U.S. attorney general orders probe of election meddling

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced he would create a task force to examine how his Justice Department can better combat global cyber threats, including efforts to interfere with elections or damage critical infrastructure.

Task force to report back in June, 5 months ahead of midterm elections

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks before President Donald Trump at the Public Safety Medal of Valor awards ceremony at the White House on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced he would create a task force to examine how his Justice Department can better combat global cyberthreats, including efforts to interfere with elections or damage critical infrastructure.

Last week, leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections in November and said the United States was "under attack."

The Justice Department will have until the end of June to report its findings, according to a memorandum Sessions signed on Friday but released on Tuesday.

"The internet has given us amazing new tools that help us work, communicate, and participate in our economy, but these tools can also be exploited by criminals, terrorists, and enemy governments," Sessions said in a statement.

The task force, composed of representatives from different branches of the Justice Department, including the FBI, will examine use of the internet to spread violent ideologies and recruit followers, how hackers breach private corporate and government data, and law enforcement challenges posed by strong encryption.

Some security experts expressed skepticism about the task force, saying it lacked focus or a clear mission purpose.

"This step basically takes a number of really complicated parallel issues in 'hard' cybersecurity and 'soft' information security and throws them into the same amorphous task force," said Graham Brookie, a cybersecurity aide in the Obama administration who now works at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank.

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Russians charged

U.S. intelligence officials have said Russia believes it successfully undermined U.S. democracy in the 2016 presidential election and would try again.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller last week charged several Russians with conducting a criminal and espionage conspiracy through social media by boosting Republican Donald Trump and denigrating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Russian cyberthreat, and called Mueller's investigation of possible collusion between his campaign and Moscow a "witch hunt."

Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the Mueller probe after failing to disclose meetings with Russian officials, said last October "probably not" when asked by a U.S. senator if enough was being done to tackle Russian interference.

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Trump blames Obama

Trump again accused his predecessor on Tuesday morning of not doing enough to prevent Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump tweeted Barack Obama thought Hillary Clinton "was going to win and he didn't want to 'rock the boat."' But Trump said when he won, "the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems."

Trump's tweet included a quote from Obama saying in October 2016 that "there is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even rig America's elections." Obama was addressing Trump's claims of voter fraud, not Russia's attempt to influence voters on social media.

Obama has defended his response to Russian meddling, saying he had told the Russian president to "cut it out."

With files from The Associated Press