US intel says Russia, Iran sought to influence 2020 election
Russia and Iran undertook campaigns to influence the 2020 U.S. election, but intelligence agencies found no evidence that foreign actors tried to alter votes or other technical aspects of the voting process, according to conclusions of a declassified report released Tuesday.
The two foreign campaigns sought to influence the election for different results — Russia, to promote former President Trump, while Iran went against him — but among five key judgements outlined in the declassified report is that no foreign actor interfered in the 2020 voting process.
A classified version of the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was presented to then-President Trump, congressional leadership and committees with oversight over intelligence operations on Jan. 7. The report did not state whether it was made available to President Biden, who had not yet entered office at that time.
“We have no indications that any foreign actor attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 US elections, including voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation, or reporting results,” the report concluded.
Yet it also concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin “authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted,” influence operations aimed at undermining Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party in favor of Trump.
The Kremlin’s campaign sought to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and inflame sociopolitical divisions, the report said, but did not see Russian cyber efforts gain access to election infrastructure.
“A key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives—including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden—to US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration,” the report stated.
Officials concluded that Putin had purview over Russian influence efforts, including actions of Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian legislator who promoted false allegations about Biden and who was designated by the Treasury Department last year under Trump.
Derkach met with Trump’s then-personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in 2019 as he amplified claims that Biden engaged in corrupt behavior in Ukraine while vice president. Trump was impeached by the House in December 2019 after it was revealed he asked Ukraine’s president to look into the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine.
“The primary effort the IC uncovered revolved around a narrative—that Russian actors began spreading as early as 2014—alleging corrupt ties between President Biden, his family and other US officials in Ukraine,” the report said.
The ODNI report said the unclassified version released Tuesday is identical in its conclusions to the classified version that was presented to the White House and Congress, but that it withheld key evidence such as sources or methods.
U.S. officials said in October that Russia and Iran were seeking to influence the election, including by obtaining voter registration data, but the report released Tuesday provides a full and detailed account of the intelligence community’s findings. Trump administration officials blamed Iran for sending threatening emails to voters that purported to be from a far-right group at the time.
The report’s release adds more support to government assertions that the 2020 election results were secure and free from foreign intervention, despite Trump’s refusal to concede to Biden and the former president perpetuating a false narrative that widespread fraud led to his loss.
Former Trump administration officials, including then-Attorney General William Barr, asserted there was no evidence of widespread fraud that could alter the outcome of the elections. Trump’s numerous efforts to challenge the results in court were tossed out. His false claims about the election eventually fueled supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump repeatedly questioned the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Russia similarly sought to damage then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and aid Trump during the 2016 campaign by releasing hacked emails tied to Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
The report released Tuesday lays out in stark detail the unprecedented interference efforts and ongoing threats by American adversaries to sow discord and perpetuate propaganda to influence American voters.
This included that online Russian actors sought to undermine trust in the voting process by criticizing mail-in ballots, highlighting irregularities and accusing Democrats of voter fraud. It also said that they generally promoted Trump and his commentary.
While the report does not assess the impact the influence operations had on voter attitudes and the outcome of the election, it said that greater public and media awareness of influence operations in 2020 compared to past elections “probably helped counter them to some degree.”
And the report highlighted “proactive information sharing” with social media companies as key to quickly identifying foreign actors’ influence operations, disrupting their efforts and taking down fake accounts linked to foreign governments.
In addition to Russia’s operations at influencing the election, U.S. officials also concluded that Iran carried out operations to influence the 2020 election against Trump.
The report also assessed that Tehran’s influence efforts are ongoing to “inflame domestic tensions.”
Tehran undertook a “multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s reelection prospects — though without directly promoting his rivals — undermine public confidence in the electoral process and US institutions, and sow division and exacerbate societal tensions in the US,” the report concludes.
The intelligence community has “high confidence” that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “probably” authorized Iran’s influence campaign and it was a “whole of government effort” largely aimed at sowing discord online and influencing U.S. policy towards Iran.
The report also assigned Iran as responsible for a chilling website created in December that included death threats against U.S. election officials and released their private details.
The website’s creation occurred amid heightened tensions in Georgia as Trump attacked the state’s election officials for not doing enough to certify the presidential election in his favor, but the actor behind the website was then unknown.
Iranian cyber actors also sent spearphishing emails to current and former senior officials and members of political campaigns as part of their influence operations, “almost certainly” with an intent to gain derogatory information and access for follow-on operations, the intelligence report said.
However, Iran “did not attempt to manipulate or attack any election infrastructure,” the report stated.
The report stated that China “considered” but did not try to influence the election to change its outcome, in an assessment that Beijing did not consider the risk “worth the reward.”
“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States and did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk blowback if caught,” the report said.
Officials also found evidence that other foreign actors including Lebanese Hezbollah, Cuba and Venezuela took limited steps to try to influence the election, such as cyber criminals disrupting preparations for elections, the report said, but it described the steps as smaller in scale and likely driven by financial motivations.
In particular, they highlight an attack in late October against a New York county in which cyber criminals encrypted 300 computers and 22 servers, preventing it from connecting to a statewide voter registration system, demanding payment to free up their servers.
The report further included two instances of “foreign hacktivists,” including an attack in November reportedly against a Biden campaign website that was breached and defaced with “Turkish nationalist themes.”
-Updated 4:36 p.m.
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