“Iran and Russia are using voter registration data to interfere in the US elections, top national security officials announced during a surprise press conference Wednesday night.
Iran is behind the spoof emails to some voters, and is spreading disinformation online about sending fraudulent ballots from overseas, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Wednesday. Russia has also gotten access to voter registration data, just as it did in 2016, he said.
Both Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray said no votes have been compromised. “Today, that [election] infrastructure remains resilient,” Wray said Wednesday. “You should be confident that your vote counts.”
National security officials didn’t really offer many other details in their abrupt announcement. The spoof emails appear to be those sent to some voters in Alaska and Florida, which claimed to be sent from the Proud Boys, a far-right organization. The emails reportedly targeted Democratic voters, claiming they had access to voting infrastructure and threatening them if they did not vote for Trump.
The Washington Post reported before the press conference that the US government had concluded Iran was behind the emails.”
“Russia’s main strategy is to sow discord and division, and diminish faith in democracy. It also favors President Donald Trump, partly because he helps advance the first two goals, and because of his oft-stated desire to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.
China and Iran are more averse to chaos in the US, and are much more focused on pushing their own national objectives. They want different things from the United States, Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, told me.
For China, that might mean promoting its Covid-19 narrative, or getting the US to shut up about Hong Kong protests. For Iran, that could mean promoting criticism of Israel or US sanctions policy.
All three countries have different capabilities. China might not use online trolls in the way Russia or even Iran does because it has other, far more effective tools — economic, technological — that could achieve those aims.
And, of course, interference may go beyond disinformation or influence campaigns. There is the threat of hacking or cyber intrusions of politicians, or campaigns, or even election infrastructure. There is also a concern over how individuals with ties to foreign governments might use money in politics. And there’s probably something else, because as one analyst told me, what the US doesn’t want to be doing is fighting the last war.”
“A Department of Homeland Security whistleblower complaint also alleges that the administration tried to downplay the Russia threat because it upsets Trump, and that National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien pressured the department to elevate China and Iran activities to the level of Russia’s, even though that didn’t fit with the actual intelligence data available.”
“Russia is still pushing disinformation through social media and has reportedly attempted to hack campaigns associated with both Democrats and Republicans. The Kremlin is also filtering pro-Russia narratives through Ukrainian politicians to undermine Biden and the Democrats, talking points that are being regurgitated by Trump and GOP allies. The ODNI has said that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.”
Taken together, Moscow’s tactics create chaos and distrust in US institutions and democracy, exacerbating America’s partisan divides like a finger pressed to a bruise.
Based on what’s known publicly, China and Iran are echoing some of those strategies. They’re spreading disinformation. They reportedly targeted campaigns and political entities.
But China and Iran want different things when it comes to America.
Russia wants to disrupt and destabilize and confuse people on how to see the world. Iran and China would like the world to see things their way. At least right now, China, in particular, sees a lot more value in building itself up than in tearing America apart.
“For China and Iran, ultimately, their interests are not served by an American political system that is chaotic, unable to think long-term, make strategic decisions about their relationships with either of those two countries,” Priscilla Moriuchi, an expert on state-sponsored cyber operations and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said.
This is not to say that China and Iran are cool with the United States as is. But China doesn’t want a chaotic world, Brookings’s West told me. It wants stability. So if it’s going to meddle in the 2020 election, it’s not out to cause Russian-style pandemonium.”
“The ODNI report says Russia wants to denigrate Biden, but says Iran and China have particular preferences when it comes to the 2020 election. US intelligence assess China “prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection.” But the ODNI doesn’t say that China is necessarily tipping the scales for Biden. Instead, China’s operations are mostly focused on deflecting criticism of China.
As for Iran, the ODNI says it seeks to “undermine President Trump” and democratic institutions, saying it’s mostly focused on online and anti-US propaganda.
This has created a sense that Russia is on one side and China and Iran are on the other — one for Trump, two for Biden. But this is the wrong way to look at it, experts told me. It muddles the actual efforts and objectives of each of these actors.
“It’s certainly true that different US adversaries might have different preferences for the outcome of the election,” Brooking, of the Atlantic Council, told me. “But they don’t go about executing their goals the same way.””
” This is a US presidential election; Beijing has a preference, but so do Brussels and Mexico City and Tokyo. Allies and adversaries alike are going to have an idea of an outcome they’d like to see based on their own foreign policy, national security, and economic interests. As Cordero said, that’s not the same thing as “taking specific actions using their intelligence services, using their military, cyber capability to actively affect the outcome of our election.””
“”it is not clear that China is really interested in turning a lot of this apparatus to privilege one candidate or another in the presidential election.”
So far, China hasn’t really shown itself to be interested in that kind of disruption, James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told me. Instead, he said, China is “more interested in getting the US off their back.”
“With China, it’s to benefit China,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center”
“Moriuchi, at the Belfer Center, cautioned against the notion that this somehow means China is the JV team to Russia’s varsity, because, again, they’re essentially playing two different games. Russia is trying to disrupt the 2020 election and see what kind of disorder it can create. Beijing is playing the long game.”
“Russia is an adversary, but Moscow can’t directly challenge the US’s economic dominance, or its position in global hegemony. Trying to bolster the Russian political system in the US wouldn’t be as useful in weakening US democracy as, for instance, amplifying doubts about mail-in voting.”
“Russia’s disruption tactics are a kind of asymmetric warfare against a larger power. It’s low tech and not all that costly, but America’s homegrown political dysfunction has made it seem wildly effective.
This isn’t the case for China. China is challenging the US for global hegemony. “China — the Chinese Communist Party — believes it is in a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in July. China does want to manipulate the American political system to help achieve those ends. It just has a lot more capabilities than Russia does.
“It’s certainly true that if China wanted, they could have extraordinary impact on this social media space,” Brooking said. “But the Chinese also don’t need to do that.” They’re the second-largest economy in the world, he added. “They have so many levers of influence and power, which don’t rely on creating sock puppet accounts and botnets.”
China is carefully, and strategically, expanding its influence in the US in ways that might not fit with our perception of “meddling.” And if China doesn’t like what the US or others are saying about its policies, it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on a fake Facebook page.”
““The Chinese don’t want you to say what we did in Hong Kong was bad, and they use market pressure and money and influence operations to push that China’s great: ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’” CSIS’s Lewis said.
This also prompts certain industries or institutions to self-censor, tiptoeing around sensitive issues to avoid displeasing China. But China can also more directly use its economic prowess, enticing Wall Street or Hollywood with investment or funding think tanks and universities that may push more Beijing-friendly talking points.
There are also legitimate concerns about what China is doing with its technology. China uses apps like WeChat to spread pro-Chinese messaging, including to the Chinese diaspora around the world, and the government almost certainly uses it as a surveillance tool. The same goes for concerns about censorship and/or data tracking on Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.
And then there are the hacking operations meant to gather intelligence — that is, to spy. FBI Director Wray said in that same July speech that the US opens a counterintelligence case against China every 10 hours; of the FBI’s 5,000 counterintelligence cases, about half involve China.
China has waged a relentless campaign to steal technological and trade secrets from the United States. Hackers with ties to Chinese military or intelligence have carried out cyber operations to steal massive amounts of data — hacks like the 2017 Equifax breach that affected about half of all Americans, or the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack.
“So China is probing campaigns like the Russians (and Iranians), but what it will do with that information is a lot less clear. In 2016, Russia released stolen information through WikiLeaks, which was far more dramatic and influential than just quietly collecting information for its own use. China, we know, has these cyber capabilities, but so far it hasn’t tried to dump any information to alter the presidential race.”
“Iran definitely has cyber capabilities. But Zoli said, overall, they’re not sophisticated enough to have a truly enormous impact. “They don’t have the capabilities and they haven’t thought through a really multi-pronged strategy. They’re not going after, you know, these ancillary institutional sites to try to have a big impact on political decision-making.””
“Plenty of other countries — even those who’d fall into the US ally camp — are using social media to spread state propaganda, or messaging that favors their foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia-linked accounts have spread pro-Trump messaging on Twitter. During the George Floyd protests, Turkey tried to link Syrian Kurds to antifa. Whether this stuff really works isn’t the point; it doesn’t require a lot of resources, it’s not all that complicated, and right now, getting taken down by Twitter or Facebook is a fairly low cost.”
“So why, in the midst of grappling with an out-of-control pandemic and an economy in free fall, would Tehran devote time and money to fighting the US? The answer, at least in part, is that the Iranian government believes the United States is particularly weak right now, too.
With Washington’s ineptitude on full display in its domestic response to the coronavirus, few people outside of a select group of Iran hawks — which includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have much of an appetite for continued clashes with Iranian proxies in Iraq or incidents with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf right now.
The United States is also a convenient scapegoat and distraction that the Iranian regime regularly uses to deflect attention from its own failures.
Facing growing criticism at home and abroad for their abysmal response to the Covid-19 outbreak, Iranian leaders have tried to shift the blame to the US — particularly the stringent economic sanctions Washington has placed on the country, which Iranian leaders say (not entirely unfairly) are hampering the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic.”
“The US assassination of Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, was intended to not only take Iran’s most capable military figure off the battlefield but also to “reestablish deterrence” — that is, to raise the stakes so that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq would think twice about attacking US forces in the country going forward.
However, a series of recent attacks shows that far from being cowed, these militias appear to have been emboldened. In all likelihood, Iran is only in the nascent stages of responding to the death of Soleimani.”
“The coronavirus pandemic sweeping throughout the world has led the United States to draw down its forces, repositioning soldiers within Iraq and consolidating troops to fewer bases. US special forces soldiers have been withdrawn from some of the world’s most dangerous active conflict zones, leaving local host-nation forces to contend with an array of well-equipped and battle-hardened terrorists, insurgents, and militias.
This has presented Iran with a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate its control in Iraq and push the US entirely out. And the country’s leaders aren’t going to squander their chance.”
” From Tehran, the United States looks at its weakest in years. The country is struggling to formulate a coherent and effective response to Covid-19. The divisions between the United States and its traditional allies are glaring. In terms of US-Iran tensions, US allies in Europe place much of the blame on America, not the Islamic Republic.”
“Unbeknownst to many Americans, we’ve been hurtling toward a worsened conflict with Iran for nearly two years now. The Trump administration has been quietly escalating against the country and its allies using a selection of counterterrorism laws, many of them passed after 9/11, that allowed it to act without going through Congress or the public. Former President Barack Obama, meanwhile, left a force in the region to counter the Islamic State that the Trump administration eventually pointed against the Islamic Republic.
Trump and his advisors objected to the violence carried out by Iran and its proxies across the Middle East. They also disliked Obama’s “nuclear deal,” which lifted U.S. economic sanctions on Iran in order to get international inspectors access to the country’s nuclear research program. So in 2018, the Trump administration replaced Obama’s deal with a campaign of sanctions aimed at forcing the Iranian government to change a range of foreign and domestic policies.”
“”In China and Iran, both experiencing major outbreaks, early action has been undermined by efforts to halt and control free flow of information,” which has limited the public’s understanding and willingness to “share vital information with officials,” Matthew Kavanagh, an assistant professor of global health at Georgetown University, told Insider last week.”
“After Tehran fired 16 missiles at two US military sites in Iraq earlier this month, the Trump administration repeatedly said there were no casualties. Trump, during a January 8 address at the White House, reiterated that message by saying “all of our soldiers are safe.”
Then last week, a Pentagon spokesperson admitted 11 military members sustained injuries in the Iran strikes, saying in a statement that the troops were “treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed” in Germany and Kuwait.
And then on Tuesday — almost two weeks after Trump and other officials said no one was hurt — another Defense Department spokesperson said that “additional service members have been identified as having potential injuries” and are under evaluation in Germany, too, though the exact number of troops or nature of the injuries is unclear.
While Iran didn’t kill a single US military member — as far as we know — it’s clear the human toll is much higher than the administration initially let on. Of course, it’s possible that officials didn’t notice the injuries until well after the Iran attack, as the first injuries to be identified are usually those involving visible physical wounds.”
“Washington’s bipartisan military-first approach to foreign affairs broadcasts to bad actors worldwide that U.S. intervention is always at hand and that a nuclear arsenal is the only sure deterrence against it.
North Korea has affirmed this logic explicitly. “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression,” a state-run media editorial declared in January 2016. Neither Iraq’s Saddam Hussein nor Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, both deposed and killed with U.S. involvement, could “escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations of nuclear development and giving up undeclared programs of their own accord,” the editorial continued. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is visibly determined not to follow in their footsteps.
For all its imperfections, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—better known as the “Iran deal”—presented an opportunity to break this pattern. Unfortunately, that opportunity is gone following Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. After the Soleimani strike, Tehran announced its own exit from the plan and, with that, its intent to proceed with nuclear research and development at will.”
“in order for this strike to be legal without congressional authorization, it would have to be in response to an imminent threat to the United States. And then we immediately enter into a discussion about what “imminent” and “threat” actually mean.”
“Many of the people who have shaped our legal understanding of “imminent” over the years understood it to mean that the threat was unfolding right now and there’s no time to do anything other than to kill the person.
The Soleimani killing doesn’t appear to meet that threshold.”
“If this is just a thing we did, then Congress doesn’t need to be notified. But if it’s an act of war, then clearly Congress needs to be notified.”
“for better or worse, at a point where the majority of lawmakers have basically acquiesced to the administration’s interpretation of the law when it comes to war, and again, this goes back to the George W. Bush era. So if that’s the case, then eventually the law becomes whatever the current administration says it is. That’s where we are.”
“there were several AUMFs but none of them, in any way, were directed at Iran. Each of them very clearly gave the executive branch the power to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and later, ISIS in Iraq. And in fact, Iran has been on our side in the fight against ISIS and the Taliban. So there’s just no plausible legal justification under which you could stretch any of the AUMFs to include an attack on an Iranian official.”