Senior intelligence official warns Russia, Iran, China targeting U.S. elections
A senior intelligence official within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Friday warned that Russia, Iran and China were attempting to sway the 2020 elections.
William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, noted that the ODNI had been regularly briefing members of Congress, presidential campaigns and political committees on these foreign threats to elections “in recent months.”
“Foreign nations continue to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process,” Evanina said in a statement on Friday. “The coronavirus pandemic and recent protests, for instance, continue to serve as fodder for foreign influence and disinformation efforts in America.”
He warned that “at this time, we’re primarily concerned with China, Russia and Iran — although other nation states and non-state actors could also do harm to our electoral process. Our insights and judgments will evolve as the election season progresses.”
Evanina said that China is using influence efforts to “shape the policy environment” in the United States, and was conscious that these efforts could “affect the presidential race.”
He warned that both Russia and Iran by contrast are deliberately seeking to weaken U.S. democratic institutions, including elections, with Russia using “internet trolls and proxies” to spread disinformation to undermine elections, and Iran circulating “anti-U.S. content” online through separate disinformation efforts.
Among other concerns were attempts by foreign adversaries to gain access to election infrastructure, including through targeting campaign communications and federal networks.
“Our adversaries also seek to compromise our election infrastructure, and we continue to monitor malicious cyber actors trying to gain access to U.S. state and federal networks, including those responsible for managing elections,” Evanina said.
He emphasized that “the diversity of election systems among the states, multiple checks and redundancies in those systems, and post-election auditing all make it extraordinarily difficult for foreign adversaries to broadly disrupt or change vote tallies without detection.”
Evanina vowed that while the federal government would work to counter these foreign threats to elections, the American public must also assist in this effort.
“As Americans, we are all in this together; our elections should be our own. Foreign efforts to influence or interfere with our elections are a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy,” Evanina said. “Neutralizing these threats requires not just a whole-of-government approach, but a whole-of-nation effort.”
U.S. Cyber Command at the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency (NSA) tweeted following Evanina’s statement that the agencies would “know our adversaries better than they know themselves, we’re going to broaden our partnership and we’re going to act when we see adversaries attempting to interfere in our elections.”
U.S. Cyber Command also tweeted out a statement from Gen. Paul Nakasone, the agency’s director and director of the NSA, who emphasized that the “#1 objective” of both U.S. Cyber Command the NSA was “a safe, secure, and legitimate 2020 election.”
The statement from Evanina was put out days after senior congressional Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) sent a letter to the FBI asking for an all-members briefing on election threats. They cited concerns that members of Congress were being targeted by a “concerted foreign interference campaign” ahead of the November elections.
Evanina noted that he had led briefings on election threats in recent months to members of Congress and presidential campaigns, emphasizing that he had “worked to ensure fidelity, accountability, consistency and transparency with these stakeholders and presented the most timely and accurate information we have to offer.”
Election security has been an ongoing area of concern for the federal government since the 2016 election, when Russian government-backed actors targeted election infrastructure in all 50 states, launched a sweeping disinformation campaign on social media meant to favor now-President Trump, and hacked Democratic National Committee networks.
Russian hackers were able to access election infrastructure in Illinois and Florida ahead of Election Day in 2016, but there is no evidence any votes were changed, according to the U.S. intelligence community and former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Christopher Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said recently that his team had not seen the same level of foreign activity around elections this year as was seen in the lead-up to the 2016 elections.
He emphasized that despite this lack of activity, the U.S. was still “absolutely ripe for a destructive or disruptive attack” from foreign adversaries on elections.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that while the Trump administration was taking steps to defend against foreign election interference, he was “confident that many countries will do their level best to have an impact on our election.”