U.S. intelligence agencies are accusing Iran and Russia of trying to use voter registration data in “desperate attempts” to sow chaos and confusion ahead of the November 3 U.S. presidential election.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe made the announcement during a hastily called news conference late Wednesday, seeking to reassure Americans and promising to inflict “costs and consequences” on any country caught meddling.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia,” he said, adding both countries “have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.”
Ratcliffe did not say how Russia was using the information but blamed Iranian cyber actors for being behind a flurry of activity over the previous 24 hours, saying some of it appeared to be designed to hurt U.S. President Donald Trump.
“We have already seen Iran sending ‘spoofed’ emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” he said.
Iran’s foreign ministry on Wednesday rejected the U.S. accusations as “baseless,” and summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
Researchers tracking the emails, alleging to have come from the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has rallied behind the president, said they had been sent to voters in at least four U.S. states, including Arizona, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Florida.
The voters, mostly registered Democrats, were told, “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”
Representatives of the Proud Boys denied any involvement.
In addition to the emails, Ratcliffe said Iran was also responsible for distributing a video implying that some voters might be prone to cast fraudulent ballots.
“This video, and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots, are not true,” he said.
The top U.S. intelligence official also said that despite the Iranian and Russian effort to undermine voter confidence, “our election systems are resilient.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said last month there had been no signs of any attacks on voter registration systems, also emphasized U.S. election-related systems remained secure.
“You should be confident your vote counts," Wray said “We are not going to let our guard down.”
Officials have previously played down concerns about potential hacks or cyberattacks on voter registration systems.
Last month, a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant sparked concerns that voter rolls in Michigan had been hacked but that was quickly ruled out by state officials.
Other election officials have likewise cautioned voters to be wary of such reports.
"Voter registration lists are public information, available for purchase or for free from the states," a spokesperson for the National Association of State Election Directors told VOA at the time.
That Iran and Russia targeted the U.S. voters with less than two weeks before the election is also no surprise.
The top U.S. counterintelligence official, William Evanina, warned in August that both countries, along with China, were actively meddling in the election, hoping to influence the outcome.
Tehran, Evanina said at the time, was trying to damage Trump’s chances of reelection, fearing it “would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”
Russia, on the other hand, “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President [Joe] Biden,” he said, adding “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy.”
Earlier this month, though, Evanina told Hearst Television all three countries – Iran, Russia and China – were actively targeting the emails and servers for both the Trump and Biden campaigns.
Still, some cyber security experts say this latest influence operation by Iran, using the spoofed emails and the video, seems to indicate Tehran is getting more ambitious.
“This incident marks a fundamental shift in our understanding of Iran’s willingness to interfere in the democratic process,” John Hultquist, the senior director of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, said in a statement shared with VOA.
“While many of their operations have been focused on promoting propaganda in pursuit of Iran’s interests, this incident is clearly aimed at undermining voter confidence,” he said.
While U.S. intelligence concluded Iran, along with Russia and China, sought to meddle with the country’s 2018 elections, previous Iranian cyber activity has mostly focused on distributed denial of service attacks, which block access to websites by overwhelming the server hosting the site with internet traffic, efforts to deface websites and attempts to steal personal data.
Following Wednesday’s announcement, however, some lawmakers seemed to suggest Iran’s influence operation shows Tehran is copying Russia’s playbook, designed first and foremost to foment chaos and distrust.
“Russia & Iran want the losing side to reject the election outcome in order to undermine the winners [sic] legitimacy & spark a constitutional crisis,” acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Republican Marco Rubio, tweeted late Wednesday.
“Staging fake voter intimidation & sensationalist last minute claims of widespread election fraud lays the groundwork for this,” he added.
Earlier Wednesday, the Rubio and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner urged voters not to let attacks on the election cause them to lose faith in the country’s election infrastructure.
“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,” they said in a joint statement.
“We urge every American – including members of the media – to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting,” they said.