October 9, 2020

IntelBrief: It’s Not Just the Russians Interfering in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The intense focus on Russian election meddling has obscured the role played by other countries—China and Iran—actively interfering as well.
  • Beijing understands the impact of disinformation, lawfare, and clandestine operations to advance its national interests and undermine its adversaries.
  • Following the first presidential debate, Twitter announced the removal of 130 fake accounts linked to Iran, though others likely went unnoticed.
  • With the election mere weeks away, foreign actors will aggressively ramp up their disinformation campaigns and attempt to engage in interference.

Last weekend Robert C. O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser, commented that ‘the Russians have committed to’ not interfering in the November 2020 U.S. Presidential election, now just weeks away. Some commentators labeled O’Brien’s remarks as naïve, noting that the U.S. intelligence community has already gone on record to suggest that Moscow is actively interfering in an attempt to influence the outcome. None of this should come as a surprise. The Kremlin’s interference in both the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the 2018 mid-term elections has been well-documented to date. But the intense focus on Russian meddling has obscured the role played by other U.S. adversaries to do the same—namely, China and Iran.

Although its efforts fail to garner the same level of media scrutiny as Russia’s, Chinese attempts to influence the 2020 election are ongoing, and growing more sophisticated. Beijing has long appreciated the impact of disinformation, lawfare, and clandestine operations, especially in the cyber domain, to advance its national interests and undermine its adversaries, including the United States. Chinese hackers have reportedly targeted Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s campaign. Both Google and Microsoft have revealed attempts by the Chinese to interfere in U.S. political campaigns over the course of the past several months. China has consistently targeted the United States with sophisticated hacking campaigns, including successful efforts to pilfer intellectual property of private corporations, universities, and research laboratories. China’s behavior, coupled with the fallout and subsequent blame game over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has led U.S.-China relations to deteriorate to perhaps its lowest point in recent memory. 

Iran has also accelerated its efforts to interfere in the upcoming U.S. election. In August of this year, William R. Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), declared that Iran was ‘seeking to undermine U.S. democratic institutions’ in an attempt to ‘divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections.’ Following the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden, Twitter announced that it removed 130 fake accounts linked to Iran. The social media giant announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initially identified the accounts, which were seeking to ‘disrupt public conversation’ regarding the debate. One of the Twitter accounts sought to amplify the public outcry online after President Trump refused to disavow white supremacy and indeed even told The Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by.’ U.S. adversaries will continue to seek ways of surreptitiously engaging with Americans about divisive issues on social media. Taking a page out of Russia’s playbook, there could very well be further attempts by Iran and other malign state actors to highlight issues of racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy in the United States in an effort to divide Americans.

The U.S. election is now just a few weeks away and as it approaches, foreign actors will aggressively seek to ramp up their disinformation campaigns and attempt to engage in interference. Russia is just one of several malign actors looking to throw the election into turmoil. Given the complications associated with voting in person due to the coronavirus pandemic, and President Trump’s repeated accusations that the election could be rigged, many are fearful of civil unrest and political violence. If the results of the election are not apparent immediately, and there is a significant delay in determining a winner, it opens up possibilities for U.S. adversaries intent on stoking domestic discontent, further distracting Washington from executing its foreign and security policy objectives abroad. If the United States remains bogged down internally, it could provide Russia, China, and/or Iran with the opportunity to exploit a range of potential scenarios in the Middle East or Asia, in hopes that the United States will be paralyzed as it sorts out what could be the most volatile election in American history.