FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday said that Russian agents were trying to undermine Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the lead-up to the November election.

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that Russia continues to try to influence our election, primarily through what we would call malign foreign influence,” Wray said during testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee.

“We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020 through what I would call more the malign influence side of things — social media, use of proxies, state media, online journals, etc. — in an effort to both sow divisiveness and discord … and primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as an anti-Russian establishment,” Wray added.

His comments came a month after William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, put out a public assessment warning that Russia was attempting to interfere in the 2020 elections in favor of President Trump by undermining Biden.

Evanina wrote that Russia’s efforts against Biden were “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,” and that “Kremlin-linked actors” were promoting Trump on Russian state media.

Evanina also detailed concerns about Chinese and Iranian efforts to interfere in the election, with both countries focused on undermining Trump.

Election interference concerns persist four years after Russian agents launched a sweeping and sophisticated campaign using social media platforms and hacking operations against election infrastructure, the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Wray told lawmakers Thursday that while the FBI had not seen widespread efforts to target election infrastructure this year, he was extremely concerned about misinformation efforts.

“I think in many ways what concerns me the most is the steady drumbeat of misinformation and amplification of smaller cyber intrusions that contribute over time — I worry they will contribute over time to a lack of confidence of American voters and citizens in the validity of their vote,” Wray said.

He emphasized that concerns over the security of the election system this year would be a “perception, not a reality.”

“Americans can and should have confidence in our election system and certainly in our democracy, but I worry that people will take on a feeling of futility because of all the noise and confusion that is generated, and that is a very hard problem to combat,” Wray said.

Earlier in the day, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats forcefully argued in favor of a bipartisan response to tackle election threats in an op-ed for The New York Times, warning that American democracy was at stake in the election this year.

“If we fail to take every conceivable effort to ensure the integrity of our election, the winners will not be Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Republicans or Democrats,” Coats wrote. “The only winners will be Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ali Khamenei. No one who supports a healthy democracy could want that.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has come under fire over the past few weeks from Democrats on Capitol Hill following the announcement by current Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe that ODNI officials would no longer brief members of Congress in-person and would instead submit written statements.

Despite pushback from the Senate and House intelligence panels, along with Democratic congressional leadership, Ratcliffe reaffirmed his stance on Wednesday, issuing a statement noting that “the IC will not provide all-member briefings, but we will work to provide appropriate updates primarily through written finished intelligence products.”

Biden has come out strong against potential Russian interference, with the Democratic presidential nominee putting out a statement in July putting foreign adversaries “on notice.”

“Today, I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice,” Biden said in the July statement. “If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government.”

The Trump administration has taken several steps to respond to foreign interference, including imposing sanctions on Russian agents involved in 2016 and 2018 interference efforts and the approval to send over $800 million to states in election security funds since 2018.

Republicans in the Senate, however, have largely blocked attempts to pass legislation to boost election security amid concerns around federalizing the election, and election officials have pushed for higher amounts of funding to shore up the election process. 

Trump has more recently zeroed in on concerns around the safety and security of mail-in voting and other parts of the election process, saying at a press conference this week that “our biggest threat to this election is governors from opposing parties controlling ballots, millions of ballots.”

“To me, that’s a much bigger threat than foreign countries because much of the stuff coming out about foreign countries turned out to be untrue,” he added. 

Trump’s comments were made less than a week after Microsoft revealed that it had seen “increasing” cyberattacks originating in Russia, China, and Iran targeting political groups including the Biden and Trump presidential campaigns. 

“The activity we are announcing today makes clear that foreign activity groups have stepped up their efforts targeting the 2020 election as had been anticipated, and is consistent with what the U.S. government and others have reported,” Tom Burt, the corporate vice president of customer security and trust at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post last week.

Updated at 4:17 p.m.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 election China Christopher Wray Dan Coats Donald Trump election interference Election Security Hillary Clinton Iran Joe Biden John Ratcliffe Moscow Russia Vladimir Putin

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