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Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference

News that Iran and Russia accessed voter registration data has dropped like a lightning bolt into an already heated campaign battle with less than two weeks before Election Day.

The announcement from administration officials that the countries had accessed voter registration data and were believed to be behind threatening emails sent to U.S. voters sparked immediate concerns and questions.

Here are five takeaways.

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Iran should not be underestimated

Iran has long been considered one of the key nation-state threats to the U.S. on cyber matters, alongside Russia, China, and North Korea.

National Counterintelligence and Security Director William Evanina in August warned of ongoing election interference by China, Russia and Iran, stating that Iran and China prefer that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE not win reelection and that Russia was working to denigrate Democrat Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit Protect our world: How the Biden administration can save lives and economies worldwide MORE’s campaign.  

Experts warned that Iran shouldn’t be underestimated despite having access to potentially less resources than Russia.

“Iran is not Russia, and it’s not China, but it is building up its capabilities and has been quite active in this election cycle specifically,” Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East Fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, told The Hill. “We should be paying attention to Iran because it is eager to assert itself and interfere.”

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Thursday that Iran has increasingly sought to spread disinformation online, pointing to the removal of 130 Iranian-linked accounts by Twitter last month. They accounts were removed for attempts to disrupt the conversation around the first presidential debate. 

“Iran has amplified false narratives, impersonated accounts, and used bots with some success to mask its hand,” Ben Taleblu told The Hill in an email. “This is the same philosophy behind Iran's use of proxies in the Middle East, to disguise your hand while sowing chaos.”

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Tabatabai told The Hill that Iran lacked “sophistication” in comparison to Russian interference efforts, and often got “found out” for malicious actions in cyberspace. 

“I do think that the main threat is Russia when it comes to election interference, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn't be focused on other threats, just because they are slightly lesser doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Tabatabai said. 

Ratcliffe, Wray comments underscore politicization of election security

The announcement from the administration on the new interference effort came from John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeProfiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers Biden considering King for director of national intelligence: report Haspel not in attendance at latest Trump intelligence briefing: reports MORE, the former GOP lawmaker who is now the director of national intelligence, and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Ratcliffe is seen as a Trump loyalist, and has released intelligence over the last several weeks that Democrats see as an effort to help the president politically.

Wray, in contrast, has drawn the ire of the president, and it has been speculated that he could be fired by Trump.

The two offered different tones Wednesday, with Ratcliffe emphasizing that the effort from Iran was intended to hurt Trump — something Democrats said was not highlighted in their briefings. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) instead said Thursday that both Iranian and Russian efforts were aimed at undermining confidence in elections. 

Wray’s message was more laser-focused on emphasizing the integrity of the security of election systems, not directly commenting on whether the efforts were meant to hurt one campaign over another. 

The contrasting comments will do little to scuttle talk that Trump might want to make a change at the FBI.  

Voter data is more widely available than many believe

One unanswered question Thursday centered on how and when Russia and Iran were able to access the voter data. 

U.S. voter registration data is often accessible through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, is sometimes available for purchase, and has also been known to circulate on the dark web and in hacking forums. 

But voter data was also key in 2016 Russian interference efforts, when Russian hackers successfully accessed voter databases in Florida and Illinois. There is no evidence that any votes were changed or that any voter was prevented from casting a ballot. 

Federal and state officials were forced to deny seeing major attacks on voting infrastructure after Russia’s Kommersant newspaper published a report in September detailing the discovery of U.S. voter data from 7.6 million Michigan residents and millions of others on a Russian hacker site. 

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“Our system has not been hacked,” Michigan’s Department of State said in a statement at the time. "We encourage all Michigan voters to be wary of attempts to ‘hack’ their minds, however, by questioning the sources of information and advertisements they encounter and seeking out trusted sources.”

Mark Ostrowski, head of engineering at software group Check Point US East, pointed to concerns around recent ongoing ransomware attacks on vulnerable state and local governments as heightening fears around the security of critical networks, an issue federal officials have been laser-focused on ahead of the election. 

Ostrowski emphasized that the Iran-linked threatening emails were not a “sophisticated” attack. 

“The attack itself is not necessarily a complicated attack, if they were using public voter information doing a spoofed email attack, that is something that is not the most sophisticated attack,” Ostrowski said.  

Election security has improved, but vulnerabilities remain

Federal officials sought to play down the potential impact of Russian and Iranian election interference on the integrity of the voting process itself, emphasizing that the system was secure and trustworthy.

“We have been working for years as a community to build resilience in our election infrastructure, and today, that infrastructure remains resilient,” Wray said during the press conference. “You should be confident that your vote counts.”

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Election officials at all levels of government have worked together to detect and assess threats, with Congress appropriating over $800 million for election security efforts since 2018, funds that have been used to invest in new election machines, cybersecurity upgrades, and installing sensors to spot incoming attacks. 

Despite the strides forward, the announcement Wednesday underscored that some cyber vulnerabilities remain. A senior Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) official told reporters in August that the agency continued to receive reports of “scanning” and “probing” of systems, emphasizing that the efforts were “mostly unsuccessful.”

CISA Director Christopher Krebs stressed in a statement prior to the press conference that the vote count in the United State and in the three states most affected in the new effort, Florida, Alaska and Arizona, remains secure.

“We remain confident that no foreign cyber actor can change your vote, and we still believe that it would be incredibly difficult for them to change the outcome of an election at the national level,” Krebs said. 

The attacks set up a new argument for Trump

If Iran was trying to interfere in the election to hurt Trump, it would give the president a new attack line on election security — and potentially an argument and scapegoat if he loses.

Trump is behind in national and swing state polls to Biden.

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The Trump campaign used Ratcliffe’s announcement to push a message that the president is tough on election security.

“We appreciate federal law enforcement for protecting our elections. President Trump is serious about election security, unlike the years when Joe Biden was vice president,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. 

The Biden campaign accused the president of peddling foreign disinformation. 

Asked about the Iranian efforts to interfere in the election during a call with reporters, Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield repeated Biden's pledge to refuse foreign help and slammed Trump for “using” foreign interference. 

“We’ve known for a while that foreign countries seek to interfere in our elections to sow discord and chaos in the democratic process,” Bedingfield said. “What’s most troubling is Donald Trump and his campaign seem comfortable using what many people believe to be foreign attempts of interference for their own political gain. This is something that Vice President Biden has long been on the record opposing.”

The candidates will have a chance Thursday night to speak directly to the public about foreign influence in the election during the final presidential debate.