The Federal Bureau of Investigation is working "very hard to understand" whether a foreign government is hacking U.S. systems in order to influence elections or other national affairs, Director James Comey said.
Speaking Tuesday at a cybersecurity conference in Washington, Comey appeared to draw a line between hacking for traditional espionage purposes aimed at gathering intelligence and computer intrusions meant to sway the outcome of an election.
"We take very seriously any effort by any actor including nation-states -- but especially nation-states -- that moves beyond the collection of information about our country and that offers the prospect of an effort to influence the conduct of affairs in our country, whether that’s an election or something else," Comey said at the conference hosted by Symantec Corp.
While Comey didn’t cite any specific country or group, U.S. officials and cybersecurity specialists have raised the possibility that foreign hackers -- particularly those linked to the Russian government -- might try to hack into voting systems, possibly to meddle with U.S. elections this November.
The bureau is investigating hacking attacks on at least two state election boards, one of which resulted in data being stolen, according to an Aug. 18 alert from the agency’s cyber division. Hackers suspected of working on behalf of the Russian government have attacked political groups, including the Democratic National Committee, as well as think tanks and political operatives in Washington.
Top congressional Democrats have asked Comey to investigate whether the Russian government is trying to undermine U.S. elections through hacking, and whether there is a direct connection between the attacks and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign.
"I have recently become concerned that the threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote to Comey in an Aug. 27 letter. "The American people deserve to have a full understanding of the facts from a completed investigation before they vote this November."
Russian officials have repeatedly dismissed accusations that their government has any role in such hacking.
Wary of the cyber threat, U.S. officials are weighing whether to designate elections as national critical infrastructure, a move that would open up federal assistance to election officers around the country, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier this month.
Asked how he would characterize the hacking of state election systems and whether it is a threat that requires immediate action from the government, Comey said the FBI works "very hard to understand" that kind of activity "so that we can equip the rest of our government with options for how to deal with it."
Copyright Bloomberg 2016