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Top Senate Democrat warns of disinformation, interference around Election Day

Top Senate Democrat warns of disinformation, interference around Election Day
© Bonnie Cash

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSocial media posts, cellphone data aid law enforcement investigations into riots 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Confirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed MORE (D-Va.), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Monday of foreign efforts to spread disinformation around Election Day, as officials have increasingly sought to address election security threats. 

“Folks: this is an unusual election,” Warner tweeted. “Our intelligence community has warned that the period immediately before and after Election Day is going to be uniquely volatile, and our adversaries will seek to take advantage of that. Don’t make their jobs any easier.”

Warner noted, “It may take a while for the results to come in."

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"That period of time is especially vulnerable to attack by foreign countries seeking to spread disinformation and undermine the legitimacy of our electoral process," he added. "Stay calm, and be judicious about what you believe and share online.”

The Democratic senator, who helped lead the Senate panel's bipartisan investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, pointed U.S. voters toward the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) for reporting any voting security or disinformation threat. 

Warner’s comments came a week after acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFlorida Republicans close ranks with Trump after Capitol siege Confirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Fla.) warned that adversaries would likely target U.S. elections.

“WARNING. The bulk of disinformation attacks prepared by our adversaries were designed for the days before & just after Election Day,” Rubio tweeted. "They may come faster than they can be spotted & called out, so word to the wise, the more outlandish the claim, the likelier it’s foreign influence.”

A spokesperson for Warner told The Hill at the time that Warner “concurs wholeheartedly with Senator Rubio’s tweet.”

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The comments from the committee leaders come in the wake of new foreign election interference activity. 

Director of National Intelligence John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeHouse panels open review of Capitol riot Edward Snowden, the media, and the Espionage Act Overnight Defense: Top US general meets with Taliban | House panel launches probe into cyberattack | Army to issue face masks for soldiers in 2021 MORE and other federal leaders announced last month that Iran and Russia had accessed U.S. voter registration data, and Tehran used the data to send threatening emails to voters in at least three states ahead of Election Day.

Late last week, the FBI and CISA released a joint advisory laying out further details of the attack, noting that an Iranian group had targeted state websites between September and October in an attempt to access voter registration data, successfully accessing the information in one state. 

“Further evaluation by CISA and the FBI has identified the targeting of U.S. state election websites was an intentional effort to influence and interfere with the 2020 U.S. presidential election,” the agencies wrote in the joint alert.

Election security has been a major area of concern since 2016, when Russian agents launched a sweeping effort to interfere in the U.S. presidential election that included a disinformation campaign across social media and hacking attempts against election infrastructure in every state along with against Democratic networks. 

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The Senate Intelligence Committee led a years-long investigation into the Russian interference efforts, releasing five reports and concluding the activity had been intended to sway the election toward President TrumpDonald TrumpFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media MORE, with agents successfully accessing systems in at least two states. There is no evidence any votes were changed.

Federal, state and local authorities have significantly stepped up efforts to defend against similar attacks this year, and push back against potential voter suppression and intimidation efforts.

The attorneys general of several states on Monday expressed confidence in the voting process and the ability of states to process an expected influx of mail-in ballots, while cautioning that the final voter tally may not be decided on election night. 

“No matter how long it takes, we will count, we will canvass, and we will certify, and state attorney generals, we will use every tool available to defend a free and fair election,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) told reporters. 

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) noted that while his state is expecting to have 97 percent of all ballots cast counted on election night, the vote count could be delayed if there is a close tally.

“Voters across the country should take comfort in knowing that they will be the ones to determine the winners of these elections, not any politicians, not any lawyers,” Stein noted.