US director of national intelligence: Russia and Iran are working to ‘influence public opinion’ ahead of Election Day

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US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. Reuters
  • Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced on Wednesday that Russia and Iran had “taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.”
  • “First, we have confirmed that some voter-registration information has been obtained by Iran and, separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said. “This data can be used by foreign actors to communicate false information to registered voters” to sow chaos and undermine confidence, he added.
  • Ratcliffe went on to say that national security officials had “seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.”
  • He added that Russia had also “obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016.”
  • Earlier Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security officials told state and local election officials that threatening emails sent to registered Democratic voters claiming to be from the far-right group the Proud Boys actually came from Iranian actors.
  • Separately, the FBI is investigating whether unverified emails about Hunter Biden published by the New York Post and amplified by President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani were part of a foreign influence operation.
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US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced on Wednesday that Iran and Russia had “taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.”

“First, we have confirmed that some voter-registration information has been obtained by Iran and, separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said. “This data can be used by foreign actors to communicate false information to registered voters” to sow chaos and undermine confidence, he added.

Ratcliffe went on to say that national security officials had “seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.”

He also said Iranian actors were distributing other content including “a video that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots even from overseas.”

He dismissed any such claims about fraudulent ballots as “desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.”

“Although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016,” he said. “We are prepared for the possibility of actions by those hostile to democracy.”

Ratcliffe did not indicate that foreign actors breached election systems or infrastructure, and as the ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman noted, most US voter-registration information is public.

Minutes before the spy chief’s announcement, The Washington Post reported that US officials had concluded Iranians were responsible for sending threatening emails to registered Democratic voters claiming to be from the Proud Boys, a far-right group that supports President Donald Trump.

The emails said the Proud Boys were “in possession of all your information” and ordered the recipients to vote for Trump in this year’s election.

“We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone… everything),” the email said. “You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”

The email appeared to come from the address “[email protected]” But CBS News reported earlier Wednesday that the messages were linked to overseas servers.

Separately, the FBI is investigating whether unverified emails purporting to belong to Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, were planted in conservative media as part of a foreign influence operation. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, gave a copy of the hard drive containing the emails to the New York Post last week, which subsequently published them.

Trump’s supporters seized on the emails as proof that the elder Biden inappropriately leveraged his position as vice president in 2015 and 2016 to stymie a criminal investigation into the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma Holdings, whose board Hunter Biden was serving on at the time. As Business Insider has previously reported, there is no evidence this theory holds merit. But Trump widely amplified it and claimed it showed his Democratic opponent — who is leading him in most election polling — was a “corrupt politician.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia — the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — released a statement shortly before the news conference Wednesday warning about hostile foreign adversaries who “seek to sow chaos and undermine voters’ belief in our democratic institutions, including the election systems and infrastructure that we rely on to record and properly report expressions of the voters’ will.”

The statement continued: “They may seek to target those systems, or simply leave the impression that they have altered or manipulated those systems, in order to undermine their credibility and our confidence in them.”

Rubio and Warner went on to urge the public and members of the media to “be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting.” They also reassured the public that local election officials were regularly in contact with federal law enforcement and cybersecurity officials to “ensure that Election 2020 is safe, secure, and free from outside interference.”

Russia, Iran, and China have been at the top of national security officials’ radars as foreign adversaries looking to meddle in the US election. Over the summer, the US intelligence community concluded that Russia did not want Biden to win the election, while China did.

“Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer,” William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, said in a statement in August.

“We assess that China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection,” Evanina wrote, pointing to Chinese concerns over the administration’s criticisms of Beijing’s handling of COVID-19, the shuttering of one of its diplomatic missions, and its efforts to derail China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, among other things.

“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,'” Evanina wrote. “This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia.”