U.S. security and intelligence officials are warning voters to expect foreign actors to try to sway their views as they prepare to go to the polls in a series of key presidential primaries.
The warning, issued on the eve of Super Tuesday votes in 14 states and one territory, comes as a series of intelligence leaks in recent weeks suggested Russia, in particular, has been trying to put its mark on the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
While the latest statement did not single out Russia, it urged voters to beware.
“Foreign actors continue to try to influence public sentiment and shape voter perceptions,” it said. “They spread false information and propaganda about political processes and candidates on social media in hopes to cause confusion and create doubt in our system.”
The warning from leaders of the departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Justice - with the FBI, the National Security Agency and other federal entities - added, “We remain alert and ready to respond to any efforts to disrupt the 2020 elections.”
There has been growing concern in recent weeks following reports indicating Russia is seeking to bolster the reelection campaign of both President Donald Trump and a Democratic candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
U.S. intelligence officials have since denied some of the allegations – based on leaks from a classified briefing to lawmakers – that there is any evidence Moscow is backing Trump’s reelection efforts.
But Sanders told reporters he was, in fact, warned about Russian meddling. And since then there has been an increasing number of calls from lawmakers and former U.S. intelligence officials for the government to clarify what is and is not transpiring.
“The level of coordination and communication between the federal government and state, local and private sector partners is stronger than it’s ever been,” Tuesday’s statement said. “Our Departments and Agencies are working together in an unprecedented level of commitment and effort to protect our elections and to counter malign foreign influence.”
The U.S. intelligence community concluded, following the 2018 elections, that Russia, Iran and China all sought to interfere. Since then, numerous officials have warned those countries and others, even non-state actors, may try to meddle with the upcoming presidential elections.
A good deal of concern has focused on influence campaigns, like those implemented by Russia on social media four years ago in the run-up to the last U.S. presidential election.
“We believe that as they did in 2016 that they will try to influence the election in 2020," acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told lawmakers last week.
“They continue to sow discord with our elections," he said, cautioning, "We don't have any specific intelligence.”
A report earlier this year from Estonia’s foreign intelligence service also warned meddling by the Kremlin was likely.
“Russia wants to show that the West is failing to hold fair elections," it said.
But there are also concerns that Russia and others might target some of the U.S. voting infrastructure, such as each state’s voter registration database.
"The areas where information is centralized and its highly networked, that's where a lot of the risk is," Chris Krebs, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) said at a security conference last week.
"The American people need to understand that we are taking this seriously, we're engaged on it, but 100% security is not going to be the outcome," he added.
In the meantime, there has also been growing political acrimony over the Trump administration’s response to election security.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday slammed the administration for missing a deadline to report on election security and accused the president of “refusing to protect the integrity of our elections.”
Tuesday’s statement by U.S. security and intelligence officials, though, said systems are being secured and that any meddling will not go unpunished.
“We continue to make it clear to foreign actors that any effort to undermine our democratic processes will be met with sharp consequences,” it warned.