China and Iran trying to undermine Trump re-election while Russia looking to hurt Biden, top US intelligence official says

Foreign states are attempting to sway voters’ preferences and undermine confidence in the democratic process, William Evanina says

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Friday 07 August 2020 21:20 BST
Russian official disputes election interference

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Louise Thomas

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A top US counterintelligence official has issued a public statement warning that foreign states are continuing to use both overt and covert methods to influence the 2020 election.

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, raises specific concerns over activity by China, Russia and Iran.

He says that China and Iran prefer that president Donald Trump does not win re-election; while Russia is seeking to hurt former vice president Joe Biden’s electoral chances.

Mr Evanina writes that ahead of the 2020 elections, foreign states are attempting to sway voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift policies, increase discord in the country, and undermine confidence in the democratic process.

While the US’s adversaries may seek to compromise election infrastructure to interfere with the voting process, steal sensitive data, or call into question the validity of the election results, he surmises that it would be difficult to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.

Rather, foreign actors will have a preference for who wins and they will express that through more overt ways rather than rarer covert methods. Singling out China, Russia and Iran, Mr Evanina outlines their preferences.

He says China sees president Trump as unpredictable, and therefore prefers he does not win re-election. Beijing has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the US, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.

Mr Evanina writes: “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.”

He adds that China has “harshly criticised 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 recognises that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race.”

Concerning Russia, the assessment is that it is using a range of measures mostly to denigrate Joe 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 publicising leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” he writes.

In addition, some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost the Trump campaign on social media and Russian television.

Finally, the threat from Iran is that it seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections, Mr Evanina says.

“Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content. Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s re-election would result in a continuation of US pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change,” he said.

The statement follows on from a 24 July promise by Mr Evanina to update the American public on the threat to the election.

He concludes: “We are all in this together as Americans. Our election should be our own. Foreign efforts to influence or interfere with our elections are a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy.”

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