Russian meddling efforts intensifying as US election nears

Over the previous week there have been recent warnings over Russian hackers concentrating on the 2020 election, the indictment of a Russian man stealing Americans’ identities as a part of election meddling, and sanctions in opposition to a Russian-linked politician for spreading disinformation.

The episodes are a stark reminder that Russian-linked election interference efforts — together with the potential risk from nations like China and Iran — are ramping again up with the November 3 election lower than two months away, suggesting Moscow continues to be trying to duplicate its wildly profitable 2016 meddling marketing campaign.

There are indicators the Trump administration is taking steps to counter Russian efforts. In addition to new sanctions this week, the intelligence neighborhood’s high election safety official Bill Evanina publicly introduced final month that Russia was actively working to denigrate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But these actions are taking part in out in opposition to a backdrop of President Donald Trump nonetheless refusing to simply accept that Russia is interfering to learn his marketing campaign — and on the identical time that Trump’s key advisers are placing ahead a deceptive argument that the larger election interference risk comes not from Russia however from China, which the intelligence neighborhood mentioned prefers Biden however shouldn’t be actively participating in a meddling marketing campaign.

New whistleblower grievance

Democrats’ issues that the White House is deliberately taking part in down the risk from Russia for Trump’s profit have been exacerbated this week by a brand new whistleblower grievance alleging performing Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf instructed DHS officers to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference,” and focus actions carried out by China and Iran.

“This is clearly part of a pattern where they put pressure on the agencies to adopt, manipulate, color their analysis, because if they tell the truth, it will be embarrassing to the president,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff advised CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday. “It’s dangerous, because if they’re not sharing this information with the American people, the country isn’t protected.

Trump’s Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has also cut off in-person election interference briefings for members of Congress, a move that Democrats charge puts the public at risk of being duped by Russian interference again in 2020.

DHS said in a statement following the whistleblower complaint that the “allegations are obviously unfaithful.” But both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are investigating the charges in the whistleblower reprisal complaint filed by Brian Murphy, who previously oversaw the intelligence division at the department.

Pointing to China

Trump this week pushed a misleading claim on Twitter that China is interfering in the 2020 election and attempting to hurt his reelection bid by encouraging race protests, promoting a conservative article at odds with his intelligence community’s assessment of Beijing’s efforts to date.

Attorney General William Barr and national security adviser Robert O’Brien have also claimed China poses the biggest election interference threat, blurring the line between broader national security concerns from China and specific election interference efforts coming out of Moscow.

There is a risk of election interference out of China and Iran, along with Russia. On Thursday, Microsoft introduced that Russian, Chinese and Iranian hackers have all attempted to hack people and organizations concerned within the 2020 election.
“The exercise we’re saying right now makes clear that international exercise teams have stepped up their efforts concentrating on the 2020 election,” Microsoft wrote on its website.

Still, the intelligence community has been clear publicly that the active state-sponsored meddling campaign is coming from Russia.

2016 redux

In the 2016 campaign, Russia-linked hackers successfully hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were released during the homestretch of the campaign to embarrass the Democratic nominee.

Microsoft said the same Russian hacking group identified as primarily responsible for the attacks in 2016 had recently targeted national and state parties in the US and consultants who work for Republicans and Democrats.

Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage,” which will be released Tuesday, included new details that the CIA and NSA had obtained evidence the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, which was not activated. A former senior US official who was briefed on the intrusions said the Woodward report referred to one of the most alarming incidents from the 2016 election.

Russian-linked actors are additionally pushing disinformation meant to harm Biden. Evanina’s assertion final month specifically accused Andriy Derkach, a Russian-linked Ukrainian lawmaker, of “spreading claims about corruption” to undermine Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.

The Treasury Department went a step further on Thursday, sanctioning Derkach for waging a years-long “covert affect marketing campaign” that centered on “cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives regarding US officers within the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election.”

Treasury said Derkach was an “energetic Russian agent for over a decade” with close connections to Russian intelligence services.

Derkach has worked with the President’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who collaborated with the Ukrainian to spread anti-Biden material during last year’s impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“I by no means put any of his data in my report back to State, and met (Derkach) lengthy after my investigation was over,” Giuliani told CNN late Thursday night, referring to a controversial packet of documents the former New York mayor gave to the State Department last year as part of his anti-Biden efforts.

Identity theft and disinformation

In addition to the sanctions against Derkach, federal prosecutors on Thursday indicted a Russian man accused working to steal the identities of Americans to open bank and cryptocurrency accounts.

The charges announced in federal court in Northern Virginia against Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, of St. Petersburg, Russia, were part of the US government’s response against Russians the US says are involved in Moscow’s election interference efforts. Treasury also announced sanctions against Lifshits and two others allegedly part of what the US named Project Lakhta, the Russian-based effort to conduct political and electoral influence in the US.

In the private sector, social media companies who were caught flat-footed in 2016 by Russian efforts to spread election disinformation are seeking to be more proactive as Election Day gets closer.

Earlier this month, Facebook said that it had disrupted an operation trying to target Americans from people associated with the infamous St. Petersburg troll group, known as the Internet Research Agency, that was part of Russia’s election interference efforts in the 2016 US presidential election.

And Twitter introduced Thursday it was expanding its policies in opposition to election-related misinformation, pledging to both add fact-check labels or disguise altogether tweets that include “false or deceptive data that causes confusion” about election rules or posts with “unverified details about election rigging.”

One potential implication of Twitter’s transfer: It may ramp up the corporate’s checks on tweets from the President himself, who lashed out when Twitter when first fact-checked him. Trump has repeatedly unfold false claims on the platform that mail-in voting is massively fraudulent, he is preemptively questioned the validity of the outcomes election and he is inspired voters to forged two ballots, which is prohibited.

CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Marshall Cohen, Brian Fung, Evan Perez and Donie O’Sullivan contributed to this report.

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