US warns of ‘ongoing’ efforts to disrupt elections by Russia, China, Iran
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US warns of ‘ongoing’ efforts to disrupt elections by Russia, China, Iran

Joint statement by intelligence officials says countries ‘seeding disinformation’ ahead of midterms in possible reprise of the Moscow-tainted presidential race of 2016

Christopher Krebs, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate, speaks during a news conference on election cyber security on October 19, 2018, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Christopher Krebs, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate, speaks during a news conference on election cyber security on October 19, 2018, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US intelligence officials on Friday said they were worried about “ongoing campaigns” by Russia, China, Iran and other countries to undermine confidence in American democracy.

In a rare joint statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Homeland Security Department, the Justice Department and the FBI expressed concern over “ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies.”

Foreign nations were particularly seeking “to influence voter perceptions and decision-making” in the 2018 and 2020 elections, they said.

The agencies said the “ongoing campaigns” could take many forms, including attempts to influence voters through social media, sponsoring content in English language media such as the Russian outlet RT, or “seeding disinformation through sympathetic spokespersons regarding political candidates and disseminating foreign propaganda.”

The national security agencies said they currently do not have any evidence that voting systems have been disrupted or compromised in ways that could result in changing vote counts or hampering the ability to tally votes in the midterms, which are two-and-a-half weeks away.

“Some state and local governments have reported attempts to access their networks, which often include online voter registration databases, using tactics that are available to state and nonstate cyber actors,” they said.

But so far, they said, state and local officials have been able to prevent access or quickly mitigate these attempts.

Election assistant Wayne Martin helps volunteers string lights as they set up voting booths at a polling station inside the library at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School in Los Angeles on June 5, 2018 (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

In August Facebook, Twitter and Google banned multiple Russian and Iranian accounts they said were engaged in misleading political behavior ahead of the midterms.

The statement was released the same day the US Justice Department unsealed a criminal complaint against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, a Russian national who is accused of helping oversee the finances of a sweeping, secretive effort to sway American public opinion through social media in the 2018 midterm elections.

Khusyaynova’s case is the first federal case alleging foreign interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

The complaint against Khusyaynova alleges that Russians are using some of the same techniques to influence US politics as they relied on ahead of the 2016 presidential election, methods laid bare in an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible coordination between Russia and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign.

Justice Department prosecutors claim that Khusyaynova, of St. Petersburg, helped manage the finances of a hidden but powerful Russian social media effort aimed at spreading distrust in American political candidates and causing divisions on hot-button social issues like immigration and gun control.

Prosecutors allege that Khusyaynova worked for the same social media troll farm that was indicted earlier this year by Mueller, and the social media effort they outlined Friday largely mirrors the special counsel’s criminal case against three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, and 13 Russians — including a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The conduct singled out Friday runs afoul of criminal laws that bar foreign nationals from attempting to influence American elections or from engaging in political activities without first registering with the attorney general, prosecutors said. The new prosecution was brought not by Mueller but by the Justice Department’s national security division and prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia. There is no allegation in the complaint of coordination with the Trump campaign.

Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats speaks during the CyberScoop 2018 CyberTalks conference at the Mellon Auditorium, on October 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

Asked about the new accusation against the Russians, Trump responded that it had “nothing to do with me.”

The court papers pull back the court papers on a Russian effort to use thousands of fake social media profiles, and email accounts that appeared to be from people inside the US, to influence American politics. The goal was not necessarily to espouse one political ideology over another, prosecutors say, but rather “create and amplify divisive social and political content” including on significant current events such as deadly shootings in South Carolina and Las Vegas, prosecutors said.

One fake persona, registered to “Bertha Malone,” made over 400 Facebook posts containing inflammatory content. One post falsely alleged ties between former president Barack Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another fake Facebook account, in the name of “Rachell Edison,” made more than 700 posts focused on gun control and the Second Amendment.

The Russian organizers of the conspiracy advised that the posts should reflect various viewpoints, and they gave specific instructions to only share articles from certain news websites to correspond to specific political views, prosecutors said.

“If you write posts in a liberal group… you must not use Breitbart titles,” one of the group’s members warned, court papers say. “On the contrary, if you write posts in a conservative group, do not use Washington Post or BuzzFeed’s titles.”

After one news article targeting Republican Sen. John McCain appeared online with the headline “McCain Says Thinking a Wall Will Stop Illegal Immigration is ‘Crazy,'” members of the group were told to brand him as “an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly.” They were also told to say that McCain had a “pathological hatred toward Donald Trump and toward all his initiatives.”

McCain, a longtime foe of Putin’s, died in August of brain cancer.

After another article appeared about Mueller, members of the troll farm were told to share the article and say Mueller was a “puppet of the establishment” who had connections to the Democratic Party and “who says things that should either remove him from his position or disband the entire investigation commission.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said recently that Russia has no intention of interfering in the midterm elections.

Friday’s separate statement about foreign influence in US elections was issued just weeks before the November 6 elections by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Given the breadth of alleged interference by Russia, which includes the hacking of Democratic email accounts ahead of the 2016 presidential election, it was notable that the intelligence community identified two other nations, China and Iran, in the same statement.

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