The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced Wednesday that both Iran and Russia have made attempts to interfere with the current presidential election, for which voting is already underway.
Officials announced during a news briefing Wednesday evening that Russia and Iran have obtained U.S. voting registration information. The announcement at a rare news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the U.S. government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
Officials said that Iran is responsible for emails meant to intimidate American voters and sow unrest in multiple states, and Tehran and Moscow have also obtained voter registration with the goal of interfering in the election.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official, who, along with FBI Director Chris Wray, insisted the U.S. would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 U.S. election.
The obtained voter registration information is considered easily accessible. Despite the Iranian and Russian actions, the officials said Wednesday that Americans can be confident that their vote will be counted.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated U.S. election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence that Iran has ever done so. Cybersecurity experts consider it to be a second-rate actor in online espionage.
The news conference was held as Democratic voters in at least four battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, have received threatening emails, falsely purporting to be from the far-right group Proud Boys, that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for President Donald 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 Nov. 3 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.”
Asked about the emails during an online forum on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she lacked specific information. “I am aware that they were sent to voters in multiple swing states and we are working closely with the attorney general on these types of things and others,” she said.
Bennett Ragan, the campaign manager of Florida statehouse candidate Kayser Enneking, said he got two of the emails and knew about 10 other people in Gainesville who also got them. Bennett said the home address included in the personalized email he received was not current so he figures the data on him was acquired from the 2018 primary election voter roll.
The emails were sent by a group — its identity unknown — that put considerable time and effort into identifying vulnerable internet servers in several countries including Estonia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which they hijacked to send the emails, said security researcher John Scott-Railton, who examined dozens. Voters in Arizona and Alaska also received them, he said.
Ahead of the news conference Wednesday night, senators Marco Rubio and Mark Warner -- members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence -- issued a statement regarding election security:
🚨RUBIO & WARNER new statement on US election security:— Mike Valerio (@MikevWUSA) October 21, 2020
“We urge every American – including members of the media – to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting.”#Election2020 @WUSA9 @CBSNews pic.twitter.com/a7xXV50YdA
“Our adversaries abroad seek to sow chaos and undermine voters' belief in our democratic institutions, including the election systems and infrastructure that we rely on to record and properly report expressions of the voters' will,” the statement reads. “They may seek to target those systems, or simply leave the impression that they have altered or manipulated those systems, in order to undermine their credibility and our confidence in them.
“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 continues. “State and local election officials are in regular contact with federal law enforcement and cyber security professionals, and they are all working around the clock to ensure that Election 2020 is safe, secure, and free from outside interference.”