DOJ charges two Iranians with interference in 2020 election


The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday indicted two Iranian nationals for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, alleging they used wide-ranging cyber and disinformation efforts in an attempt to sow doubt in the election process.

Between August and November of last year, Iranian nationals Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian are alleged to have targeted the election websites of 11 states, successfully obtaining information on more than 100,000 U.S. voters by compromising one state’s voter information website.

They then allegedly posed as members of the “Proud Boy” organization to send emails to thousands of registered Democratic voters, including some of those whose information was stolen, threatening them unless they voted for now-former President Trump. 

The two individuals also sent Facebook messages and emails posing as Proud Boys to White House officials, Republican members of Congress and news organizations claiming that the Democratic Party was attempting to exploit election infrastructure vulnerabilities and change votes, the DOJ said.

Authorities say the defendants included a video purportedly showing the creation of fake absentee ballots by using stolen voter information as part of the Federal Voting Assistance Program that is available for military and overseas voters, a video that was proven to have been falsified. 

Lastly, the individuals are accused of having attempted to leverage vulnerabilities in a U.S. media organization’s network to spread disinformation the day after the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The unnamed media group provided a content management system to dozens of newspapers and other publications. The FBI tipped off the company ahead of time, enabling the vulnerabilities to be fixed, and the effort was unsuccessful. 

“This indictment details how two Iran-based actors waged a targeted, coordinated campaign to erode confidence in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system and to sow discord among Americans,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement Thursday. “The allegations illustrate how foreign disinformation campaigns operate and seek to influence the American public.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Thursday that the actions by the administration “demonstrates that we will hold state-sponsored actors to account for attempting to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions.”

“Today’s designations represent the collective efforts of the Department of the Treasury, the Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Blinken said. “The U.S. government took decisive and disruptive action against those seeking to interfere with the sanctity of our elections, including the FBI warning the public of the attempts ahead of the 2020 elections.”

A DOJ official told reporters that while the two Iranians are still at large and presumed to be based in Iran, their movements would likely be “restricted” and future opportunities curtailed due to the indictments. If caught and convicted, both Kazemi and Kashian could face more than a decade in prison. 

“The United States will never tolerate any foreign actors’ attempts to undermine our free and democratic elections,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York said in a separate statement. “As a result of the charges unsealed today, and the concurrent efforts of our U.S. government partners, Kazemi and Kashian will forever look over their shoulders as we strive to bring them to justice.”

In addition to the indictments, the State Department is offering a $10 million reward for information on Kazemi and Kashian’s activities. The Treasury Department sanctioned the two men along with the Iranian cybersecurity company they worked as contractors for, and four Iranian leaders of the company. 

“Treasury will continue to counter efforts to undermine the integrity of our election systems,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in a statement Thursday.  “Today’s action underscores the U.S. government’s commitment to hold state-sponsored actors accountable for attempting to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions.”  

The coordinated effort by the Justice, State and Treasury departments was announced just over a year after former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly warned that Iran was attempting to interfere in the presidential election through sending intimidating emails and sowing unrest.

The Intelligence Community put out a report in March of this year on foreign threats to the 2020 election assessing that Iran “carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign” to interfere in the presidential election, further assessing that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had authorized this effort.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Thursday applauded the Biden administration’s effort to call out and bring to justice the two Iranian nationals. 

“Our intelligence officials have continually warned that other countries would seek to follow Russia’s 2016 playbook,” Warner said in a statement. “Today’s charges and sanctions against several Iranians believed to be behind a cyber campaign to intimidate and influence American voters in the 2020 election are further evidence that attempts to interfere in our elections will continue, and we must all be on guard against them.

“I applaud intelligence officials and the Biden administration for taking these significant steps today to punish the actors behind Iran’s influence campaign and sending a clear message to our adversaries that interference in American elections will no longer be tolerated.”

Tags Antony Blinken Christopher Wray Department of the Treasury Disinformation Donald Trump Election Security intelligence community Iran John Ratcliffe Justice Department Mark Warner State Department Trump Wally Adeyemo
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