US Intel Officials Warn of Election Disinformation as Iran, Russia Obtain Voter Info

US Intel Officials Warn of Election Disinformation as Iran, Russia Obtain Voter Info
Nominee John L. Ratcliffe sits during a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office building on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 5, 2020. (Gabriella Demczuk-Pool/Getty Images)
Melanie Sun

Iran and Russia have gained access and obtained U.S. voting registration information “to influence public opinion relation to our elections,” the Trump administration’s national intelligence director warned at a major election security briefing to the nation on Wednesday night.

John Ratcliffe, the Trump-appointed Director of National Intelligence, said during the rare press conference that the intelligence community was “prepared for the possibility of actions by those hostile to democracy” and that the reported foreign activity was caught “immediately” with the FBI and DHS acting “swiftly in response to this threat.”

“Our duty also includes empowering the American people to understand information or perhaps more accurately disinformation that they are seeing, particularly on the internet, and make informed decisions for themselves,” he said.

“With that in mind, we would like to alert the public that ... we have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately by Russia. This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermined your confidence in American democracy.

“We are standing before you now to give you the confidence that we are on top of this and providing you with the most powerful weapon we have to combat these efforts: the truth, information. We asked every American to do their part to defend against those who wish us harm. The way you do that is quite simple: Do not allow these efforts to have their intended effect. If you receive an intimidating or manipulative email in your inbox, do not be alarmed and do not spread it.”

Ratcliffe explained that some Americans within the last 24 hours had been victims of these interference activities, receiving “spoofed emails” from Iran that are designed to intimidate and incite social unrest in the United States. He added that Iran was also spreading a video that included disinformation suggesting incorrectly that people could cast fraudulent ballots “even from overseas.”

Ratcliffe strongly refuted the disinformation and said that actions taken to protect election security “over these last 4 years are working.”

Ratcliffe said that President Donald Trump had instructed him to “keep the public informed as appropriate” of known attempts at spreading disinformation by foreign adversaries.

“You have my commitment that I will continue to do exactly that, with transparency and with candor. We will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections and we will continue to work with our many partners to disrupt and to impose costs in consequences and any adversary that attempts to interfere in our democratic processes,” he said.

Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed Director of the FBI, also addressed the nation during the announcement to reassure Americans that the nation’s election infrastructure “remains resilient.”

“You should be confident that your vote counts,” he said. “Early unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism. We encourage everyone to seek election and voting information from reliable sources, namely your state election officials and to be thoughtful, careful, and discerning consumers of information online.

“And if you suspect criminal activity, we ask that you report that information to your local FBI field office,” he added.

Shortly before the announcement, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Acting Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) released a statement on the threat: “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.

“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. 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,” the senators said.