WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The U.S. government identified two foreign actors that have taken actions to interfere with the 2020 presidential election, ranging from obtaining voter registration information to sending emails meant to intimidate American voters and sow unrest.
At a Wednesday news briefing held with little advance notice, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said they are alerting the public that Iran and Russia took “specific actions” to manipulate public opinion regarding the election, particularly on the internet.
Ratcliffe said Iran has sent “spoof emails” to intimidate voters and damage President Trump. Additionally, Iran is distributing other content to say individuals could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas. He called the actions “desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.”
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said. “We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.”
“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,” FBI Director Chris Wray said, noting that despite the foreign efforts to interfere with elections, “you should be confident that your vote counts.”
The news conference was held as Democratic voters in at least four battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, have received threatening emails, falsely purporting to be from the far-right group Proud Boys, that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for President Donald Trump.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has directed government agencies “to proactively monitor and thwart any attempts to interfere in U.S. elections, and because of the great work of our law enforcement agencies we have stopped an attempt by America’s adversaries to undermine our elections.”
The voter-intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers. Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the Nov. 3 election, for which early voting is ongoing.
Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.
“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” Christopher Krebs, the top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Tuesday night after reports of the emails first surfaced.
He urged voters not to fall for “sensational and unverified claims,” reminding them that ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states. “The last line of defense in election security is you – the American voter.”
Ratcliffe and Wray said the U.S. will impose costs on any foreign countries interfering in the 2020 U.S. election.
A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied Iran had sought to meddle in the U.S. election.
“Iran has no interest in interfering in the U.S. election and no preference for the outcome,” spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.
U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who received a classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on election security, said he disagreed with Ratcliffe that Iran was specifically trying to hurt Trump.
“It was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case and Russia in many more cases is to basically undermine confidence in our elections. This action I do not believe was aimed … at discrediting President Trump,” Schumer told MSNBC in an interview.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report; check back for updates; this is a developing story.