The United States Intelligence Community (IC) released the assessment on foreign interference with the 2020 election and found that the Russian Federation and Iran were working for and against the reelection of President Donald Trump. There was little in the report stating that the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian intelligence figures. Moreover, the IC determined there is no evidence that a foreign actor manipulated or altered the technical aspects of voting even though there some penetrations of state and local networks before the election. The IC also found that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not use explicit interference measures and used other steps to undermine Trump’s reelection efforts.
In the “Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections” the IC explains the assessment “addresses key foreign actors’ intentions and efforts to influence or interfere with the 2020 federal elections or to undermine public confidence in the U.S. election process.” And yet, the IC carefully notes the assessment does not “include an assessment of the impact foreign malign influence and interference activities may have had on the outcome of the 2020 election.” Consequently, this assessment was limited only to finding out whether other nations tried to influence last year’s elections and to what ends, but not the degree to which they succeeded. This seems like a necessarily limited review, and the reasons for these limits may be traced back to the directive establishing this review.
In a 2018 Executive Order, “Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election,” former President Donald Trump directed the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to “conduct an assessment of any information indicating that a foreign government, or any person acting as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign government, has acted with the intent or purpose of interfering in that election.” Moreover, this “assessment shall identify, to the maximum extent ascertainable, the nature of any foreign interference and any methods employed to execute it, the persons involved, and the foreign government or governments that authorized, directed, sponsored, or supported it.” It bears note that the parameters of this assessment do not encompass the effect of such influence, an omission that can likely be traced to the former President’s antipathy to any suggestion his election may have been aided in 2016 by Russian influence operations. And while the EO does have language directing any IC officials to report at any time any other relevant information, the leadership of many of these agencies were Trump loyalists unlikely to tell the White House things it did not want to hear. Moreover, a basic tent of bureaucratic survival in Washington is to answer the questions as asked by those further up the food chain. And so, this assessment of 2020 election interference and influence is necessarily limited.
Former DNI John Ratcliffe apparently handed in the classified version of the report to President Donald Trump on 7 January 2021 that includes sources and methods that the IC, for obvious reasons, omitted those from the unclassified version released some two months later. One wonders if Ratcliffe’s report was edited, for it quite clearly points the finger again at attempted Russian interference meant to assist former President Donald Trump’s reelection effort. However, the report does not directly state that the Trump campaign or allies colluded or worked with Russia, but in one of the key judgments, the IC suggests some coordination. The IC stated “[a] key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian Intelligence to push influence narratives — including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden — to U.S. media organizations, U.S. officials, and prominent U.S. individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration” (emphasis added.) This is likely a reference to the article in the New York Post on Hunter Biden’s business activities that was traced back to former New York City Mayor and lawyer to Trump Rudy Giuliani and former White House advisor Steve Bannon. And, it may well make reference to other such efforts. Moreover, the IC signaled out Andrii Derkach as being a Russian agent under the control of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and a person linked to Giuliani.
Nonetheless, Russian efforts are characterized as looking to weaken the U.S. generally and the candidate, now President Joe Biden, perceived to be least favorable to its interests. Russian intelligence services and their allies and agents started as far back as 2014 in trying to achieve these goals. In the same vein, Moscow preferred Trump over Biden as the former’s administration was seen as much more Russia-friendly.
Iran was seen acting with one opposite objective in mind, namely, to harm the reelection chances of Trump. Nevertheless, their influence campaign also wanted to sow discord in the U.S. and weaken the country. A majority of the IC also determined the PRC “did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.” Instead, Beijing calculated that the use of “traditional influence tools” would serve to realize their objections without the potential blowback of having tried to use the same sorts of methods Russian have used to influence elections. These traditional tools include economic measures, lobbying, and interest groups. What’s more, the PRC was likely more interested in continuing to collect information on key figures and institutions in the U.S. so as to better understand and project how the U.S. will behave. However, at least one agency in the IC did find the PRC used influence efforts to hurt Trump’s chances of reelection.
Moreover, Hizballah, Cuba, and Venezuela were also named as entities that tried to interfere.
The IC indicated it has no “indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results.” And yet, the IC conceded there were “some successful compromises of state and local networks prior to Election Day,” which were explained as being part of larger hacking campaigns as that somehow mitigates the risks of having determined foreign actors in U.S. election systems. Moreover, the IC ruled out the PRC as having tried to penetrate election systems, leaving one to conclude the Russians, Iranians, and others did.
Here are the key judgments of the IC:
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