U.S. officials have accused Iran of being behind a flurry of threatening but fake emails sent to Democratic voters in Florida and other battleground states in a late-stage effort to sway public opinion and interfere in the presidential election.
Addressed as if from a far-right group, the fake emails appeared aimed at intimidating voters. Google said in a statement that its spam filters stopped 90% of the roughly 25,000 emails sent to Gmail users.
Officials did not lay out specific evidence for how they came to pinpoint Iran, but the activities attributed to Tehran would mark a significant escalation for a country some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage. The announcement was made late Wednesday at a hastily called news conference 13 days before the election.
The allegations underscored the U.S. government’s concern about efforts by foreign countries to influence the election by spreading false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote. Such direct attempts to sway public opinion are more commonly associated with Moscow, which conducted a covert social media campaign in 2016 aimed at sowing discord and is again interfering this year, but the idea that Iran could be responsible suggested that those tactics have been adopted by other nations, too.
U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly stated that they consider Russia the primary threat to U.S. election security, and Ratcliffe said Russia had also obtained voter data for potential mischief.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said Ratcliffe, who, along with FBI Director Christopher Wray, insisted that the U.S. would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 U.S. election and that the integrity of the vote remains sound.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
While the two officials called out both Russia and Iran for having obtained voter registration information, such data is easily accessible for many states, including Florida. There was no allegation that either country had hacked a database for it or had altered any election-related data.
A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi, denied Tehran had anything to do with the alleged voter intimidation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the “disturbing” threats cut to the heart of the right to vote.
“We cannot allow voter intimidation or interference efforts, either foreign or domestic, to silence voters’ voices and take away that right,” they said in a statement.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated U.S. election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence that Iran has ever done so, and it was not clear how officials were able to identify Iran so quickly.
The operation represented something of a departure in cyber-ops for Iran, which sought for the first time on record to undermine voter confidence. Iran’s previous operations have been mostly propaganda and espionage.
A top cyberthreat analyst, John Hultquist of FireEye, said the striking development marked “a fundamental shift in our understanding of Iran’s willingness to interfere in the democratic process. While many of their operations have been focused on promoting propaganda in pursuit of Iran’s interests, this incident is clearly aimed at undermining voter confidence.”