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Executive Summary: Foreign Threats to 2020 US Presidential Election

Updated: Mar 31

Team: NORTHCOM

Week of: 03/15/21



Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey[1]

On March 16, 2021, an Intelligence Community report on Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Presidential Election was declassified by the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. Foreign influence operations and information warfare were conducted by Russia, Iran, China, and other malign actors. Some of these operations were effective and attempted to undermine the American public’s confidence in the electoral process and downgrade democratic ideals on an international scale. Malign actors often spread false information about the validity of voting systems, such as voter registration and casting ballots, but the intelligence community has determined that this was not the case.[2] However, there is a roughly even chance that foreign actors’ deceptive disinformation strategies affected the US Presidential Election by crafting narratives that shifted public opinion. It is important to detect these threats early, as it is likely that such foreign interference in elections is an ongoing threat and will continue to menace democratic values and undermine America’s image on the international stage.


Russia


During the 2020 Presidential Election, the Kremlin sought to undermine the election of Joe Biden. Unlike in 2016, Moscow did not utilize Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure.[3] Instead, the strategy was to penetrate mainstream narratives and gather momentum among Americans by giving fragments of misleading information and false claims against Joe Biden through various means, including US organizations, individuals, and even Trump’s inner circle.[4] Russia uses plausible deniability to remove itself from these efforts, but there is evidence to be found through online trolls and proxies engaged in spreading falsehoods on then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden, such as alleged stories crafted about his corrupt links to Ukraine. The Kremlin considered Joe Biden a threat because of his anti-Russian stance on foreign policy issues conducted during the Obama Administration. CTG’s NORTHCOM Team assessed with a high level of confidence that this level of effort to sabotage now-President Biden will undoubtedly reflect the poor state of relations between the US and Russia in the years to come.


Moscow certainly perceived Biden’s anti-Putinism as a threat to Russia. This triggered its strategic disinformation system which aimed to promote Trump’s re-election as president, who is considered as having a much more pro-Putin mindset. Biden was attacked through Russian state media, as well as its international English media channels. Moscow sought to spread false claims about Biden to a large American and international English-speaking audience. Russia even continued to spread narratives denigrating President Biden after the election. President Putin only congratulated Biden on winning the Presidential Election after the Electoral College confirmed him as the nation’s next president. This suggests that it is likely that Moscow pursued a large-scale disinformation operation to undermine the US Presidential Election.


The Kremlin had a larger goal of undermining Washington’s global influence by sabotaging public confidence in the electoral process. The Kremlin likely perceives large-scale information warfare and targeted information operations as a new means to conduct political warfare to reshape the thinking of political communities.[5] For the Russian establishment, information operations are a means to conduct an information war that can be used to wage a “domestic counterinsurgency.”[6] Russia wages similar warfare against domestic insurgents in Chechnya and exports these techniques of shifting narratives and perceptions abroad as well as fomenting anger and even increasing the likelihood for violence as American society becomes more polarized. CTG assesses the Kremlin’s main goal was to exacerbate socio-political divisions within the United States to weaken its international image as a powerful global influence and reinstate Moscow as a great power in a multipolar world. Russia depicted the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, as evidence of America's decline, with Russian officials saying its out-of-date electoral system and deep divisions had left its democracy "limping on both feet."[7] Moscow’s reactions to the attack on the Capitol further highlight how the Kremlin seeks to downgrade US democracy in the eyes of the international community.


Iran


“We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone… everything). You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access to the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”[8]


During the 2020 presidential campaign cycle, cyber actors with confirmed links to Iran sent threatening emails to US voters, claiming to be part of the Proud Boys. These emails were targeted towards Democratic voters and threatened them to vote for President Trump. Additionally, Iranian actors created thousands of fake social media accounts to amplify false claims of election fraud to create distrust in the electoral process. Although Iran worked to undermine then-President Trump, Supreme Leader Khamenei and his cyber actors did not actively work to support presidential candidate Biden. Iran aimed to influence the election but wanted deniability if caught, so cyber tools were used to avoid needing to act on US soil. Despite launching attacks from Iran, these cyber actors were able to exploit vulnerabilities on states’ official election websites as well as news organizations to create unrest and social division while spreading misinformation about election fraud. Iranian actors targeted campaign and government officials with spear-phishing tactics attempting to collect derogatory information and maintain access post-election.[9]


Tehran’s efforts to influence the outcome of the 2020 US election were put forth to ensure former President Trump would not be reelected, as a means to save the regime from threats it faced from the US, such as countering Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach on the Iranian government.[10] Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and barred US companies and allies from dealing with Iran due to the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its links to hostage-takings and support of terrorist groups in the region. As a result, Iran suffered financially and is in a recession. The killing of Qassem Soleimani during President Trump’s presidency further demonstrated Trump’s willingness to remain tough on the regime. If President Trump were reelected in the 2020 election, he potentially would have sought to further impose sanctions on Iran as a means to cut off the country’s financial support of terrorist groups in the region. With the potential of a new US president, Iran believed it could restore the Iran nuclear deal with the US as well as have current sanctions lifted, thus restoring their economy. By restoring their economy, Iran can now seek to gain power and influence upon the West and they would have the financial capabilities once again to support groups such as the Taliban, Hezbollah, and other groups in the region.

China


The Director of National Intelligence has indicated that China did not interfere with the election, as the risk of being caught outweighs the potential benefit of having one candidate instead of the other.[11] While Chinese state-run media sources did criticize then-President Trump throughout his term, they did not actively promote Joe Biden nor actively work against President Trump’s re-election. Chinese state-run media’s overall coverage of the election was limited in volume compared to other topics, which indicates that China preferred to establish stability in its relationship with the US.[12] China was unwilling to jeopardize long-term stability and amicable relations through election interference, as China would have been willing to work with either candidate post-election. China preferred now-President Biden over former President Trump, as Biden is viewed as more predictable and eager to de-escalate bilateral tensions than Trump.[13]


Despite indications of China’s lack of interference in the elections, it likely continued its longstanding efforts to gather information on the American political system. These include information regarding voters, public opinion, political parties, candidates, staff members, and senior government officials. This information was likely used to predict electoral outcomes, as well as inform Chinese efforts to influence United States policy towards China under either electoral outcome.[14] This has been a longstanding strategy from China, which views this information-gathering practice as an acceptable form of statecraft. The US does not have a sufficient cyber-defense strategy put in place to counter Chinese efforts in Beijing’s long-term extensive data collection. The intelligence community is yet to establish a total consensus on the level of Chinese interference in the elections. There is a minority view held by some, such as the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber, that China did take some steps to undermine Donald Trump’s chances of re-election.[15] China and President Xi were able to do this through the use of state-run media, social media, and official public statements and carefully calibrating its efforts to avoid blowback from the United States.


Indications that China did not interfere in the 2020 elections contradict Donald Trump’s insistence during the election that China was the primary threat to election security. President Trump falsely indicated in a tweet in September 2020 that China was a far greater threat to election security than countries that did interfere, such as Russia.[16] Trump’s allegations were most likely due to the bilateral tensions that have shaped US-China relations since the start of the Trump Administration, such as the trade war.[17] Although President Trump was a vocal critic of China, intelligence indicates that President Xi was unwilling to act maliciously to undermine President Trump’s re-election despite Joe Biden being the preferred candidate.

Minor Actors


Intelligence indicates that Cuba also attempted to interfere in the 2020 election. There are indications that this was done to undermine former President Trump’s chances of reelection. Available evidence suggests that this was carried out by promoting pro-Democrat and anti-Republican narratives directed at the Latin American community, assisted by low-level Cuban intelligence activities.[18] Intelligence indicates that Venezuela had the intention to interfere in the election, such as engaging in similar tactics as Cuba but was ultimately incapable of doing so.


Intelligence indicates that non-state actors, such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, interfered in the 2020 election to undermine former President Trump’s chances of reelection. Available evidence suggests that Hezbollah engaged in what it saw as a low-cost interference campaign to mitigate the risk of conflict with the United States at a time when Lebanon is facing several ongoing internal crises.


Interference by minor state and non-state actors such as Cuba and Hezbollah in favor of Joe Biden, or at least against Donald Trump, suggest that they favor Joe Biden because they perceive him as less hostile. Intelligence indicates that their efforts were at least somewhat successful in manipulating American public opinion. Although it is less clear to what extent, if any, this affected the election outcome.

Future Implications


Tensions are likely to continue to rise between Washington and Moscow. Following the declassification of the report on Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Presidential Election, Biden called Putin a “killer” in an interview with ABC News on March 17, referring to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Putin, in response, said “it takes one to know one” and referenced elements of America’s troubled past with civil rights and the use of the atomic bomb in Japan during World War II.[19] As a result of this escalation of the already strained relationship, the Russian Foreign Ministry recalled the Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov.[20] Recent Russian domestic policy perceived as anti-Western or anti-democratic will contribute to this strained relationship. Russian state communications agency Roskomnador has said it is slowing down Twitter, in retaliation for banned content not being removed. Russia has also threatened to block the US platform altogether if Twitter fails to comply with its demands.[21] Russian-US relations will continue to deteriorate, as Russian bots continue to spread disinformation and target Americans, to accentuate polarization, as well as social and racial inequalities.


The US and Russia have agreed to extend the New START Treaty - a major arms control deal that is critically important for both nation-states. Extending the New START Treaty ensures the US has limits on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers until February 5, 2026.[22] The New START Treaty’s verification regime monitors Russian compliance with the treaty and brings insight into Russia’s overall nuclear posture.[23] Although both states will continue to work towards being pragmatic on critical international security issues such as extending the New START Treaty, the strained relationship with Russia will likely continue to worsen, especially as the Biden Administration has warned Russia with sanctions for attempting to influence the election, as well as the Solar Winds, hacks into multiple US government and intelligence agencies. Working together on the New START Treaty will likely help improve strategic deterrence in the relationship, decreasing the likelihood of full-out war however it will not bring about warmer relations between the countries.


Although Iran’s efforts to undermine the election aimed to prevent former President Trump’s reelection, tensions have continued between Washington and Tehran. Though President Biden’s administration expressed a willingness to rejoin the JCPOA, Iran has insisted that the US must lift all sanctions before talks resume.[24] In response, the US said it would consult with the other European parties to the JCPOA.[25] The declassification of the report is unlikely to affect how negotiations proceed since they are already stalled. However, the nature of Iranian interference - an influence operation with spoofed emails and fake social media accounts - is difficult to detect and counter in real-time, suggesting that future interference is likely, mainly to take advantage of perceived vulnerabilities and social unrest in the US and undermine citizens’ confidence.


Despite indications that China did not interfere in the 2020 election, it will continue to be a leading security threat to the United States because it poses the most significant economic competition internationally and has a history of stealing American information, military designs, and technology. There are indications that China used the 2020 election as an opportunity to continue its longstanding information-gathering campaign on the American public and political system. This is not the first time that China has used an election to gather information; therefore, it is likely that it will attempt to do so again in the future. Most available evidence suggests that China chose not to interfere out of self-interest, implying that China can interfere and may decide to do so if it regards interference as serving its self-interest.


Although Beijing may have hoped that through choosing non-interference, the Biden administration would be eager to establish amicable bilateral relations, available evidence suggests that President Biden will instead intensify the federal government’s focus on China. For example, Biden’s recently confirmed choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William J. Burns said at his Senate confirmation hearing that he would intensify the CIA’s focus on China, calling China’s actions the “biggest political test” for the United States.[26] This stance towards China is crucial as it is clear that the country is currently a threat to the United States regarding intelligence, and may choose to become a threat to the United States concerning election interference in the future.


Minor actors such as Cuba and Hezbollah are unlikely to represent major threats to the United States. This is because most of these actors engaged in relatively small and low-cost forms of interference to achieve their goal of ridding President Trump from office. Despite indications that it did have minor effects on public opinion, there is little evidence to suggest that interference from these actors had any significant impact on the 2020 election results. There are indications that interference from these actors against Donald Trump had significantly more to do with them trying to pursue their agendas, than support for Joe Biden.

_______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey by Donkeyhotey, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Election, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Russian Information Warfare as Domestic Counterinsurgency, American Foreign Policy Interests, January 2013, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263691324_Russian_Information_Warfare_as_Domestic_Counterinsurgency

[6] Ibid.

[7] Russia Sees U.S. Democracy 'Limping' After Capitol Stormed, The Moscow Times, January 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/01/07/russia-sees-us-democracy-limping-after-capitol-stormed-a72551

[8] FBI Investigating Threatening Emails Sent To Democrats In Florida, WUFT, October 2020, https://www.wuft.org/news/2020/10/20/fbi-investigating-threatening-emails-sent-to-democrats-in-florida/

[9] Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Election, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

[10] Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran, BBC News, December 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109

[11] Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Election, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

[12] Ibid.

[13] Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Election, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Spy Agencies Reject Trump Claim of China Election Meddling, Bloomberg, March 2021 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-16/u-s-spy-agency-rejects-trump-claim-of-china-election-meddling

[17] Special report: Trump's U.S.-China transformation, Axios, January 2021, https://www.axios.com/trump-china-policy-special-report-154fa5c2-469d-4238-8d72-f0641abc0dfa.html

[18] Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Election, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

[19] US-Russia ties nosedive after Biden-Putin tit-for-tat, AP News, March 2021, https://apnews.com/article/putin-cites-us-ills-response-to-biden-remark-bf49dbdd1dd47dc90aba36a67b344727

[20] Russia Erupts in Fury Over Biden’s calling Putin a Killer, The New York Times, March 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/18/world/europe/russia-biden-putin-killer.html

[21] Russia threatens to block Twitter in a month, AP News, March 2021, https://apnews.com/article/russia-threaten-block-twitter-726fc480f89a499605623e9a08c19017

[22] On the Extension of the New START Treaty with the Russian Federation, US Department of State, February 2021, https://www.state.gov/on-the-extension-of-the-new-start-treaty-with-the-russian-federation/

[23] Ibid.

[24] Iran nuclear deal: Tehran rules out informal talks on reviving accord, BBC News, February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56234015

[25] Ibid.

[26] Biden’s CIA Director Pick Is Approved by Senate, The Wall Street Journal, March 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/bidens-cia-director-pick-is-approved-by-senate-11616102277


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