© Mary F. Calvert for The New York Times Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of homeland security, arrived to testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday.
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration feared that acknowledging Russian meddling in the 2016 election would reveal too much about intelligence gathering and be interpreted as “taking sides” in the race, the former secretary of homeland security said Wednesday.
“One of the candidates, as you recall, was predicting that the election was going to be ‘rigged’ in some way,” said Jeh Johnson, the former secretary, referring to President Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation before Election Day. “We were concerned that by making the statement we might, in and of itself, be challenging the integrity of the election process itself.”
Mr. Johnson’s testimony, before the House Intelligence Committee, provided a fresh insight into how the Obama administration tried to balance politically explosive information with the public’s need to know. That question also vexed federal law enforcement officials investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Mr. Johnson said he became increasingly concerned about the vulnerabilities of the nation’s election infrastructure, particularly after the hacking at the Democratic National Committee last summer. The administration formally accused the Russian government of hacking into emails from the D.N.C. and other institutions and individuals on Oct. 7
He said he considered having elections systems designated as “critical infrastructure,” a classification that would allow for the same cybersecurity protections available to the financial services and transportation sectors.
But the reactions to that idea, at least from several state election officials who control elections, “ranged from neutral to negative,” Mr. Johnson said.
Around mid-August, Mr. Johnson said, federal officials began hearing reports of “scanning and probing” of some state voter database registries. In the weeks after, intelligence officials became convinced the Russians were behind those efforts, though he said it was not until January that they were “in a position to say” that.
The administration formally accused the Russian government on Oct. 7, when Mr. Johnson and James R. Clapper Jr., then the director of national intelligence, released a statement saying the Russians had leaked information “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
That was not soon enough for some Democrats, who have criticized the Obama administration for waiting until a month before the election to reveal its concern. Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the committee’s senior Democrat, pressed Mr. Johnson to explain their rationale.
“Why wasn’t it more important to tell the American people the length and breadth of what the Russians were doing to interfere in an election than any risk that it might be seen as putting your hand on the scale?” Mr. Schiff asked. “Didn’t the public have a compelling need to know?”
Asked why former President Barack Obama did not make his own announcement that a foreign power was meddling in the election process, Mr. Johnson suggested administration officials believed just his involvement would inherently politicize the facts.