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US Office of National Intelligence says Russia, Iran tried to mess with 2020 elections, China sat it out

Security precautions held up, but Putin himself signed off on efforts to scare the public with claims of voting system compromise

The USA’s Office of National Intelligence today released its previously classified assessment of “Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections” and found “some successful compromises of state and local government networks prior to Election Day—as well as a higher volume of unsuccessful attempts”.

But those efforts were “not directed at altering election processes”, instead aiming to “spread false or inflated claims about alleged compromises of voting systems to undermine public confidence in election processes and results.”

That effort appears to have worked, given the riot at the US Capitol was fueled by the false belief that the election had been compromised.

The fifteen-page report [PDF] carries the seals of seven US government agencies, among them the CIA, NSA, and Department of Homeland Security. It’s described as the intelligence community’s collective assessment of attempts to disrupt the 2020 election and to contain “analytic judgments … identical to those in the classified version” but without “full supporting information” or information on “specific intelligence reports, sources , or methods.”

The document offers five key judgements, the first being that no foreign actor “attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 US elections, including voter registration , casting ballots, vote tabulation , or reporting results.”

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The second says that Russian president Vladimir Putin personal authorised “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating socio-political divisions in the US.”

The document continues: "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 US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration."

That assessment matches well with the unproven allegations that a laptop purportedly owned by president Biden’s son Hunter turned up in a repair shop in the final days of the election campaign and was full of incriminating material. Only a handful of media outlets gave that story any credence.

The document details that Russian operatives “attempted to hack organizations primarily affiliated with the Democratic Party” and “unsuccessfully targeted US political actors in 2019 and 2020,” but as part of a “larger intelligence-gathering campaign” rather than an attempt to compromise election systems.

Russia also backed a phishing campaign against Ukrainian company Burisma, at which Hunter Biden served as a director, in the hope of finding incriminating information.

Another finding asserts that Russian operatives “made contact with established US media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network in late January 2020.”

The third key judgment asserts that Iran worked to “undercut” President Trump but didn’t go all the way and promote Biden. Like Russia, it was more interested in undermining confidence and sowing division, as demonstrated by its campaign of menacing emails sent to left-leaning voters.

A key element of Moscow's strategy was misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden

China, the document says, kept its cyber-powder dry after judging that being caught meddling wasn’t worth the payoff. But the Middle Kingdom “did take some steps to try to undermine former President Trump's re-election” and used its lobbying and economic policies to advance its agenda.

The last judgement suggests that Venezuela, Cuba and Lebanese Hizballah tried to disrupt the poll, but only on a small scale, while cyber-criminals also had a crack but did so to make some money.

Overall, the report seems quite pleased with the state of election security in the USA ahead of the 2020 elections. But it also doesn’t concern itself with SolarWinds, which allowed the reaming of multiple US government agencies, or the flaws that turned Microsoft Exchange email stores into an open book. And those incidents show that the USA - and all other nations - remain very vulnerable to many forms of attack. ®

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