The United States’ top intelligence official has accused Russia and Iran of obtaining US voter information and making moves to influence public opinion ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
John Ratcliffe, director of National Intelligence, made the announcement at a hastily arranged news conference on Wednesday that also included FBI Director Chris Wray.
The announcement two weeks before the November 3 election showed the level of alarm among top US officials that foreign actors were seeking to undermine Americans’ confidence in the integrity of the vote and spread misinformation in an attempt to sway its outcome.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said during the news conference.
Most of that voter registration is public, but Ratcliffe said that government officials “have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage”
Ratcliffe was referring to emails sent on Wednesday and designed to look like they came from the pro-Trump Proud Boys group, government sources told the Reuters news agency. A number of voters in Florida and other key states in the election battle between the Republican president and Democrat Joe Biden said they had received the messages.
“You will vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you,” the emails said. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for.”
“I would take this seriously if I were you,” the message ends, adding the voter’s address.
In addition to the threatening emails, Ratcliffe said Iran also distributed a video that falsely suggested voters could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” Ratcliffe said, adding that Russia and Iran seek to “to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine confidence in American democracy”.
The top national security official did not explain how the Russians and Iranians had obtained the voter information or how the Russians might be using it.
US intelligence agencies previously warned that Iran might interfere to hurt Trump while Russia was trying to help him in the election. Outside experts said that if Ratcliffe was correct, Iran would be trying to make Trump look bad by calling attention to support and threats by the sometimes violent Proud Boys group.
A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied Iran had sought to meddle in the US election.
“Iran has no interest in interfering in the US election and no preference for the outcome,” spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.
The oil-rich nation also summoned the Swiss envoy in Tehran on Thursday to protest against what Iran’s foreign office called “baseless” US claims.
“Iran’s strong rejection of American officials’ repetitive, baseless and false claims was conveyed to the Swiss ambassador…As we have said before, it makes no difference for Iran who wins the U.S. election,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told state TV.
Switzerland represents US interests in Iran because Washington and Tehran have no diplomatic ties.
US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who received a classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on election security, said he disagreed with Ratcliffe that Iran was specifically trying to hurt Trump.
“It was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case and Russia in many more cases is to basically undermine confidence in our elections. This action I do not believe was aimed … at discrediting President Trump,” Schumer told broadcaster MSNBC in an interview.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has directed government agencies “to proactively monitor and thwart any attempts to interfere in US elections, and because of the great work of our law enforcement agencies we have stopped an attempt by America’s adversaries to undermine our elections”.
Wray, the FBI director, meanwhile stressed that US election systems remained safe.
“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” he told reporters.
“We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our infrastructure and today that infrastructure remains resilient – you should be confident that your vote counts.”