WASHINGTON — America’s top uniformed military officer is offering to help secure the nation’s election systems, according to a key lawmaker.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said July 18 via Twitter that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford told him “the Department of Defense can help states in securing their election systems.”

"I don’t want to divulge what they are doing,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill the following day. “My point is a whole-of-government approach would include [the Department of Defense] — which is a bit surprising to me.”

The remarks came as Congress is poised to decide on legislative language that would authorize the military’s cyber arm, U.S. Cyber Command, to disrupt, defeat and deter Russia’s systematic and ongoing cyberattacks. The Senate passed the provision as part of its version of the annual defense policy bill, but it does not appear in the House version.

A Pentagon spokesman said the department can already support intelligence collection, military operations and offer civil support to defend the U.S. election system.

The department is “capable of supporting local, state or federal departments or agencies in response to a request for assistance,” as long as it is "legally available” and approved by the president or defense official, said Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a spokesman for the department.

Repeated attempts to reach Dunford were not successful.

At least 21 state election systems In the 2016 presidential election were targeted by hackers. There is no evidence that the vote count in those states was manipulated.

The intelligence community has warned that the midterm elections are “a potential target for Russian influence operations.”

The Department of Homeland Security is the lead federal agency in charge of election security. And experts are leery at the suggestion the Defense Department could help defend state election systems.

“There are very good legal restrictions on why we never want the military involved in elections. Helping to secure voting machines puts the military far too close to the election process,” said Todd Rosenblum, an assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. “Possibly the National Guard could step in, but we don’t want people in uniform helping elections.”

The possibility of the military helping to secure state elections was explored previously during a February 13 Senate subcommittee hearing.

“I do not believe the Department of Defense has a leading role to play in the cyber protection of U.S. elections,” Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told lawmakers in February.

“This is the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, which has struggled to develop effective policies to protect critical election infrastructure as distrust between the federal government and state as well as local election officials has grown,” she said.

However, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity’s ranking member, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., offered support at the hearing for the military’s assuming a role.

The Department of Defense “should ensure that its active and reserve component cyber units are prepared to assist the Department of Homeland Security and the governors to defend our election infrastructure,” Nelson said.

Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.

Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.

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