Iran and Russia are using voter registration data to meddle in the US election, senior national security officials said during a surprise press conference Wednesday evening.
Iran is behind the fake emails sent to some voters and spreading disinformation online about fraudulent ballots being sent from overseas, National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe said on Wednesday. As in 2016, Russia also had access to voter registration data, he said.
Both Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray said no votes were compromised. "Today this (election) infrastructure remains stable," Wray said on Wednesday. "You should be sure that your vote counts."
National security officials didn't really reveal many other details in their abrupt announcement. The fake emails appear to be those sent to some Alaska and Florida voters who claimed to be sent by the Proud Boys, an extreme right-wing organization. The emails were reportedly directed at Democratic voters, claiming they had access to electoral infrastructure and threatening them if they did not vote for Trump.
The Washington Post reported ahead of the press conference that the US government had concluded that Iran was behind the emails.
The officials have not disclosed how they concluded that Iran was behind the fake emails and other disinformation, nor did they provide many details about Russia's possible activities. Ratcliffe said the Iran-sponsored disinformation was intended to "spark social unrest" and harm President Donald Trump, although again he did not elaborate on that conclusion. Neither Ratcliffe nor Wray asked questions.
A person familiar with the intelligence agency told Vox that Iran intended the email campaign to harm Trump, but that doesn't necessarily apply to all of their malicious activities. But the idea here was to "create a backlash against Trump for lying in bed with a hideous group".
All in all, it was a pretty strange press conference. The Office of the Director of the National Intelligence Service has already warned the public about foreign interference in the 2020 elections, much of which is aimed at sowing discord and undermining confidence in the democratic process. Hence, this type of disinformation campaign was expected.
And, as many have pointed out, voter registration data is publicly available. Hence, it is not clear what exactly this means when officials say foreign actors have received voter registration data. In 2016, Russia targeted electoral systems in all 50 states, although no voter information or votes were changed.
"Voter data, including partisan affiliation, is PUBLIC," tweeted David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “Easy to get and in some cases free. The fact that this data is not available does NOT indicate a data breach. "
The press conference is noteworthy for what officials did not say
In August, the ODNI identified Russia, China and Iran as the primary threats for electoral disruption. But everyone has different goals when it comes to foreign interference. As experts told me earlier this year, Russia is very focused on creating chaos, while Iran and China are less concerned with messing up the US and more focused on advancing their national goals.
Still, Iran has used social media in the past to spread propaganda and divisive content, and based on today's announcement, they see an opening that should continue in 2020.
“In recent years, Iranian information operations have repeatedly crossed borders with courageous and innovative approaches. However, this incident represents a fundamental shift in our understanding of Iran's willingness to interfere in the democratic process, ”said John Hultquist, senior director of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, in a statement sent via email.
This type of disinformation campaign doesn't require a lot of sophistication, although Iran's capabilities, especially in cyber operations, are not quite on par with Russia and China.
And while officials did not elaborate on Russia's activities, the Kremlin is meddling very heavily in the 2020 elections, spreading online disinformation and trying to plant vilified information about Democratic candidate Joe Biden. More questions surfaced after the New York Post reportedly published emails from Hunter Biden that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani sent to the newspaper. These emails were an attempt to spark a scandal over Biden's business in Ukraine that has spread among right-wing circles. Giuliani had previously also worked with Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian politician who was sanctioned by the US government for meddling in the 2020 elections.
DNI Ratcliffe previously said "there is no intelligence to support this" that Hunter Biden's emails were "part of a Russian disinformation campaign". The FBI has told Congress that it "has nothing to add" to Ratcliffe's statement.
But the authenticity and actual source of the emails (the story the New York Post was given about the laptop's origin is good, somewhat) is still unclear, and dozens of former intelligence officials have said the emails are all Have "ear tags". classic Russian disinformation.
Again on Wednesday, officials did not provide details of Russia's activities and did not address anything related to Hunter Biden's emails. Given the lingering questions surrounding history, the timing of a press conference to call on Iran and Russia is remarkable. In relation to Iran, too, the Trump administration is campaigning with maximum pressure against the regime and has consistently drawn attention to Iran's misdeeds as justification for sanctions and other tough measures.
Still, all threats to intervene or meddle in the US elections are serious. Iran, Russia, or anyone else is taking advantage of the divisions and partisan tensions that already exist in US society, and just two weeks before election day, much of it will be geared towards lowering voter turnout. As FBI Director Wray said Wednesday, your election officials are the best place to get accurate, up-to-date voter information. Because voters should know that from here it will only get worse until Election Day.
Alex Ward contributed to this story.