Washington — Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations that sought to damage President Biden's candidacy during the 2020 election and boost former President Donald Trump, according to an unclassified report from the U.S. intelligence community on foreign threats to the 2020 elections released Tuesday.
The report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, outlined five key judgments on efforts by foreign actors to influence or interfere in U.S. elections, including Moscow's attempts, directed by the highest echelons of the Russian government, to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and sow division among Americans.
"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 U.S. media organizations, U.S. officials, and prominent U.S. individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration," the declassified report stated.
The intelligence community assessed with "high confidence" that Russia and Iran used misinformation to undermine public confidence in election processes and results. There were no indications, however, that any foreign actor attempted to alter voting systems or other technical aspects of voting, such as voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation or reporting results.
While the report criticizes attempts by Russia and Iran to interfere in the 2020 election, the intelligence community assessed with high confidence that China "did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome" of the presidential election. Still, other foreign actors — Lebanon's Hezbollah, Cuba and Venezuela — mounted some efforts to attempt to influence the election, though they were "smaller in scale" than actions taken by other foreign actors.
An August assessment from the intelligence community warned of ongoing activity by China, Russia and Iran ahead of the November election, noting China preferred Mr. Trump lose his reelection bid.
Russia's efforts in the 2020 election differed from its influence campaign in 2016, as the report from the intelligence community published Tuesday found it "did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure."
Instead, a "key element" of its strategy was to use people tied to Russian intelligence services "to launder influence narratives" through the media, U.S. officials and prominent Americans. According to the report, Putin oversaw the activities of Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker, to spread narratives designed to hurt Mr. Biden. Derkach was sanctioned by the Trump administration in September.
"The primary effort the IC uncovered revolved around a narrative — that Russian actors began spreading as early as 2014 — alleging corrupt ties between President Biden, his family and other U.S. officials and Ukraine," the report stated.
Another individual, Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate of Mr. Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort who is characterized as a "Russian influence agent," attempted to damage U.S. ties to Ukraine and hurt Mr. Biden's candidacy, the report said.
Kilimnik, Derkach and associates attempted to use "prominent U.S. persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to U.S. officials and audience," the intelligence community assessed. "These Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked U.S. persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a U.S. firm to petition U.S. officials; and attempted to make contact with several U.S. officials. They also made contact with established U.S. media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a U.S. television network in late January 2020," the report said.
Russian state media, trolls and online proxies "published disparaging content about President Biden, his family and the Democratic Party, and heavily amplified related content circulating in U.S. media, including stories centered on his son," while Russian internet influence actors promoted Mr. Trump and his messages on the election and impeachment inquiry, the report stated.
The intelligence community further found Russian hackers attempted to breach organizations affiliated with the Democratic Party after the 2018 midterm elections and targeted U.S. political actors in 2019 and 2020.
The motivation behind Moscow's attempts to harm Mr. Biden's candidacy stemmed from the Kremlin's belief that his election would be "disadvantageous to Russian interests," according to the report.
Iran, meanwhile, mounted an influence campaign, likely authorized by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to hurt Mr. Trump's reelection prospects and exacerbate divisions in the U.S., the declassified assessment stated.
"Iran's efforts in 2020 — especially its emails to individual U.S. voters and efforts to spread allegations of voter fraud — were more aggressive than in past election cycles," the intelligence community said.
Iranian cyber actors were found to be responsible forsent to Democratic voters in several states that purported to come from the right-wing extremist group the Proud Boys, as well a website containing death threats against U.S. election officials.
Tehran focused its campaign on social media and propaganda on "perceived vulnerabilities" in the U.S., including the response to the coronavirus pandemic, economic downturn and civil unrest.
"Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country," Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement. "These efforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions. Addressing this ongoing challenge requires a whole-of-government approach grounded in an accurate understanding of the problem, which the Intelligence Community, through assessments such as this one, endeavors to provide."
The report made public Tuesday was a declassified version of a classified report provided to the president, senior executive branch officials, congressional leadership and intelligence oversight committees January 7.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, said the assessment underscores what was already known: Russia interfered to help Mr. Trump and harm Mr. Biden, and undermine confidence in the electoral process.
"No matter which nation seeks to influence our political system and who stands to benefit, both parties must speak with one voice and disavow all interference in our elections," Schiff said in a statement. "We must guard against and seek to deter all attempts at foreign interference, and ensure that American voters decide American elections."
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