White House and Trump Administration Sending Different Messages On Election Interference

While the President and close advisors keep downplaying Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. election while U.S. intelligence agencies are issuing muted warnings many Democrats think have been tempered to please the White House.

The Trump Administration has been sending mixed messages on the security of and risks to the 2020 election in the United States (U.S.) While the President and the White House have largely been silent on Russian Federation activities, they have accused the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of a range of activities to interfere with the election. However, U.S. intelligence agencies have been flagging the activities of the Russian Federation, the PRC, Iran, North Korea, and others, but many Democrats and subject matter experts are arguing these public warnings are not accurately portraying the scope of activities and possible effects. Republican leadership in Congress are, in turn, claiming Democrats are politicizing the issue. The ongoing effect may be to desensitize the American public to interference and to further divide the electorate.

At the White House’s COVID-19 briefing on 10 August, when asked about Russian interference, Trump responded:

The other day they said the three countries; they said China and Russia and Iran and some reporter got up and said, Russia is meddling. I said, well, didn’t it mention China and Iran? Why didn’t you mention them, too?

National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) Director William Evanina issued an update to his late July statement “100 Days Until Election 2020” through “sharing additional information with the public on the intentions and activities of our adversaries with respect to the 2020 election…[that] is being released for the purpose of better informing Americans so they can play a critical role in safeguarding our election.” Evanina offered more in the way of detail on the three nations identified as those being most active in and capable of interfering in the November election: the Russian Federation, the PRC, and Iran. This additional detail may well have been provided given the pressure Democrats in Congress to do just this. Members like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) argued that Evanina was not giving an accurate picture of the actions by foreign nations to influence the outcome and perception of the 2020 election. Republicans in Congress pushed back, claiming Democrats were seeking to politicize the classified briefings given by the Intelligence Community (IC).

Evanina asserted

Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, 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. They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results. However, it would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.

Evanina stated “[m]any foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer…[and] [w]e are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran.

  • CHINA – 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. Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues. For example, it has harshly criticized the Administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market. Beijing recognizes that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race.
  • RUSSIA – 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. For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.
  • IRAN – We assess that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on on-line influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content. Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.

Evanina vowed to update Americans through future statements as needed.

In a statement, Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) expressed gratitude for the additional detail but took issue with the statement for implying through its structure that the risks each nation presents are equal. It would seem to make sense that Pelosi and Schiff are arguing that the Russian Federation is the biggest threat in light of its history in successfully spreading disinformation and misinformation in 2016 to benefit Trump and harm former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This assertion would also serve to rebut the notion that the PRC is the top threat given its placement as the first nation mentioned and Trump Administration rhetoric to this effect. Pelosi and Schiff asserted:

  • Today’s statement improves on the last by including more detail that American voters deserve to know, including about the actions of Kremlin-linked actors seeking to undermine Vice President Biden, and seeking to help President Trump. These details should help the public, Congress, and the presidential campaigns guard against foreign disinformation. And we are pleased that Mr. Evanina heeded our call to make additional details public about Russia’s malign interference campaign and Mr. Derkach’s role.
  • Unfortunately, today’s statement still treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections. Members of Congress have now been briefed on the specific threats facing the 2020 election, and we have been clear with the Intelligence Community that the American people must be provided with specific information that would allow voters to appraise for themselves the respective threats posed by these foreign actors, and distinguish these actors’ different and unequal aims, current actions, and capabilities. All of this can be done consistent with the need to protect sources and methods.

Unlike the first statement by Evanina on the 2020 election, Senate Intelligence Committee acting Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-VA) released a joint statement in which they remarked:

  • NCSC Director Evanina’s statement today builds on and provides additional context to his previous statement two weeks ago. We thank him for providing this additional information to the American people, and we look forward to his continued engagement, along with other members of the Intelligence Community and the Administration, with the public over the next 87 days.
  • Evanina’s statement highlights some of the serious and ongoing threats to our election from China, Russia, and Iran. Everyone — from the voting public, local officials, and members of Congress — needs to be aware of these threats. And all of us should endeavor to prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections, influence our politics, and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.
  • In recent weeks, Evanina, other parts of the Intelligence Community, the FBI, and DHS have provided additional information and briefings to most members of Congress. We thank them for that engagement and encourage them to continue to make this information available. We believe more of the information that was made available in these briefings can, and at the appropriate time should, be shared with the voting public, and we encourage the Intelligence Community to do so in a manner that protects the sources and methods used to collect such information.
  • And we encourage political leaders on all sides to refrain from weaponizing intelligence matters for political gain, as this only furthers the divisive aims of our adversaries.

On 9 August, on Face The Nation, Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was asked about Evanina’s statement and claimed

it’s not just Russia…It’s- the Chinese don’t want the president re-elected. He’s been tougher on China than any president in history. And- and we’re standing up for the first time to the Chinese Communist Party and protecting Americans, protecting our IP, protecting our economy, protecting our- our vaccine data. And so there are a lot of people around the world that aren’t happy with America because they don’t share our values. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. And we’re going to take every action necessary to- to keep folks out, whether it’s China or Russia or Iran—

When asked about the assertion that the PRC wanted Trump to lose, O’Brien responded:

Well, well they- they’d like the- the president to lose. And- and China, like Russia, like Iran, have engaged in cyber-attacks and phishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure, with respect to websites and that sort of thing. We’re- we’re aware of it and we’re- we’re taking steps to counter it. Whether it’s China or Russia or Iran, we’re not going to put up with it. And there will be severe consequences with any country that attempts to interfere with our free and fair elections, whether- whether their- their leaders prefer- prefer Joe Biden or prefer Donald Trump, it doesn’t matter. We’re Americans. We don’t- we’re not going to foreign countries deciding who our next president is going to be.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released a risk assessment of mail-in voting “to support CISA efforts to help U.S., state, and local governments identify and mitigate vulnerabilities to mail-in voting infrastructure, and support physical security, cybersecurity, and operational resilience within the mail-in voting process.” CISA cautioned “[t]his document is not an endorsement of any election management practice.”

CISA reached these “key findings:”

  • All forms of voting –in this case mail-in voting –bring a variety of cyber and infrastructure risks. Risks to mail-in voting can be managed through various policies, procedures, and controls.
  • The outbound and inbound processing of mail-in ballots introduces additional infrastructure and technology, which increases the potential scalability of cyber attacks.Implementation of mail-in voting infrastructure and processes within a compressed timeline may also introduce new risk. To address this risk, election officials should focus on cyber risk management activities, including access controls and authentication best practices when implementing expanded mail-in voting.
  • Integrity attacks on voter registration data and systems represent a comparatively higher risk in a mail-in voting environment when compared to an in-person voting environment. This is because the voter is not present at the time of casting the ballot and cannot help to answer questions regarding their eligibility or identity verification.
  • Operational risk management responsibility differs with mail-in voting and in-person voting processes. For mail-in voting, some of the risk under the control of election officials during in-person voting shifts to outside entities, such as ballot printers, mail processing facilities, and the United States Postal Service (USPS).
  • Physical access at election offices and warehouses represents a risk in a mail-in voting environment. Completed ballots are returned to the election office and must be securely stored for days or weeks before processing through voter authentication and tabulation processes. Managing risks to these processes requires implementing secure procedures for storage, access controls, and chain of custody, such as ballot accounting.
  • Inbound mail-in ballot processes and tabulation take longer than in-person processing, causing tabulation of results to occur more slowly and resulting in more ballots to tabulate following election night. Media, candidates, and voters should expect less comprehensive results on election night, which creates additional risk of electoral uncertainty and confidence in results.
  • Disinformation risk to mail-in voting infrastructure and processes is similar to that of in-person voting while utilizing different content. Threat actors may leverage limited understanding regarding mail-in voting processes to mislead and confuse the public.

CISA noted

Currently, five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) automatically send every registered voter a ballot by mail. At least 21 other states have laws that allow at least some elections to be conducted by mail. In addition to the five states that send every voter a ballot, five states (Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey) and the District of Columbia (D.C.) allow a voter to apply to receive a mail-in ballot permanently, so that voters do not have to apply each election.1 Currently, 34 states and D.C. allow any registered voter to  request a mail-in ballot. T  here are 16 states that require voters to have an excuse such as temporary absence from the voting district,  illness, or disability or require voters to be of a certain age (typically 65+) to be eligible to receive a ballot by mail. Some states are recognizing COVID-19 as a valid excuse.

CISA’s risk assessment of mail-in voting is more positive than its judgment about online voting. In May, a version of CISA’s risk assessment of online voting was leaked that was more critical of state efforts to offer this form of voting in the 2020 election. The risk assessment CISA ultimately issued had softer language about the risks, but the leaked document still conveyed deeper reservations the agency harbored without these becoming its official position.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

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