|U.S. security services called out Russian and Iranian efforts to hack and disrupt the U.S. election. There was a split between the DNI’s view and those in the intelligence agencies, however.|
The United States (U.S.) government announced that the Russian Federation and Iran have undertaken operations to disrupt and undermine next month’s U.S. election. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a pair of advisories about Russian and Iranian attempts to interfere with the election. It appears U.S. intelligence community agencies and their partners want to avoid a repeat of 2016 when they were often behind the curve on Russian interference and failed to alert the public to what they knew.
Email sent to Democratic voters supposedly by the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group that supports President Donald Trump, was actually sent by Iran. These emails warned people in three swing states to vote for Trump or “we will come after you” because the group is “in possession of all your information.” According to media accounts, the day the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified Iran as the culprit, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe decided to disclose this information at a hastily called press conference with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray.
In Ratcliffe’s remarks, he put Iran before Russia as has been the wont of the Trump Administration to make it seem as if Russia’s capabilities and intentions are matched by two other adversaries of the U.S. Moreover, the Trump Administration has placed more emphasis generally on the dangers posed by Tehran than Moscow, particularly in light of the nuclear agreement from which the U.S. withdrew. Ratcliffe asserted:
- we would like to alert the public that we have identified that two foreign actors – Iran and Russia – have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.
- First, we have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia. This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy.
- To that end, we have already seen Iran sending “spoofed” emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump. You may have seen some reporting on this in the last 24 hours, or you may have been one of the recipients.
- Additionally, Iran is distributing other content, to include a video that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas. This video – and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots – are not true.
- These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries. Even if the adversaries pursue further attempts to intimidate or attempt to undermine voter confidence, know that our election systems are resilient, and you can be confident your votes are secure.
- Although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter information, just as they did in 2016.
Unnamed U.S. intelligence officials shortly thereafter disagreed with Ratcliffe’s emphasis on Iran when they think the evidence clearly shows Russia to be the more dangerous threat. Some speculated Ratcliffe was improperly political given the DNI is supposed to be non-partisan.
In contrast, Wray sought to tamp down alarm about interference:
- We’re not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.
- When we see indications of foreign interference or federal election crimes, we’re going to aggressively investigate and work with our partners, to quickly take appropriate action.
- We’re also coordinating with the private sector—both technology and social media companies—to make sure that their platforms are not used by foreign adversaries to spread disinformation and propaganda.
- We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our election infrastructure—and today that infrastructure remains resilient.
- You should be confident that your vote counts.
Following Wray’s remarks, there were leaks to the media that Trump wants to remove him and Attorney General William Barr from office after the election. During “repeated” discussion on the removal of two of the U.S.’ two top law enforcement officials, Trump and top Administration officials have apparently decried Wray’s disinclination to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son in a reprise of former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement days before the 2016 election he would reopen the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email. Moreover, the FBI also declined to support Ratcliffe’s public assertions that Russia had nothing to do with the purported email and data of Hunter Biden being portrayed as evidence of the corruption of the Biden family. In a letter to Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-WI), the FBI referenced the Inspector General’s findings about the impropriety of Comey’s remarks so close to an election as a significant reason why it would neither confirm nor deny any such inquiry.
The FBI and CISA issued a pair of joint advisories:
- Russian State-Sponsored Advanced Persistent Threat Actor Compromises U.S. Government Targets that “updates joint CISA-FBI cybersecurity advisory AA20-283A: APT Actors Chaining Vulnerabilities Against SLTT, Critical Infrastructure, and Elections Organizations.” The agencies asserted:
- Since at least September 2020, a Russian state-sponsored APT actor—known variously as Berserk Bear, Energetic Bear, TeamSpy, Dragonfly, Havex, Crouching Yeti, and Koala in open-source reporting—has conducted a campaign against a wide variety of U.S. targets. The Russian state- sponsored APT actor has targeted dozens of SLTT government and aviation networks, attempted intrusions at several SLTT organizations, successfully compromised network infrastructure, and as of October 1, 2020, exfiltrated data from at least two victim servers.
- The Russian-sponsored APT actor is obtaining user and administrator credentials to establish initial access, enable lateral movement once inside the network, and locate high value assets in order to exfiltrate data. In at least one compromise, the APT actor laterally traversed an SLTT victim network and accessed documents related to:
- Sensitive network configurations and passwords.
- Standard operating procedures (SOP), such as enrolling in multi-factor authentication (MFA).
- IT instructions, such as requesting password resets.
- Vendors and purchasing information.
- Printing access badges.
- To date, the FBI and CISA have no information to indicate this APT actor has intentionally disrupted any aviation, education, elections, or government operations. However, the actor may be seeking access to obtain future disruption options, to influence U.S. policies and actions, or to delegitimize SLTT government entities.
- As this recent malicious activity has been directed at SLTT government networks, there may be some risk to elections information housed on SLTT government networks. However, the FBI and CISA have no evidence to date that integrity of elections data has been compromised. Due to the heightened awareness surrounding elections infrastructure and the targeting of SLTT government networks, the FBI and CISA will continue to monitor this activity and its proximity to elections infrastructure.
- Iranian State-Sponsored Advanced Persistent Threat Actors Threaten Election-Related Systems in which the FBI and CISA “warn that Iranian advanced persistent threat (APT) actors are likely intent on influencing and interfering with the U.S. elections to sow discord among voters and undermine public confidence in the U.S. electoral process.” They added:
- The APT actors are creating fictitious media sites and spoofing legitimate media sites to spread obtained U.S. voter-registration data, anti-American propaganda, and misinformation about voter suppression, voter fraud, and ballot fraud.
- The APT actors have historically exploited critical vulnerabilities to conduct distributed denial-of- service (DDoS) attacks, structured query language (SQL) injections attacks, spear-phishing campaigns, website defacements, and disinformation campaigns.
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