U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia, Iran were most involved in 2020 election interference

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·5-min read

WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence agencies Tuesday afternoon published their conclusions about foreign threats posed to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, concluding Russia and Iran were the most active foreign adversaries involved in attempting to influence the outcome.

According to the report, required by law and declassified by Biden administration Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Monday, other foreign actors, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Cuba and Venezuela, were also involved in trying to influence the elections, mounting smaller, less influential efforts to achieve their preferred political outcome.

Additionally, the agencies concluded with “high confidence” that China opted not to covertly or overtly attempt to directly influence the election, beyond traditional ongoing economic and lobbying activities.

However, the authors of the report noted a dissenting opinion from the senior intelligence officer tasked with mid- to long-term strategic analysis on cyber issues at the National Intelligence Council. The “minority view,” according to the report, is that China took “at least some steps to undermine President Trump’s reelection chances, primarily through social media and official public statements and media.”

A number of lawmakers welcomed the report’s release.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (3), Getty Images.
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (3), Getty Images.

“The American people deserve to know the full truth when a foreign government seeks to interfere in our elections, and today’s release of the Intelligence Community’s Assessment is an important step,” wrote Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrat from California who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement. “The preparation of these reports should be routine and ruthlessly nonpartisan, which is why the Intelligence Committee wrote a law mandating them after every major election, no matter who is in the Oval Office.”

The intelligence agencies concluded overall that, unlike in 2016, foreign adversaries did not attempt to “alter any technical aspect of the voting process,” from voting machines to voter rolls. According to the intelligence community, trying to infiltrate or tamper with technical voting equipment and infrastructure would be incredibly difficult to do “at scale,” given the vast network of individual state and local systems and the increased security preparations. However, the report also noted that, for a number of reasons, to include the increased availability of online digital tools and social media, more adversaries are attempting to influence U.S. elections and will likely continue to do so in the future.

“While there may be some relief with regards to our voting systems, it appears that we will have to expect a fight from here on out,” wrote John Hultquist, vice president of analysis at cybersecurity company Mandiant Threat Intelligence, in a statement. “That will be particularly challenging in the American context.”

As in 2016, the intelligence agencies noted that Russian influence and interference efforts, to include dissemination of disinformation via social media and individuals with ties to Russian intelligence, were directed or at least tacitly approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The influence attempts, which began as early as 2014, were aimed at denigrating Biden and promoting the narrative that his family had unsavory business ties in Ukraine.

“The report confirms what we have long known: Russian intelligence operatives promoted wild conspiracy theories about allegedly corrupt activities in Ukraine, including through direct outreach to senior U.S. government officials. Those same theories were openly pushed by Republicans seeking to boost Donald Trump’s political prospects,” wrote Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who has been particularly outspoken about Russian election interference efforts. “The Senate Finance and Homeland Security Committees spent more than a year ‘investigating’ conspiracy theories that were the product of this Russian disinformation campaign. That’s the bottom line. The Senate must never again be used to push dangerous foreign propaganda designed to interfere in our elections.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting via video conference with officials and government cabinet members in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP)

The report also addresses Iran’s attempts to influence the election, including social media posts and attempted phishing campaigns, as well as an email campaign where Iranian hackers pretended to be members of a right-wing group, the Proud Boys, and attempted to intimidate voters, an effort exposed before the election. Those activities were also likely approved at the highest level, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the intelligence community concluded.

Intelligence analysts appeared to disagree about the extent to which Chinese officials were directly interested in interfering in the election. The majority concluded Beijing was more risk-averse than Moscow, whose relationship with the U.S. is already extremely poor. The minority conceded there is no evidence that China “tried to interfere with election processes” but assessed that at least “some” of its influence efforts “were intended to at least indirectly affect U.S. candidates, political processes, and voter preferences.”

In January, the intelligence community ombudsman, Barry Zulauf, issued an independent review on the rigor of the assessment about Chinese interference in the election, a report that was touted by former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. Zulauf concluded the agencies upheld analytic standards, but that there were some instances of politicization, including inconsistent definitions or “altered tradecraft” when it came to conclusions about election threats from China versus Russia. He noted that some career analysts didn’t want their intelligence misused by politicians and so may have been more reluctant to make strong conclusions.

That, according to the Washington Post, led to a dispute between career intelligence officers and political appointees. One source told Yahoo News that in their view, the level of detail and scrutiny applied to analyzing Chinese malign activity is often lower than that applied to Russia. However, the source noted that the discrepancy could be attributed to multiple competing realities, to include fewer resources or language skills devoted to the region.

Another source familiar with the report noted that the ombudsman didn’t appear to interview other relevant experts, such as the national intelligence officer for East Asia, but was trying to “split the baby” to reflect competing views in senior levels versus the rank-and-file workforce.

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