Trump intel chief sounds alarm over Iran intimidating voters with spoofed emails

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman recently appointed to the top intelligence job, announced on Wednesday evening during a surprise press conference that the U.S. government has concluded “that two foreign actors, Iran and Russia, have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.”

According to Ratcliffe, the administration believes that both Russia and Iran have obtained voter registration data, though he did not specify how they got the data, or mention that most voter registration information is freely available — a fact election experts and political journalists quickly explained on social media.

Ratcliffe accused Iran of making use of that data to “communicate false information to registered voters” by sending spoofed, threatening emails. The emails, said Ratcliffe, were designed “to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.” Ratcliffe said the agencies “have not seen the same actions from Russia” though they obtained “some voter information just as they did in 2016.”

“You should be confident that your vote counts,” said FBI Director Chris Wray, who spoke after Ratcliffe during the Wednesday briefing. “Early unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with healthy skepticism.”

Just before the press conference on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House had concluded Iran was the culprit behind an email campaign purportedly backed by the extreme right-wing group the Proud Boys, directed at Democratic voters. The senders of the emails said the Proud Boys had access to the recipients’ private data, implying they had hacked state and local databases, and threatened recipients to cast votes for Trump. “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” warned the emails, according to the Post.

Additionally, Chris Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which was stood up after Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, tweeted on Tuesday that his agency is “aware of threatening emails with misleading info about the secrecy of your vote.” While voter registration data is often commercially available, “ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states,” Krebs explained. “These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections.”

John Ratcliffe
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Following the press conference on Wednesday, the Florida Department of State clarified that there was no evidence of a breach of voter information related to the threatening emails.

Just before Ratcliffe announced the foreign interference campaign, Senate Intelligence Committee acting Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., published a statement urging voters “to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting,” without identifying specific adversaries or malign activities.

While Ratcliffe said that it is the intelligence community’s “duty to ensure the sanctity of the U.S. elections,” stressing that election security should not be a “partisan issue,” his short tenure has already been marked by controversy and accusations of politicizing intelligence on behalf of his boss. Those accusations have surfaced in part after he released sensitive intelligence relating to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and Republican lawmakers argued that the intel revealed an attempt by Democrats to link Trump to Russia. But the intel released by Ratcliffe featured Russian talking points, and, if true, did not include illegal activity by Democrats.

Ratcliffe’s allegations that only Iran has weaponized voter information to manipulate the American public may lead to similar criticism, particularly after he dismissed the possibility that Russia might be involved in another recent political scandal.

Last week, the New York Post published a questionable front-page story about a mysterious laptop allegedly belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden that was abandoned at a computer repair shop. The younger Biden has become a frequent target of Trump’s attacks in the waning days of the election, and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was reportedly a key source for the story, which has been obscured through efforts by Facebook and Twitter to keep the unsubstantiated claims from going viral on their platforms.

"I Voted!" stickers
Wilfredo Lee/AP

Ratcliffe told Fox News “the intelligence community doesn’t believe” that the story is “part of some Russian disinformation campaign” because “there is no intelligence that supports that.” But news reports indicate that the FBI continues to investigate whether the laptop story is part of a foreign disinformation campaign.

In a previous release in August, Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, stated that China, Russia and Iran are all actively seeking to interfere in the ongoing presidential election, using different methods and with different aims. Iran, the actor Ratcliffe says is behind the threatening emails, “seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections,” wrote Evanina, “in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”

However, Evanina also stated that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” including through ongoing social media and TV disinformation campaigns. Evanina specifically called out pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach for circulating dubious claims about Biden’s diplomatic exchanges with Ukraine.


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