China, Russia and Iran are all attempting to influence the upcoming national elections in November, using traditional and social media to penetrate networks used by campaigns, candidates and election systems, a senior U.S. intelligence official warned last Friday.
“Today, we see our adversaries seeking to compromise the private communications of U.S. political campaigns, candidates and other political targets,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), said in a statement issued through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “Our adversaries also seek to compromise our election infrastructure, and we continue to monitor cyber actors trying to gain access to U.S. state and federal networks, including those responsible for managing elections.”
Evanina also pointed to ongoing influence campaigns by China, Russia and Iran, saying these countries are the top concerns at the moment of the intelligence community, but that other “nation states and non-state actors could also do harm to our electoral process.”
China is trying to “shape the policy environment” and putting “pressure [on] political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism of China,” he said. The country knows its efforts here could affect the presidential election, he added.
Russia continues its efforts to sow disruption through disinformation to “diminish our global role” and “undermine confidence in our democratic process,” Evanina said, adding that another goal is to “denigrate” the “anti-Russia ‘establishment.’”
As for Iran, it is using disinformation on social media and spreading “anti-U.S. content” to divide the country, he said.
The statement doesn’t say a particular election campaign, party or candidate is being favored by any of the countries.
A foursome of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), said Evanina’s statement was inadequate.
“The statement gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together,” Pelosi, Schumer, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Mark Warner (Va.) said in their statement following Evanina’s announcement. “The statement, moreover, fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election, information the American people must have as we go into November. To say without more, for example, Russia seeks to ‘denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ is so generic as to be almost meaningless. The statement omits much on a subject of immense importance.”
The intelligence warning follows the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections to support then Republican candidate Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.
Earlier this month, the four Democrats wrote FBI Director Christopher Wray seeking a defensive briefing for Congress on foreign disinformation threats. They said in response to Evanina’s statement that “a far more concrete and specific statement needs to be made to the American people” so the public can better make decisions for themselves.
Evanina said he has been leading “robust intelligence-based briefings on election security” to the presidential campaigns, political parties and Congress.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said over a week ago that Russia is trying to “delegitimize our electoral process” and that China is also working to damage “confidence in the outcome” of the elections.
Evanina pointed to the need for U.S. citizens to help counter foreign influences and help secure the elections.
“At the most basic level, we encourage Americans to consume information with a critical eye, check out sources before reposting or spreading messages, practice good cyber hygiene and media literacy, and report suspicious election-related activity to authorities,” he said.