Foreign Election Interference in 2020

In the wake of Russia’s extensive efforts to manipulate American public opinion during the 2016 U. S. presidential election, numerous concerns have been raised about the potential for foreign interference in this year’s election. In the last several months, there have been a number of official warnings regarding foreign attempts at election interference. Most recently, on October 21, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe stated that “we have identified that two foreign actors – Iran and Russia – have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.” (DNI John Ratcliffe’s Remarks)

Here is a brief overview, based on public and private sector sources, of what is publicly known regarding foreign election interference in 2020.

Three Main Threats: Russia, China, and Iran:

The most thorough official overview of the threat posed to the 2020 election by foreign actors came in an August 7 statement by William Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). Evanina stated that:

Foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process. (Statement by NCSC Director)

Evanina announced that the three main adversaries seeking to achieve these ends are China, Russia, and Iran:

We assess that China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.

We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment.” This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia….Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.

We assess that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. (Statement by NCSC Director)

Microsoft Warns About “Strontium,” Zirconium,” and “Phosphorus”:

In a September 10 blog post, Microsoft executive Tom Burt stated that three major cyber threat organizations, linked to each of the three nation-states mentioned by Evanina, had been detected:

Strontium, operating from Russia, has attacked more than 200 organizations including political campaigns, advocacy groups, parties and political consultants

Zirconium, operating from China, has attacked high-profile individuals associated with the election, including people associated with the Joe Biden for President campaign and prominent leaders in the international affairs community

Phosphorus, operating from Iran, has continued to attack the personal accounts of people associated with the Donald J. Trump for President campaign (New Cyberattacks)

Burt reported that “Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) has observed a series of attacks conducted by Strontium between September 2019 and today,” in order to “harvest people’s log-in credentials or compromise their accounts, presumably to aid in intelligence gathering or disruption operations.” According to Burt, Strontium is the same body “identified in the Mueller report as the organization primary responsible for the attacks on the Democratic presidential campaign in 2016.” This would mean that Strontium is, in fact, Unit 26165 of the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Unit 26165 was also identified as the GRU’s 85th Main Special Service Center in an August 13 NSA/FBI joint press release.

Sanctioning Russian Disinformation Outlets:

Also on September 10, the same day Microsoft released its warning of foreign cyber interference, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker, Andrii Derkach, for actively seeking to influence the 2020 U. S. presidential election. Treasury described Derkach as “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services.” The press release announcing the sanctions discussed his activities as follows:

From at least late 2019 through mid-2020, Derkach waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, spurring corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day. Derkach’s unsubstantiated narratives were pushed in Western media through coverage of press conferences and other news events, including interviews and statements.

Between May and July 2020, Derkach released edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials, and he levied unsubstantiated allegations against U.S. and international political figures. Derkach almost certainly targeted the U.S. voting populace, prominent U.S. persons, and members of the U.S. government, based on his reliance on U.S. platforms, English-language documents and videos, and pro-Russian lobbyists in the United States used to propagate his claims. (Treasury Sanctions Russia-Linked)

According to media reports, Derkach’s efforts were directed against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and his son Hunter. Among other activities, Derkach has met with President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, to discuss alleged wrongdoing by Hunter Biden. Along with Derkach, three employees of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” made notorious by its social media activities in 2016, were likewise sanctioned.

Recent Developments:

In October, the Department of Homeland Security released its first ever Homeland Threat Assessment. This document likewise referenced Russia, China, and Iran as the main foreign threats to this November’s election. The majority of the election assessment portion was devoted to Russia:

Russian online influence actors probably will engage in efforts to discourage voter turnout and to suppress votes in the 2020 U.S. election using methods they have deployed since at least 2016. Before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Russian trolls directed messages at specific audiences with false information about the time, manner, or place of voting to suppress votes. Russian influence actors also posed as U.S. persons and discouraged African Americans, Native Americans, and other minority voters from participating in the 2016 election. (Homeland Threat Assessment, 12-13)

In contrast with Director Evanina’s statement, which emphasized the anti-Biden and pro-Trump nature of much of Russia’s efforts, the Homeland Threat Assessment argued that “Moscow’s overarching objective is to undermine the U.S. electoral process and weaken the United States through discord, division, and distraction,” not to aid or oppose any one candidate. This assessment, if true, would contradict not just the overwhelming intelligence community consensus that Russia sought to aid Donald Trump in 2016, but also the evidence of Andrii Derkach’s blatantly anti-Biden efforts and outreach to people around Trump.

Finally, DNI Ratcliffe, in his October 21 statement, noted that “some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia.” This information has apparently been used by the Iranians to send threatening emails to some voters, messages labeled as coming from the radical right-wing Proud Boys movement.

Overall, the 2020 efforts of Russia, China, and Iran have failed to have the same widespread impact that the 2016 active measures campaign waged by Russia’s GRU did. There is certainly still the possibility of greater impact on election day itself, especially if one or more foreign powers are able to hack state election systems, or in the aftermath of a disputed election result. For now, however, it appears that the U. S. government, social media companies, news organizations, and many citizens are much better prepared for foreign disinformation and social media manipulation efforts than they were in 2016.

Previous CWIS Blog Posts on Russian Interference in the 2016 US Elections:

Active Measures (Активные Mероприятия)

The “Neighbors”: The GRU in America, from “Ales” to “Fancy Bear”

“Putin’s Chef” and the “Troll Farm”: Russian Social Media Subversion in 2016

Recent Revelations About “Fancy Bear”: Russia’s Military Hacking Unit

Federal Government Sources on Foreign Election Interference:

Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency: Election Infrastructure Security.

DNI John Ratcliffe’s Remarks at Press Conference on Election Security. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, October 21, 2020.

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Combating Foreign Influence.

Foreign Actors and Cybercriminals Likely to Spread Disinformation Regarding 2020 Election Results. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), September 22, 2020.

Global Engagement Center, U.S. Department of State. GEC Special Report: Russia’s Pillars of Disinformation and Propaganda. August 2020.
-“Provides an overview of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. The report outlines the five pillars of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem and how these pillars work together to create a media multiplier effect.”

Homeland Threat Assessment. U. S. Department of Homeland Security, October 2020.

NSA and FBI Expose Russian Previously Undisclosed Malware “Drovorub” in Cybersecurity Advisory. National Security Agency, August 13, 2020.

Russian Disinformation Attacks on Elections: Lessons from Europe : Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Sixteenth Congress, First Session. July 16, 2019.

Statement by NCSC Director William Evanina: Election Threat Update for the American Public. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, August 7, 2020.

Treasury Sanctions Russia-Linked Election Interference Actors. U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 10, 2020.

Worldwide Threats to the Homeland: Hearing Before the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives, One Hundred Sixteenth Congress, Second Session. September 17, 2020.
-Features testimony by FBI Director Christopher Wray on foreign threats to the 2020 election.

Other Sources on Foreign Election Interference:

Burt, Tom. “New Cyberattacks Targeting U.S. Elections.”, September 10, 2020.

Kliman, Daniel, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Kristine Lee, Joshua Fitt and Carisa Nietsche. Dangerous Synergies: Countering Chinese and Russian Digital Influence Operations. Center for a New American Security, May 7, 2020.

Lamond, James and Jeremy Venook. Blunting Foreign Interference Efforts by Learning the Lessons of the Past. Center for American Progress, September 2, 2020.

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