Senior U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say there are no indications that foreign adversaries are trying to undermine the upcoming U.S. presidential election by targeting mail-in ballots or mail-in voting.
“We have no information or intelligence that any nation state threat actor is engaging in any kind of activity to undermine any part of the mail-in vote or ballots,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday. “We have no information or intelligence on that.”
A senior law enforcement official went even further, telling reporters that there was also nothing to suggest forces or groups within the country were seeking to rig the November 3 election by targeting or manipulating mail-in ballots.
“We have not seen, to date, a coordinated national voter fraud effort during a major election,” the senior FBI official stated.
“It would be extraordinarily difficult to change a federal election outcome through this type of fraud alone, given the range of processes that would need to be affected or compromised by an adversary at the local level,” the official added.
The officials shared the assessments regarding mail-in voting, as well as information on other potential threats to the election, during a phone briefing with reporters on the condition that they not be named.
They said more detailed information was also being shared Wednesday in a separate, secure threat briefing for state and local election officials from across the United States.
The comments by the senior U.S. officials from multiple agencies – including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security – may reassure some U.S. voters, many of whom will be voting by mail because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
But the assessments run contrary to repeated claims by U.S. President Donald Trump that the wide-scale use of mail-in ballots will lead to the “most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history."
Trump’s fraud concerns
Early on, Trump contended that the use of mail-in ballots would provide an opportunity for countries like Russia and China to print and send out forgeries, which could sway the outcome of the election.
This week, minutes after delegates at the Republican National Convention formally nominated him as the party’s presidential candidate, Trump accused rival Democrats of pushing the use of mail-in ballots to rig the vote.
“They’re trying to steal the election,” the president told delegates at the convention, without presenting any evidence, adding the November vote would be “the greatest scam in the history of politics.”
A number of federal and state election officials have pushed back at Trump’s assertions.
“We are not aware of any evidence supporting the claims made by President Trump,” Maria Benson, the communications director for the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), told VOA via email after Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr raised concerns in June.
Some lawmakers, including members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who have been briefed repeatedly on election security, have likewise rejected Trump’s claims, telling VOA they have seen no evidence of anyone trying to alter the results of the election by manipulating mail-in ballots.
'Most secure' election
The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the lead government agency for making sure the presidential election is carried out safely and accurately, has also sought to reassure U.S. voters, publicly proclaiming that the 2020 election will be “the most secure election in modern history.”
Senior intelligence and law enforcement officials Wednesday largely supported that assessment, noting that more than 90% of votes cast in November would have a paper trail and could be audited to rule out any fraud or deceit.
“The American public should rest assured that it is very difficult for a foreign adversary to meddle with actual vote counts,” a second senior FBI official said.
Speaking separately Wednesday, a senior Justice Department official also cast doubt on the possibility anyone could meddle with the ballots themselves.
“We have yet to see any activity intended to prevent voting or to change votes,” Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen told the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And we continue to think it would be extremely difficult for foreign adversaries to change vote tallies.”
Wednesday’s remarks came as U.S. states are preparing to send out mail-in ballots for the presidential election in the coming weeks.
Early voting begins in 39 states next month.
And while many officials are confident that the chance is very small that any actor, foreign or domestic, will be able to rig election results, they are still concerned that someone will attempt to find other ways to meddle with the election.
A key concern is the use of ransomware – malicious software that locks up systems or networks, demanding money in exchange for allowing users to regain access.
Some states have publicly expressed concerns that if ransomware attacks could be activated at just the right time, they could impact systems used to tally votes.
There are also concerns that U.S. adversaries could use ransomware to launch attacks against state or local governments, which could complicate election efforts.
“We've seen ransomware have an impact,” a senior CISA official said Wednesday. “The county [local] network, for instance, was down and the election officials had to respond and reestablish connectivity.”
In general, though, officials said they had not seen the type of scanning and probing of election-related systems that was problematic in 2016, when Russian-linked actors scanned election-related systems in more than 20 states, breaching the voter registration database for the state of Illinois.
“We haven't seen to date a ramp-up in activity targeting election infrastructure over, say, the last few months,” the senior CISA official said, noting that while there have been constant attempts by criminal networks to scan U.S. networks, they have been “largely unsuccessful.”
Russia, China, Iran influence campaigns
Another major concern for senior U.S. officials is information operations aimed at influencing U.S. voters before they cast their ballots or at undermining confidence in the results themselves.
This month, U.S. counterintelligence officials warned the so-called Big Three – Russia, China and Iran – were all running influence campaigns.
Russian efforts, they said, appear to be aimed to hurt the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Joe Biden while boosting Trump.
Information operations by China and Iran, they added, appeared to favor a Biden win.
But officials worry all could benefit from casting doubt on the election results, which because of the expected increase in mail-in voting might not be available for days.
“The reality is it's not about Election Day anymore. It's about [the] election time period,” the CISA official said. “Prepared, patient, participating voters are the last and best measure of resilience.”