After years of department officials hedging on the proper role of the Pentagon for election security, Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday pledged that the department will consider the issue a core part of its mission in the future.

“Moving forward, I consider election security an enduring mission for the Department of Defense,” Esper said in prepared remarks for the 2nd Annual National Cybersecurity Summit. “Our adversaries will continue to target our democratic processes — this is a reality of the world we live in today. Guarding against these threats requires constant vigilance.”

“Our adversaries are attempting to harm our economic prosperity and to undermine our democratic institutions. Influence operations against the American public are now possible at a scope and scale never before imagined,” the secretary added. “The Department of Defense has an important role in defending the American people from this misinformation, particularly as it pertains to preserving the integrity of our democratic elections.”

That is a far cry from 2017, when a top department official went to Congress and argued that the DoD should not be charged with such a mission. But lessons from 2018 — when the Pentagon played a role in safeguarding the midterms — appears to have convinced the secretary that election security falls within the department purview.

Last year was a success, Esper said, because of three things. The first was teaming Cyber Command with the National Security Agency to form an interagency group, which then coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, a “direct result of the memorandum of understanding between DHS and DoD, signed one year ago.”

Second, the Pentagon “developed our capabilities and increased our capacity to allow us to detect, locate, and exploit threats in the cyber domain with the same focus and energy as we do in the physical domains.” And finally, a presidential memo issued in August 2018 provided for greater ability to unleash the department’s cyber capabilities at the offensive level.

“We must remain adaptable and continue to advance our capabilities. This is already happening in preparation for the 2020 elections,” Esper said. “By defending forward, we are able to see and understand malicious cyber behavior, allowing us to publicly expose that activity and its culprits. It’s also posturing us to take action against these threats, at their source, before they reach the homeland.

“The bottom line is we are now prepared to deliver the actions expected from the department in a timely, collaborative, and risk-informed manner.”

His comments came just hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would support a $250 million election security package.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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