U.S. intelligence on Tuesday released a declassified report assessing foreign attempts to influence the 2020 elections. He shows how America’s top opponents like Russia and Iran see the US elections as the best way to advance their agendas.
The National Intelligence Council’s 15-page document, which is a public version of a classified report, states that no nation has attempted to change voter registration details, the votes themselves, or the reporting of those votes. In other words, the electoral process itself was not affected.
However, it details the efforts of several countries and political actors to undermine confidence in the vote and to sow social discord using more subtle methods such as disseminating misinformation.
Here’s a quick rundown of what the report found.
Russia: Putin tried to help Trump and hurt Biden
US intelligence officials are “very confident” that President Vladimir Putin has authorized “influence operations” – measures to target a target group to act in a certain way – to undermine the chances of victory for then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden and then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden President Donald strengthen Trump.
According to the report, Kremlin proxies did this by relaying “misleading or unfounded allegations against President Biden” to US media organizations, American officials, and even people close to Trump. One of these allegations was that there were “corrupt relationships between President Biden, his family and other US officials and Ukraine”.
This is pretty much in line with the conspiracy theory put forward by Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, which said that as Vice President, Biden fired a Ukrainian prosecutor to investigate Burisma, a Ukrainian company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter served to discontinue. (In fact, Biden’s efforts to have the prosecutor removed were fully in line with official US policy at the time and were supported by many of America’s European allies.)
The intelligence report doesn’t specify which media or people were involved, but the suggestion is pretty clear: this U.S. intelligence document says anything but that Trump and Giuliani endorsed a conspiracy theory developed and promoted by Russia to discredit Biden.
That Moscow would prefer Trump to stay in power and Biden out of office makes sense. Despite his administration imposing sanctions on the Kremlin, Trump was overly respectful of Putin personally and tried at all costs to improve American relations with Russia. In contrast, during the campaign, Biden vowed to work with allies to thwart the Kremlin’s corrupt practices and plans for greater power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Iran: The aim is to “undercut” Trump’s chances of re-election
Iran shared the same idea as Russia to try to influence the elections but had a different preference for the outcome.
“Iran waged a multi-layered campaign of covert influence to undermine President Trump’s prospects for re-election,” the intelligence service assessment reads, even though Iran did so “without sponsoring directly [Trump’s] Rivals. In other words, America’s intelligence officials have ‘great confidence’ that Iran clearly wanted Trump to lose, but not necessarily wanted Biden to win.
This is also in line with US-Iran relations over the past four years. Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw the US from the Iranian nuclear deal sparked a year-long round of escalation that culminated in Tehran-backed militia groups that attacked Americans in the Middle East and killed Iranian top leader Qassem Soleimani. In addition, the sanctions Trump imposed on Iran after abandoning the nuclear pact resulted in a devastating recession from which the Islamic Republic has not yet recovered.
Biden made no promises during the election campaign that the America he led would be friends with Iran, but he said he wanted to resume the nuclear deal. This could explain why Tehran’s hackers chose not to personally promote Biden during their influence operations.
China: Interfering in the 2020 elections was not “beneficial”
One of the most interesting conclusions in the report is that Beijing categorically canceled the 2020 elections. “China has not made or considered intervening, but has not made any leverage, to change the outcome of the US presidential election,” the document said.
Again reported with “high confidence,” this conclusion is in stark contrast to what the Trump administration has identified. Last August, a senior intelligence official released a statement identifying China as perhaps the greatest threat to the 2020 elections.
“We estimate that China prefers President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – not to win re-election,” said then director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, William Evanina. “China stepped up its lobbying efforts before November 2020 to shape the political environment in the United States, pressurize political figures it sees contrary to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.”
China’s declarations and measures against the Trump administration in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea or in TikTok were part of the “efforts” [that] could affect the president’s race, ”concluded Evanina.
Simply put, this is not how the intelligence community sees China’s efforts with Biden now. China “did not see either election result as favorable enough … to take the risk of getting caught,” the report said.
This is in line with the course of the 2020 presidential election. Trump and Biden each claimed that they would be tougher on China than their opponent. If you watch this debate closely, it is likely that Chinese officials thought neither Biden nor Trump would be particularly Beijing-friendly president.
It is worth noting, however, that the report contains a minority view: Beijing “has taken some steps to undermine the re-election of former President Trump,” assessed the national intelligence commissioner for cyber, which contradicts the main assessment somewhat. However, it appears that most intelligence officials felt that Beijing had chosen not to interfere, or not at all.
Foreign interference in US elections is the new normal
The report contains other key elements – including that Cuba, Venezuela and the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon “took some steps to influence the elections”.
These were minor efforts, the report said, and not on the scale of steps taken by Russia or Iran. All three have reasons not to like Trump, however, so it was likely that interference games were supposed to hurt his re-election chances.
Overall, this report, along with previous reports on election nuisance, shows that America’s global competitors, using the grudges of their elections to push for their desired outcomes, are the new normal. That doesn’t mean they will succeed – and there is no evidence they did in 2020 – but it does mean they will try.
“The problem of foreign actors trying to influence American voters is not going away and, given the current partisan differences in this country, could find fertile ground on which they can grow in the future,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-VA). the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a statement following the release of the report.