Russia ‘amplifying’ concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election: report

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Russian media and other groups are intentionally “amplifying” concerns around mail-in voting in order to undermine the 2020 U.S. elections, a report compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made public Thursday found. 

“We assess that Russia is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail and shifting voting processes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine public trust in the electoral process,” DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis wrote in a bulletin sent to federal and state law enforcement partners. 

The findings were first reported on and made public by ABC News

The bulletin noted that the Russian influence efforts around mail-in voting have been going on since March, and that Russian state-controlled media and social media had been involved in this effort.

“Russian state media, proxies, and Russian-controlled social media trolls are likely to promote allegations of corruption, system failure, and foreign malign interference to sow distrust in democratic institutions and election outcomes,” the Office of Intelligence and Analysis wrote. 

Specific instances cited by analysts include Russian state media and proxy websites criticizing the integrity of the mail-in voting process throughout August, spreading claims in March that former Vice President Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee due to a “back-room deal,” and that the February Iowa Caucuses were rigged to favor “establishment candidates.”

DHS did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment on the bulletin. 

President Trump has repeatedly criticized mail-in voting, and other aspects of the election process, tweeting an unsubstantiated claim in July that “with Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.”

On Thursday, both Twitter and Facebook flagged posts from Trump telling voters to go to the polls after sending in mail-in ballots to test the election system. Both platforms said the posts violated policies around voter fraud and election integrity. 

The bulletin was made public a month after William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, put out a statement warning that Russia, along with China and Iran, was actively interfering in the 2020 elections. 

“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. “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) described the bulletin as underlining “concerning facts.”

“First, as the Intelligence Community confirmed last month, Russia is once again seeking to interfere in our elections and sow distrust in our democratic process,” Schiff said in a statement provided to The Hill. “And second, among the range of measures it is pursuing, Russia is echoing destructive and false narratives around vote by mail that President Trump and his enablers, including Attorney General [William] Barr, have been aggressively promoting.”

Schiff pointed to the bulletin as making the case for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to continue congressional election security briefings. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced earlier this week that the ODNI would instead submit written assessments. 

“Congress must be able to directly question and engage with the intelligence community professionals with the responsibility for protecting our elections from foreign interference,” Schiff said. 

Concerns around Russian interference in U.S. elections have been in the spotlight since Russian agents launched a sweeping interference campaign ahead of the 2016 elections that involved disinformation efforts on social media meant to favor now-President Trump, and hacking activities aimed at election infrastructure and the Democratic National Committee. 

Due to new Russian interference reports, a group of top Senate Democrats urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday to sanction Russian individuals and groups involved in interference efforts, noting there was “no national security threat more serious” than foreign threats to elections. 

The ABC News report was made public the day after the outlet exclusively reported that DHS had withheld a different bulletin that outlined evidence that Russia was seeking to use “allegations of the poor mental health” of  Biden to sway the election. 

A spokesperson for DHS told The Hill on Wednesday that the bulletin was withheld because it “lacked the necessary context and evidence for broader dissemination.” 

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf noted during an appearance on Fox News’s “The Daily Briefing” on Wednesday that DHS personnel were “hard at work on rewriting that report” and that he hoped to “see that report out soon.”

Despite these comments, several key Democratic lawmakers criticized DHS for withholding the bulletin, including Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) who sent letters to DHS on Wednesday demanding answers around the withheld intelligence.

-Updated at 6:10 p.m. 

Tags Adam Schiff Bennie Thompson Chad Wolf DHS Donald Trump Joe Biden John Ratcliffe Max Rose ODNI Russia Steven Mnuchin

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