FBI chief warns of possible 2020 interference from Russia, China

FBI chief warns of possible 2020 interference from Russia, China
© Aaron Schwartz

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday testified that he expects Russian actors to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections, adding that he also expects countries like China to explore disinformation efforts.

“Some of the things that the Russians have tried in other countries we expect them to try to do here as well, it’s pretty common to test it out in other jurisdictions, thankfully we don’t have elections every year, so that gives us a little bit of time to plan ahead,” Wray testified in regards to potential attacks on U.S. elections to the House Homeland Security Committee.


Wray did not offer details of what exactly the Russians might attempt due to the open setting of the hearing.

Wray noted that while the FBI has not seen “any intention” from China, Iran and North Korea to attempt attacks on election infrastructure, these countries are “clearly interested in engaging in malign foreign influence” in regards to elections, such as through social media disinformation efforts.

“They all have different ways of going about it, but they are all taking pages out of each others’ playbooks, and as we project forward that is something that we have to be vigilant about,” Wray said of the three countries.

Wray made these comments during a hearing on threats to the homeland, at which acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan also testified on potential election security threats.

McAleenan, who is due to step down as acting secretary on Thursday but committed during the hearing to staying on until his replacement is announced, said that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sees “many examples” of malign foreign influence on social media “every day” from countries including Russia, China and Iran.

McAleenan emphasized that “there is no evidence of successful exploitation of our election or political campaign infrastructure” during the 2018 midterms elections or in the run up to the 2020 elections.

Wray noted the dangers posed by disinformation efforts by foreign nationals on social media, and advocated for agencies to work with social media platforms to combat these threats.

Election security has been an issue that has stayed squarely in the spotlight over the past few months following the release of the report on Russian interference efforts in the 2016 elections by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE, and the subsequent release of two bipartisan reports on the same topic by the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Mueller found that Russian individuals launched a sweeping attack on the 2016 elections that included both hacking and disinformation efforts and that was intended to benefit now-President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE.

While there was no evidence that any votes were changed in 2016, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in volume one of its investigation that all 50 states were targeted by Russian cyber actors looking to interfere in the elections.

Both Wray and McAleenan also used the hearing to emphasize the cyber threats posed by countries other than Russia, including from China. Wray noted that the FBI has more than 1,000 investigations in regards to attempted theft of U.S. tech that are linked to China involving nearly all of the FBI’s field offices.

“This is not just a big city problem, it hits the heartland,” Wray said of Chinese technology theft.

McAleenan warned that China, along with Russia and Iran, are using “advanced cyber capabilities” in order to attack U.S. critical infrastructure and steal trade secrets.

The hearing also focused on concerns around DHS’s leadership, particularly in light of McAleenan’s pending departure as acting secretary. McAleenan took over as acting secretary following former DHS Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenEx-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' MORE’s departure in April, and McAleenan’s replacement will mark the fifth person to fill the position since President Trump took office.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) questioned McAleenan closely on whether his departure would harm the agency’s ability to address cyber threats to the nation and election security threats specifically.

McAleenan denied that this would have any negative effect on these efforts, citing the ongoing election security efforts by DHS, the National Security Agency and the Intelligence Community.

“I don’t think a different secretary or acting secretary is going to affect that progress,” McAleenan said. “I think we have a team effort and very clear lanes that we are all working in concert.”