- Russian agents plan to interfere in the 2020 election to help President Donald Trump by amplifying "disputes over the results," The New York Times reported.
- US officials believe Russia poses a far greater threat to the election than Iran does, according to the report. The assessment appears to contradict Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who has stressed Iran's election interference in recent days.
- Russian actors have also breached state and local networks in recent days, but there's no evidence that they altered vote totals or voter-registration data, the report said.
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US intelligence officials have discovered that Russia plans to interfere in the November election to help President Donald Trump by "exacerbating disputes around the results" if the race is too close to call, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
The news comes after Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said late Wednesday that Russia and Iran are attempting to "influence public opinion" ahead of the election. Ratcliffe focused on Iran and said the Iranian actors sent "spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump." He did not specify how the emails, which were sent to Democratic voters and threatened them to vote for Trump, were damaging to the president.
The DNI also said Russian and Iranian actors have obtained some voter-registration data, though as ProPublica's Jessica Huseman noted, most of that information is public anyway and Ratcliffe's disclosure did not indicate whether any election systems had been breached. Ratcliffe said Wednesday that "we have not seen the same actions from Russia," but "we are aware that they have obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016."
However, contrary to the DNI's statements, US officials believe Russia poses a far greater threat to the election than Iran does, according to The Times.
The latest discovery about Russia's actions has several parallels to the Kremlin's elaborate and wide-ranging campaign to interfere in the 2016 election to boost Trump and denigrate his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In June 2017, Bloomberg reported that election systems in as many as 39 states could have been attacked as part of Russia's meddling in 2016, though voting tallies were not believed to have been altered or manipulated. The report was bolstered by a leaked NSA document published by The Intercept earlier that month detailing how hackers connected to Russian military intelligence had attempted to breach US voting systems days before the election.
Jeanette Manfra, then an official at the Department of Homeland Security, also told the Senate Intelligence Committee that month that Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states' election systems in 2016, successfully exploiting a small number of networks and stealing voter registration data.
This time as well, Russian actors have breached state and local networks in a move that could allow them "broader access to American voting infrastructure," The Times said. And just like in 2016, there is no evidence so far that the hackers changed vote totals or manipulated registration information.
Officials who were briefed on US intelligence about the matter told The Times that while Ratcliffe accurately described initial conclusions about Iran's interference, Russia's election meddling is far more serious. One official told the paper they would compare Iran's actions to "single-A baseball, while the Russians are major leaguers."
It's unclear how exactly Russian actors plan to amplify disputes over the election results, particularly if the race is close. Trump, for his part, has repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity and safety of the election, suggesting without evidence that the increased use of mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to widespread voter fraud.
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