Declassified: U.S. Spies Reveal How Russia, Iran Tried to Manipulate U.S. 2020 Elections

March 23, 2021 Topic: 2020 Election Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IranJCPOANuclearRussiaSpies2020 Election

Declassified: U.S. Spies Reveal How Russia, Iran Tried to Manipulate U.S. 2020 Elections

Two countries made large-scale covert efforts to influence U.S. voters—one favoring the Trump administration, the other undermining it. 

One day after the infamous riot at the U.S. Capitol, the National Intelligence Council issued a classified report assessing which countries attempted to manipulate the contentious 2020 U.S. presidential election, why they did so, and what methods they used.  

Two months later, on March 15, the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified version of “Foreign Threats to the U.S. 2020 Federal Elections.”

The council, which reports to the DNI, distills intelligence from multiple U.S. agencies to produces analyses for policymakers. Its ten-page report drew on the findings notably from the CIA, FBI, NSA, Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research through Dec. 31, 2020.  

The report’s first key judgment is most important: the agencies found no indications that foreign actors attempted to “alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 US elections, including voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation, or reporting of results.”  

That contrasts with what the report says were “persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure” during the 2016 elections. 

However, two countries did make large-scale covert efforts to influence U.S. voters—one favoring the Trump administration, the other undermining it. 

Russia: Kompromat and Troll Farms 

The report asserts that Russian president Vladimir Putin directly authorized Russia’s government to conduct “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S.” 

Russian leaders viewed “President Biden’s potential election as disadvantageous,” and felt their actions were an “equitable response” to U.S. criticism of the rigging of Russian presidential elections. Biden was viewed as representing a foreign policy establishment that is critical of Putin and his military activities in Ukraine, which is why Moscow also supported anti-establishment candidates in the Democratic primary. 

Russian intelligence agencies have a long history of collecting and using kompromat (compromising information, genuine or fake) to embarrass or blackmail perceived enemies. The report states Russia’s key tactic was to use individuals tied to Russian intelligence to make “misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden” that would be picked up and amplified by U.S. officials and media outlets. The Kremlin’s agents were to be the match, and receptive U.S. media and politicians, the tinder. 

The report identifies Ukrainians with links to Russian intelligence agencies as delivering “evidence” to discredit Biden—namely Konstantin Kilimnik (a former employee of Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager for Trump) and Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach. They successfully contacted “prominent U.S. persons and media conduits” and “Trump administration-linked US persons to advocate for formal investigation.”  

No U.S. persons are named but it is generally believed that Rudy Guliani, a counselor and lawyer for Trump, who met with Derkach in Ukraine, is one of them. Derkach also reportedly contacted Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and possibly California representative Devin Nunes. 

The agents even hired a firm to lobby U.S. officials, which produced a documentary that eventually aired in January 2020. Though not named, that documentary is alleged to be “The Ukraine Hoax” aired by the One America News Network (OAN).  

Between 2018–2020 Russian cyber actors, including the GRU military intelligence agency, also sought to hack into “organizations primarily affiliated with the Democratic Party” and the Ukrainian firm Burisma to dig up dirt. But the report cautions some hacks were part of general intelligence-gathering efforts and not necessarily aimed at election manipulation. 

The report states that Russian state media and trolls (some controlled by Russian intelligence agencies) attacked Biden and the Democrats; promoted conspiracy theories related to Biden’s son, internet censorship and electoral fraud; and sought to inflame tensions over racial justice. While promoting Trump’s commentary to right-wing audiences, they also sought to “discourage US left-leaning audiences from voting by suggesting that neither candidates was a preferable option.” 

Russia’s Lakhta Internet Research agency even opened satellite troll farms in Ghana, Mexico and Nigeria after its Russia-based operation came under increasing scrutiny. 

Iran: Undermine Trump, Sow Discord 

Meanwhile, the report finds that Supreme Leader Khamenei likely authorized Iran’s military and intelligence services to carry out “a multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s reelection prospects.” 

Though the report notes the Iranian effort did not promote Trump’s rival, Iranian leaders saw an elevated threat of war under Trump and likely hoped Biden would reinstate the JCPOA nuclear deal, thereby bringing an end to sanctions on Iran. 

Iran’s campaign was executed primarily online, including attempts to hack into election websites as well as “spear-phishing” emails targeting “current and former senior officials.” Several thousand deceptive Iranian social media accounts targeted the United States with “1,000 pieces of online content.”

One dramatic Iranian operation involved dispatching “threatening, spoofed emails purporting to be from the Proud Boys group to Democratic voters in multiple U.S. states, demanding that the individuals change their party affiliation and vote to reelect former President Trump.”  

Iran also sought to inflame domestic tensions within the United States, for example by creating a website issuing death threats against U.S. election officials. 

China: A Red Herring 

The report’s fourth finding addresses the elephant in the room: China. But here, it concerns what China didn’t do.

Last fall, senior Trump administration officials stated that China was seeking to tilt the election towards Biden in an election manipulation effort greater than those of Russia and Iran.  

Chinese influence operations and cyberattacks were already infamous, so Beijing certainly had the means to interfere if desired. However, a report from the DNI ombudsman released in January 2021 revealed that the career analysts at DNI had actually concluded the opposite of the public claims, and felt that their findings were being intentionally misrepresented for domestic political gain. 

In the newly declassified report, the council assesses with “high confidence” that China “considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election.” 

Why? The NIC concludes that Beijing assessed that both Biden and Trump would have an anti-China foreign policy. Furthermore, Chinese leaders doubted the impact of election interference would equal the negative effect of their manipulation effort being exposed.  

That said, the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber dissented from his colleagues, claiming with moderate confidence that China took steps on social media and through official announcements to “at least indirectly affect U.S. candidates, political processes and voter preferences” to Trump’s detriment.

Three other actors were identified as conducting limited influence operations against Trump: Lebanese Hezbollah (a proxy of Iran); Cuba, which “probably” conducted low-level activities to influence Hispanic voters; and the Venezuelan government, which “had the intent, though probably not the capability” to promote anti-Trump views. 

Election Manipulation: A New Normal? 

Election manipulation is not a new phenomenon—the United States has its own history of the practice abroad—but the intersection of mass and social media, the internet and old-fashioned dirty tricks make it easier for foreign agents to conceal their identities, disseminate false stories, and even radicalize voters. However, just because it’s become easier to interfere doesn’t mean a state will inevitably do so, as suggested by China’s strategic judgment that it had more to lose than gain from election manipulation in 2020.  

A robust program combining cybersecurity, increased transparency, and de-platforming of deceptive or inauthentic information sources can help curb a likely enduring threat to democracy. As individuals, we must also learn to exercise greater scrutiny of claims from shady sources, no matter how well the message flatters our personal beliefs. 

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Reuters