHS: Physical security. Working with election officials to make sure that voting systems are not just cyber-secure, but also physically secure. We "need to make sure that the location where the voting machines are kept have very traditional security like we would in other critical infrastructure areas," Nielsen said.
  • 33 states have had their voting systems go through the Election Assistance Commission-provided process for a certification of the system, while 35 states require that verification by law, according to Nielsen. The secretary said she thinks all states should have their voting systems verified.
  • A refreshed set of Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, which provide a set of standards for voting systems, is expected to be issued next month, per Nielsen.
  • Another worry "Campaigns are not immune from nation-state surveillance, nation-state hacking," Johnson said.
  • A lingering concern for lawmakers, as Sen. Mark Warner put it: "the need for this country to have an articulated cyber doctrine." Without one right now, it "raises questions about where does the responsibility lie about where to report about software liability."

Go deeper: The Senate Intel Committee released recommendations for bolstering election security earlier this week. Former Sec. Johnson said Wednesday he agrees with them, and so do other security experts

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

HRW: Over 100 former Afghan security members dead or missing under Taliban rule

Members of the Taliban movement patrol Kabul's airport in September. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Taliban have "killed or forcibly disappeared" over 100 former members of Afghanistan's security forces since the group took power in August, a Human Rights Watch report published Tuesday found.

Why it matters: Former military members and officials from the ousted government, activists and other Taliban critics are facing peril amid executions driven by revenge — despite Taliban promises of an "amnesty" with no retributions, notes the New York Times, which first reported the news.

5 hours ago - World

Barbados becomes a republic, replacing U.K. queen with president

Combination images of Dame Sandra Mason, president of Barbados, and Britain's Prince Charles at her swearing-in ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, late Monday.

Barbados officially became a republic at midnight local time after Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the Caribbean nation's first president in a ceremony attended by the United Kingdom's Prince Charles.

Why it matters: Mason replaced Britain's Queen Elizabeth as head of state Tuesday — removing the country's final remaining colonial tie to the U.K. almost 400 years after the first British ships arrived in Barbados.

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.