Demystifying Foreign Election Interference

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a declassified report detailing efforts by foreign actors to influence and interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The key finding of the report: Russia sought to undermine confidence in our democratic processes to support then President Donald J. Trump. Iran launched similar efforts but to diminish Trump’s chances of getting reelected. And China stayed out of it altogether.  

(Source: ODNI)

Make sure to read the full declassified report titled Intelligence Community Assessment of Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections releasedby the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at https://www.odni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

Background

On September 12, 2018 then President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13848 to address foreign interference in U.S. elections. In essence, it authorizes an interagency review to determine whether an interference has occurred. In the event of foreign interference in a U.S. election the directive orders to create an impact report to trigger sanctions against (1) foreign individuals and (2) nation states. A comprehensive breakdown of the directive including the process of imposing sanctions can be found here. I will only focus on the findings of the interagency review laid out in the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) pursuant to EO 13848 (1)(a). The ICA is limited to intelligence reporting and other information available as of December 31, 2020.

Findings

The former President touted American voters before his own election in 2016, during his presidency and beyond the 2020 presidential elections with unsubstantiated claims of foreign election interference that would disadvantage his reelection chances. In Trump’s mind, China sought to undermine his chances to be reelected to office while he downplayed the role of Russia or Iran. The recently released ICA directly contradicts Trump’s claims. Here’s the summary per country:

Russia

  • Russia conducted influence operations targeting the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections authorized by Vladimir Putin
  • Russia supported then incumbent Donald J. Trump and aimed to undermine confidence in then candidate Joseph R. Biden
  • Russia attempted to exploit socio-political divisions through spreading polarized narratives without leveraging persistent cyber efforts against critical election infrastructure

The ICA finds a theme in Russian intelligence officials pushing misinformation about President Biden through U.S. media organizations, officials and prominent individuals. Such influence operations follow basic money laundering structures: (1) creation and dissemination of a false and misleading narrative, (2) conceal its source through layering in multiple media outlets involving independent (unaware) actors, and (3) integrating the damning narrative into the nation states official communication after the fact. A recurring theme was the false claim of corrupt ties between President Biden and Ukraine. These began spreading as early as 2014. 

Russian attempts to sow discord among the American people took place through narratives that amplified misinformation about the election process and its systems, e.g. undermining the integrity of mail-in ballots or highlighting technical failures and exceptions of misconduct. In a broader sense, topics around pandemic related lockdown measures or racial injustice or conservative censorship were exploited to polarize the affected groups. While these efforts required Russia’s cyber offensive units to take action, the actual evidence for a persistent cyber influence operation was not conclusive. The ICA categorized Russian actions as general intelligence gathering to inform Russian foreign policy rather than specifically targeting critical election infrastructure.

Iran

  • Iran conducted influence operations targeting the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections likely authorized by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
  • Unlike Russia, Iran did not support either candidate but aimed to undermine confidence in then incumbent Donald J. Trump
  • Iran did not interfere in the 2020 presidential elections as defined as activities targeting technical aspects of the election

The ICA finds Iran leveraged similar influence tactics as Russia targeting the integrity of the election process presumably in an effort to steer the public’s attention away from Iran and towards domestic issues around pandemic related lockdown measures or racial injustice or conservative censorship. However, Iran relied more notably on cyber-enabled offensive operations. These included aggressive spoofing emails disguised as to be sent from the Proud Boys group to intimidate liberal and left-leaning voters. Spear phishing emails sent to former and current officials aimed to gain impactful information and access to critical infrastructure. A high volume of inauthentic social media accounts was used to create divisive political narratives. Some of these accounts dated back to 2012.     

China

  • China did not conduct influence operations or efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential elections

The ICA finds China did not actively interfere in the 2020 presidential elections. While the rationale in their assessment is largely based on political reasoning and foreign policy objectives, the report provides no data points for me to evaluate. The report does not offer insights into the role of Chinese Technology platforms repeatedly targeted by the former President. A minority view by the National Intelligence Office for Cyber (NIO) holds the opinion that China did deploy some cyber offensive operations to counter anti-Chinese policies. Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe leads this minority view expressed in a scathing memorandum that concludes the ICA fell short in their analysis with regard to China.

Recommendations

The ICA offers several insights into a long, strenuous election cycle. Its sober findings help to reformulate U.S. foreign policy and redefine domestic policy objectives. While this report is unable to detail all available intelligence and other information it offers some solace to shape future policies. For example:

  1. Cybersecurity – increased efforts to update critical election infrastructure has probably played a key role in the decreased efforts around cyber offensive operations. Government and private actors must continue to focus on cybersecurity, practise cyber hygiene and conduct digital audits to improve cyber education
  2. Media Literacy – increased efforts to educate the public about political processes. This includes private actors to educate their users about potential abuse on their platforms. Continuing programs to depolarize ideologically-charged groups through empathy and regulation is a cornerstone for a more perfect union

Additional and more detailed recommendations to improve the resilience of American elections and democratic processes can be found in the Joint Report of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security on Foreign Interference Targeting Election Infrastructure or Political Organization, Campaign, or Candidate Infrastructure Related to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.