U.S. Government Says Iran And Russia Try To Affect Public Opinion On The Election

Oct 21, 2020
Originally published on October 22, 2020 4:31 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. government said tonight that Iran and Russia have taken specific actions to influence public opinion related to U.S. elections. Here's director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN RATCLIFFE: These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.

SHAPIRO: This development comes after voters in Alaska and Florida reported receiving threatening emails this week. NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security and joins us now with more.

Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This was a sudden press conference. What did government officials reveal tonight?

PARKS: Basically, what they said is that foreign adversaries are at it again, at it being election interference. Notably in this case, it's Iran and Russia. Now, this is something that we knew was going to happen. Basically for the last four years, as we've learned more about Russia's efforts in 2016, what election officials and national security folks have said is that they never have really stopped. There's still a lot of incentive for American adversaries to interfere in elections.

So tonight, American election officials - national security officials, I should say - came out and said that Iran and Russia have accessed some voter rolls in a number of states. These voter rolls are generally public records. But what these countries have done is use these voter rolls to nefarious means. A number of voters - as you mentioned, Alaska and Florida, potentially a couple other states - have reported receiving threatening emails related to basically intimidating them into not voting or voting for a different candidate. Officials also said that Iran was circulating a video that seemed to indicate fraudulent votes being cast potentially from foreign countries.

SHAPIRO: What do those emails say? Tell us more about them.

PARKS: Yeah, so basically what the emails purported to be is from this far-right extremist group called The Proud Boys. And I have an email here in front of me that Alaska Public Media acquired that was sent to a voter. It says, you are currently registered as a Democrat. And we know this because we have gained access into 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.

So obviously, that's pretty terrifying if you're a voter and you don't know anything about this and you receive this in your email inbox out of the blue. One Florida county that NPR talked with said potentially hundreds if not thousands of voters in that county received these.

SHAPIRO: So what do the director of national intelligence and the FBI say they're doing about this?

PARKS: The biggest thing that they can do at this point is talk about it. You know, this is a big change from 2016, when a lot of this election interference - we know the national security officials were monitoring it, but they weren't necessarily coming out. And they were being a little bit more tight-lipped, not talking about it so much. Here's director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe again talking tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RATCLIFFE: We are standing before you now to give you the confidence that we are on top of this and providing you with the most powerful weapon we have to combat these efforts - the truth.

PARKS: Basically, what officials say is that informed voters are the best defense against this sort of election interference. Now, I know some listeners are probably thinking, well, you know, aren't these people going to go to jail? But the reality is cyberthreats like this are notoriously hard to prosecute and to investigate, so I would not hold my breath for any - you know, anybody going to jail over something like this. It's just really hard to nail down who exactly did it and then to end up actually getting them in handcuffs.

SHAPIRO: Miles, you've been covering election security throughout this long campaign. How significant does this latest development tonight seem to you? Should people be worried about the security of this election?

PARKS: I think it's significant for a number of reasons. The biggest one, though, is that the government seems really intent on trying to cut through some of this misinformation around voting. The problem, however, is that there are some aspects of the government that seem at odds with this sort of message. You know, you have John Ratcliffe today saying that there's this video that Iran is circulating about fraudulent votes being cast by foreign governments. But if you remember, just a couple of months ago, President Trump was saying a very similar - has tweeted very similar things, as well as Attorney General Barr. And so there is, you know, this issue at this point at the highest level of the U.S. government where, you know, you're having some agencies fighting misinformation around voting where a lot of experts would say that a lot of that misinformation is actually, you know, being amplified by some members of the Republican Party right now.

SHAPIRO: And you've talked about Iran's role in this. What about Russia?

PARKS: Russia, at this point - what officials said tonight is that Russia also accessed these voter rolls. The problem is they don't know exactly what they're planning to do with them. They are expecting some action to come from this information that they've gathered, so voters basically should just be on the lookout. If you see something that smells fishy or seems like voter intimidation, you should contact your local election official, your state election official and report it.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Miles Parks, thank you.

PARKS: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.