Iran behind threatening pro-Trump emails to U.S. voters, feds say


Federal officials also said Iran and Russia have obtained voter registration data.

John Ratcliffe

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe called the measures “desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.”
| Gabriella Demczuk /The New York Times via AP


10/21/2020 07:49 PM EDT

Updated: 10/21/2020 08:54 PM EDT

The Iranian government is behind recent emails threatening Americans with retribution if they do not vote to reelect President Donald Trump, national security officials said on Wednesday.

In addition, Iran and Russia have obtained the voter registration data of some Americans, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said during an abruptly scheduled evening news conference.

The intelligence community has “seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump,” Ratcliffe said.

The threatening emails, purportedly sent by a far-right extremist group called the Proud Boys, told recipients, “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.”

The messages also claimed that the senders had breached America’s “entire voting infrastructure” and would be able to tell how the recipients voted.

The Proud Boys denied sending the emails — which appeared in the inboxes of registered Democrats — and local officials who were sent copies of the messages forwarded them to the FBI.

Ratcliffe’s description of the emails as intended to damage Trump raised eyebrows, given that the messages demanded that recipients vote for the president or face harm.

Some Democrats immediately questioned whether Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist who has been accused of using his powerful post to boost the president’s political fortunes, was distorting the Iranian situation. “Are you being fully honest with the American people?” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).

Only minutes after the briefing, Trump mocked suspicions of Russian interference in the election during a rally in Gastonia, N.C. He dismissed Democrats’ concerns that Russian disinformation campaigns were working to peddle malicious story lines about the Biden family.

“Russia, Oh Russia, they probably think we’re the wackiest people,” Trump said to a cheering audience.

There is no indication that either Russia or Iran hacked into voter registration databases to obtain the information that they used to send the emails. Voter data is publicly available in many states.

One of the emails that officials linked to Tehran included a link to a video purportedly showing how it was possible to submit a fraudulent ballot.

“This video, and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots, are not true,” Ratcliffe said.

He called the messages “desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.”

U.S. intelligence officials have not yet seen Russia leverage voter data to send similar messages, Ratcliffe said.

DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency informed election officials on Wednesday that the intimidating messages were the work of a “hostile foreign actor,” according to a person on the briefing call. At the time, officials did not identify the country in question.

As the federal officials described it, “The goal [of the emails] was to be like, ‘Look, we can do it, and you shouldn’t vote because you shouldn’t trust this,’” said the person who participated in the half-hour call, who requested anonymity to discuss a private briefing.

U.S. officials have spent months warning voters not to believe sensational claims about the election process and to seek out information from trusted sources such as state election administrators.

Shortly before Ratcliffe spoke, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee offered their own cryptic warning.

“As we enter the last weeks before the election, we urge every American — including members of the media — to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said.


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Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it’s logical that Russia and Iran would step up their election interference activities in the final days of the campaign. The important thing now, he said, is for the intelligence community to continue publicly describing these foreign efforts to help voters — and local election officials — combat it.

“The crucial point is that the intel community, and I think it ought to be practically on a daily basis, has to alert the American people as to what’s going on and who’s doing it,” King said.

King, who declined to discuss specifics of the classified intelligence underlying Wednesday’s announcement, said voters can use the information from Ratcliffe and Wray to redouble their skepticism toward any communications from suspicious sources and to disregard claims on social media about voting that they haven’t verified with official sources. And election officials now have a fresh remind to gird themselves for more attacks.

“This announcement tonight puts them on notice that there are malevolent actors poking around and that they should be on their guard,” King said.

Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray assured Americans that the Trump administration took disinformation and other election security threats seriously.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermine public confidence in the outcome of the election,” Wray said.

Kyle Cheney and Matthew Choi contributed to this article.

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