Threat to US elections in 2020 is not limited to Russia

Published 6:49 am Thursday, October 31, 2019

WASHINGTON — Russia interfered in the 2016 election and may try to sway next year’s vote as well. But it’s not the only nation with an eye on U.S. politics.

American officials sounding the alarm about foreign efforts to disrupt the 2020 election include multiple countries in that warning. Concerns abound not only about possible hacking of campaigns but also about the spread of disinformation on social media and potential efforts to breach voting databases and even alter votes.

The anxiety goes beyond the possibility that U.S. adversaries could affect election results: The mere hint of foreign meddling could undermine public confidence in vote tallies, a worrisome possibility in a tight election.

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“Unfortunately, it’s not just Russia anymore. In particular, China, Iran, a couple of others, studied what the Russians did in 2016,” said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

U.S. intelligence agencies reported Russian, Chinese and Iranian influence activities targeting last year’s midterms, and a senior FBI official last week singled out Beijing as a particular source of concern. Meanwhile, Microsoft recently reported that Iranian hackers had targeted an unidentified presidential campaign along with government officials, journalists and prominent expatriate Iranians.

FBI Director Chris Wray told a congressional hearing Wednesday that the FBI does not have evidence that China, Iran or North Korea plan to target election infrastructure in next year’s election, but “that doesn’t mean they’re not looking carefully at what the Russians attempted to do and trying to learn lessons from that.”

“All of those countries in different ways are clearly interested in engaging in malign foreign influence,” he added.

As for Russia, he said, the U.S. expects that they “already have continued to up their game from what they did in 2016. Of course, we’ve upped our game too.”

Any foreign effort to interfere in the 2020 election won’t necessarily mirror Russia’s attack in 2016, when Kremlin-linked military intelligence officers hacked Democratic emails and shared them with WikiLeaks to try to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

More likely are the social media campaigns, like the Russian-based one that shaped public opinion in the 2016 election and divided Americans on hot-button topics like race and religion.

Facebook, for instance, announced recently that it has removed four networks of fake, state-backed misinformation-spreading accounts based in Russia and Iran. The company said the networks sought to disrupt elections in the U.S., North Africa and Latin America.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report described Russia’s social media activities in 2016 as a “vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood.” A recent memo from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned Russia may use social media to exacerbate divisions within political parties during primaries or hack election websites to spread misinformation on voting processes.

Concerns about foreign influence campaigns coincide with stepped-up enforcement of a law requiring the registration with the Justice Department of lobbyists, media organizations and other entities that do the bidding of foreign government.

Special counsel Robert Mueller exposed through his investigation the unregistered, covert Russian campaign to spread disinformation on social media.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it had removed from its site three Russia-based networks that engaged in foreign influence targeting more than a half-dozen African countries. The company said its investigation linked those accounts to a Russian already indicted in Mueller’s investigation in connection with the social media disinformation effort.

The Justice Department is concerned about China undertaking similar activities. Twitter said it has suspended more than 200,000 accounts that it believes were part of a Chinese government influence campaign targeting the protest movement in Hong Kong. The department also required China’s state-owned television network, CGTN, to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“Make no mistake, China is aggressively pursuing foreign influence operations,” Nikki Floris, an FBI deputy assistant director, said at a recent congressional hearing. “So as we roll into 2020, though Russia was certainly a threat in 2016 (and) 2018, and will continue to be so in 2020, we are also aggressively looking at China as well.”