China, Russia and Iran Top Election Security Threats, Counterintelligence Chief Says
WASHINGTON – China, Russia and Iran are continuing to try to disrupt political campaigns and the 2020 general election, posing “a direct threat to the fabric of our Democracy,” the nation’s top counterintelligence official said Friday.
William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said with just over 100 days to go before the Nov. 3 election, the three nations are far and away the more determined of our foreign adversaries in their efforts to taint the outcome.
“Although other nation states and non-state actors could also do harm to our electoral process,” he said.
The worrisome assessment comes as elections officials across the United States are preparing for an unprecedented vote held against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and a large-scale switch to voting by mail, which could delay results.
An air of uncertainty — some would say unreality — has also manifested itself in the race for the White House with President Donald Trump refusing to commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election.
“I have to see. Look … I have to see,” Trump told moderator Chris Wallace during a wide-ranging “Fox News Sunday” interview two weeks ago.
“No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either,” he said, recalling that he also didn’t make such an ironclad guarantee in 2016.
The Biden campaign responded: “The American people will decide this election. And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
Evanina said China is expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism of China.
“Beijing recognizes its efforts might affect the presidential race,” he said.
Russia’s persistent objective is to weaken the United States and diminish our global role, Evanina said.
“Using a range of efforts, including internet trolls and other proxies, Russia continues to spread disinformation in the U.S. that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America,” he explained.
Iran’s goal, Evanina said, is to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and divide the country in advance of the elections.
“Iran’s efforts center around online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content,” he added.
Evanina warned that the nation’s foreign adversaries are trying — right now — to “compromise the private communications of U.S. political campaigns, candidates and other political targets.
“Our adversaries also seek to compromise our election infrastructure, and we continue to monitor malicious cyber actors trying to gain access to U.S. state and federal networks, including those responsible for managing elections,” he said.
If there was a bright spot in his assessment, it was that “the diversity of election systems among the states, multiple checks and redundancies in those systems, and post-election auditing all make it extraordinarily difficult for foreign adversaries to broadly disrupt or change vote tallies without detection.”
Evanina said in addition to the other threats he mentioned, foreign entities to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process.
“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.
Though Evanina stressed he was offering his assessment in the spirit of transparency, it didn’t go nearly far enough to satisfy Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.
Earlier this month, the same House leaders, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, requested that FBI Director Christopher Wray give a classified briefing to the House to address its grave concerns about a concerted foreign interference campaign to “launder and amplify disinformation” in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election.”
On Friday Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said Evanina’s assessment did not “go nearly far enough” to alert the American people to “how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process.”
“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,” they said in response. “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, that Russia seeks to ‘denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America’ is so generic as to be almost meaningless. The statement omits much on a subject of immense importance,” they added.
“In our letter two weeks ago, we called on the FBI to provide a defensive briefing to the entire Congress about specific threats related to a concerted foreign disinformation campaign, and this is more important than ever,” the Democratic leaders continued.
“But a far more concrete and specific statement needs to be made to the American people, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods. We can trust the American people with knowing what to do with the information they receive and making those decisions for themselves. But they cannot do so if they are kept in the dark about what our adversaries are doing, and how they are doing it,” the leaders wrote.