WASHINGTON — While careful not to formally name Russia, FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that the bureau is actively investigating whether a "nation-state actor is messing'' with the U.S. electoral system.
During a panel discussion featuring many of the nation's top intelligence officials, Comey declined to identify Russia, even though U.S. authorities have long suspected that Russian government operatives were the source of hacking attacks that breached the Democratic National Committee and more recently the voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois.
"It is something that we take very, very seriously,'' Comey said, adding that the bureau is working "very hard to understand whether that is going on.''
Concerns about Russia's suspected intervention in the U.S. political system burst into the open earlier this year when the DNC acknowledged that its systems were compromised, resulting in the theft of a raft of communications, including information that appeared to show that party officials favored now-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during her hotly contested primary battle with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Disclosure of those communications on the eve of July's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia prompted the resignation of the party's chairwoman, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
CrowdStrike, a cyber security firm hired to investigate the breach, said that its origins pointed to the Russian government.
Shawn Henry, the firm's president and a former FBI cyber chief, said in June that the intrusion was traced with "a high degree of confidence'' to the Russian government. Federal authorities have not disputed that conclusion.
Last week, state election officials in Arizona and Illinois confirmed that hackers had gained entry to their voter databases, resulting in a temporary shutdown of the systems. Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, said officials were notified in July of the suspected hack and believed that the source of the intrusion was a Russian hacker.
The breaches also prompted the FBI to issue a nationwide alert, urging states to conduct vulnerability scans of their own election systems.
The FBI declined to elaborate on the alert at the time, saying it "routinely advises private industry of various cyber threat indicators observed during the course of our investigations.''
Earlier this week, California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, urged the Obama administration to "call out Russia.''
"We know at least two states have been the subject of hacking already,'' Schiff said in an interview with USA TODAY's Capital Download, "so the question is not whether they have the ability, only whether they have the will to do it. Right now, because they have paid so little price for the hack of the DNC and (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), there's little to deter them.''