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Report Details Foreign Influence Operations Around U.S. Elections

Foreign actors did not hack or “alter any technical aspect of the voting process” in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, but that does not mean that they were not meddling in the electoral process, according to a new assessment from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Intelligence Council.

The declassified report declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations that were meant to disrupt Joe Biden’s candidacy and support then-President Donald Trump. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “probably” authorized an Iranian influence campaign, which was aimed at undermining Trump’s reelection. In addition to targeting candidates, the influence campaigns sought to undermine public confidence in the electoral process, CyberScoop reported.

Iran and Russia sought to exacerbate existing societal tensions in the United States; Russia in particular used state media, trolls, and online proxies—including some directed by Russian intelligence—to publish and promote online content disparaging President Biden and his family, conspiracy theories about COVID-19, allegations of social media censorship, and content that highlighted U.S. divisions around racial justice protests. According to reporting from Reuters, additional sanctions against Russian actors are likely to be announced soon.

Iranian cyber actors pursued a highly targeted operation, sending spoofed emails purporting to be from the Proud Boys group to Democratic voters and using spearphishing tactics to attempt to gain privileged access or information.

Other foreign actors—including Cuba, Lebanese Hizballah, and Venezuela—also made attempts to influence the 2020 elections, but on a smaller scale.

The assessment found that China did not pursue influence operations targeting the U.S. elections, but authorities had considered doing so and decided against it. “China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling, and assessed its traditional influence tools—primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying—would be sufficient to meet its goal of shaping U.S.-China policy regardless of the winner,” the report said.

While the intelligence community did detect some successful network compromises, they were parts of broader campaigns targeting U.S. networks—not the election specifically. “Defensive measures such as firewalls, up-to-date patching, cybersecurity training for government personnel, and separation of election-specific systems from other computer networks probably helped to thwart thousands of compromise attempts,” the assessment found.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a joint report on 16 March, Foreign Interference Targeting Election Infrastructure or Political Organization, Campaign, or Candidate Infrastructure Related to the 2020 US Federal Elections, which concurred with the ODNI assessment’s findings. Although several critical infrastructure sectors were targeted and compromised, the report said, the attacks “did not materially affect the integrity of voter data, the ability to vote, the tabulation of votes, or the timely transmission of election results.”

According to a joint DOJ and DHS statement, “During the 2020 election cycle, federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, non-governmental, and private sector partners nationwide worked together in unprecedented ways to combat foreign interference efforts and support election officials, political organizations, campaigns, and candidates in safeguarding their infrastructure.”

The DOJ/DHS report offered key recommendations for future action to mitigate election meddling, including enhanced physical security and cyber hygiene, third-party vendor security and supply chain risk management, collaboration across public and private sectors, and public messaging and education campaigns.

In 2020, influence campaigns may have been tempered by greater public awareness and government messaging campaigns, according to the ODNI report. “Proactive information sharing with social media companies facilitate the expeditious review, and in many cases removal, of social media accounts covertly operated by Russia and Iran,” the assessment found.

However, despite successes in 2020, ODNI warned, “as more foreign actors seek to exert influence over U.S. elections, additional actors may increasingly see election-focused influence efforts as an acceptable norm of international behavior.”

In particular, the ODNI report assessed that “Moscow will continue election influence efforts to further its longstanding goal of weakening Washington because the Kremlin has long deemed that a weakened United States would be less likely to pursue assertive foreign and security policies abroad and more open to geopolitical bargains with Russia.”

Iran is also using its influence to attempt to inflame domestic tensions and gather intelligence in the United States after the election, ODNI found. In mid-December 2020, “Iranian cyber actors were almost certainly responsible for the creation of a website containing death threats against U.S. election officials,” the assessment said.