After the pro-Trump With the hack-and-leak operations and disinformation campaigns that rocked the 2016 U.S. election, the country was preparing for a second round of unrestricted foreign interference last year. But U.S. intelligence agencies have now confirmed that has not fully happened. The 2020 election was plagued by meddling, trolling and disinformation operations like that of 2016 – but not overt efforts to hack the electoral infrastructure or the political campaigns themselves.
On Tuesday, the office of the director of national intelligence released a declassified report which presents the findings of US intelligence agencies including the CIA, NSA, FBI and DHS on the general picture of electoral interference by foreign actors in 2020. These agencies agree that if more foreign powers than ever before previously attempted to influence the election outcome – using everything from misinformation to voter intimidation emails to social media campaigns – none actually appear to have used hackers to attempt to disrupt election or access electoral infrastructure as they did in 2016.
“In 2020, the IC followed a wider range of foreign actors taking action to influence the US election than in previous election cycles,” the report says, pointing to Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and even the Islamic extremist group of Lebanese Hezbollah as actors who influence the outcome of the elections. Russia in particular has sought to support Trump’s re-election bid with everything from social media posts of troll farms to active smear operations that have provided information directly to “people linked to the Trump administration.” Iran, meanwhile, has worked against Trump’s re-election with social media campaigns and even bogus, Threatening emails designed to frame the white nationalist group supporting Trump, the Proud Boys, while not directly supporting Biden or any of Trump’s other political opponents.
But the report adds that intelligence agencies “have no indication that a foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election by changing any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, the voting, the compilation of votes or the communication of the results “.
More remarkable, perhaps, given the operation by Russian military intelligence agency GRU in 2016 at hack the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign and publicly disclose their emails, the report contains no mention of any such hack-and-leak operation or any other disruptive hacking tactics targeting election organizations, politicians or their campaigns. Instead, state-sponsored hacker intrusions appear to have been limited largely to more traditional espionage. It means a retirement from the most aggressive election hacking tactics, Russia has demonstrated four years earlier, when he also broke into the board of electoral rolls of several states.
This hacking shift was likely driven by both higher costs and lower earnings associated with election-targeted hacking operations in 2020 compared to 2016, argues Clint Watts, a distinguished researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who focuses on influence operations. He points the finger at Obama high profile measures to punish election hacking in Russia in 2016, just before leaving office, which included the expulsion of diplomats, the seizure of Russian property in the United States and sanctions against Russian officials.
With the polls tilted towards the Democratic ticket for much of 2020, the Kremlin and other foreign governments may have feared that a victorious Biden would implement a similar punitive foreign policy. “Foreign opponents knew that if they messed up with the vote or a campaign, there would be a response,” Watts says. “If you’re a foreign country, you saw how much the United States was charged in 2016. If Biden won, as president, he probably would do something. It changes your math.”
At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric about Biden and others generated enough “noise,” Watts says, that any hacked and leaked data would have been drowned out anyway. “Trump is already spreading so much lies, so much misinformation, so many allegations, that it’s very difficult to change things in such a way that Biden should answer them,” Watts says. “What can you say that would be more insinuating or more derogatory than what already exists?”
The ODNI report confirms earlier findings by cybersecurity firm Area1 that the GRU tried to hack Burisma—The Ukrainian gas company where Joe Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board – probably looking for evidence of corruption. (Unlike Area1, the ODNI report does not confirm that these intrusions were successful.) But Watts notes that the Kremlin may have viewed Burisma as a fair game, given that the company, unlike the hack and leak targets of the GRU in 2016 was outside. the United States. “They were saying, we’re not going to hack something in the United States,” Watts says. “We are going where we can hack and it is difficult for the Americans to have a clear answer because they are not defending a Ukrainian company.”