Russia and Iran obtained US voter data in bid to sow unrest before election, FBI warns

Maanvi Singh
·5 min read

Russia and Iran have obtained some US voting registration information and are attempting to sow unrest in the upcoming election, the government’s national intelligence director said in a rare news conference Wednesday night.

“We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails, designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump,” said John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence.

The FBI director, Chris Wray, also spoke, saying the US will impose costs on any foreign countries interfering in the 2020 US election.

Related: Florida accused of sowing confusion with last-minute voting changes

Wray also warned against buying into misinformation about election results. “You should be confident your vote counts. Early unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism,” said Wray.

Democrats immediately took issue with Ratcliffe’s emphasis that Iran was sowing disinformation to harm Trump, characterizing the intelligence director as a “partisan hack”. Ratcliffe is a former Republican congressman and Democrats have been critical of his choice to selectively declassify documents to help Trump.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, said on Wednesday night that during a classified briefing he received on the interference “I had the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections and not aimed at any particular figure, but rather to undermine the very wellspring of our democracy.”

“I’m surprised that DNI [Ratcliffe] said that at this press conference,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Trump and many of his supporters have been among those spreading misinformation that votes aren’t going to be counted and alleging baselessly that ballots can easily be thrown out.

Ratcliffe said Iran is also distributing video content “to imply that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, including from overseas” – and warned Americans not to believe the disinformation. “These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” he said.

The news conference was held as Democratic voters in at least four battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, have received threatening emails, falsely claiming to be from the far-right group Proud Boys, that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.

The voter-intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers. Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the 3 November election, for which early voting is ongoing.

Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.

“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” Christopher Krebs, the top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Tuesday night after reports of the emails first surfaced.

He urged voters not to fall for “sensational and unverified claims”, reminding them that ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states. “The last line of defense in election security is you – the American voter.”

In 2016 Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency targeted US election infrastructure, as part of its sweeping operation to help Trump win. According to the FBI, its hackers got access to state election boards and county governments. They also targeted private technology firms responsible for voter registration software and electronic polling stations.

Moscow successfully penetrated computer networks in several US states including Florida and Illinois. GRU officers exfiltrated a database containing information on millions of registered Illinois voters. They fired off spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county election officials, and got inside at least one Florida county government.

One troubling question is whether Russian hackers altered voting tallies in Trump’s favour. Most intelligence professionals think they didn’t. But Harry Reid, the senate minority leader in 2016 , has said there is “no question” Moscow changed the outcome. “The Russians manipulated the votes. It’s that simple,” he declared.

By contrast, there is no evidence that Iran, which cybersecurity experts consider to be an inferior actor in online espionage, has ever breached US networks.

Alireza Miryousefi, an Iranian spokesman at the UN, told ABC News Iran had no interest in interfering in the US election and called on the US to “end its malign and dangerous accusations”.

“Unlike the US, Iran does not interfere in other country’s elections. The world has been witnessing US’s own desperate public attempts to question the outcome of its own elections at the highest level,” he said. “These accusations are nothing more than another scenario to undermine voter confidence in the security of the US election, and are absurd.”

Before the FBI news conference began, the top members of the Senate intelligence committee released a statement warning: “As we enter the last weeks before the election, we urge every American – including members of the media – to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting.”

The statement came from Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, and Mark Warner, a Democrat of Virginia.

“State and local election officials are in regular contact with federal law enforcement and cybersecurity professionals, and they are all working around the clock to ensure that election 2020 is safe, secure and free from outside interference,” they said.

Foreign misinformation campaigns are far from the only source of confusion and chaos as the US heads to the polls. Concerns of voter disenfranchisement have been widespread, with Republicans scoring victories Wednesday in their ongoing efforts to restrict voting rights. In a Wednesday night decision, the supreme court allowed Alabama officials to ban curbside voting.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union and other challengers of the ban said that curbside voting would help the state slow the spread of Covid-19 while allowing those most vulnerable to the disease to vote safely.

The plaintiff in that case, Howard Porter Jr, is a Black man in his 70s with asthma and Parkinson’s disease. “So many of my [ancestors] even died to vote,” he testified to a District Court. “And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – we’re past that time.”

The Iowa supreme court also upheld a Republican-backed law that could prevent election officials from sending thousands of mail-in ballots, by making it more difficult for auditors to correct voter applications with omitted information.

Additional reporting by Luke Harding