The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman with election interference just as top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies warned that Russia, China, and Iran are running influence campaigns seeking to sway American voters in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential campaigns.
“We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies,” said the statement issued jointly by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. “These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections.”
The campaigns include “using social media to amplify divisive issues, sponsoring specific content in English-language media like RT and Sputnik, seeding disinformation through sympathetic spokespersons regarding political candidates and disseminating foreign propaganda,” the statement said.
Election infrastructure itself, including voting machines, election tallying computers, and voter databases, were unlikely to be directly affected, the agencies said.
“Currently, we do not have any evidence of a compromise or disruption of infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt our ability to tally votes in the midterm elections,” the statement said.
Minutes after issuing the warning, the Justice Department said it was charging a Russian woman with conspiracy to interfere in the 2018 election.
Elena Khusyaynova, a 44-year old Russian, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States.
The woman, from St. Petersburg, Russia, had served as the chief accountant of “Project Lakhta,” a foreign influence operation funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and Concord Catering, the Justice Department said. Prigozhin is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has charged individuals working for entities funded by the same company as being behind Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The alleged conspiracy sought to conduct what it called internally “information warfare against the United States,” the Justice Department said. “This effort was not only designed to spread distrust toward candidates for U.S. political office and the U.S. political system in general, but also to defraud the United States by impeding the lawful functions of government agencies in administering relevant federal requirements.”
The Russian-backed operation used social media and other online platforms to amplify Americans’ differences on immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and the NFL national anthem debate, the Justice Department said.
“Members of the conspiracy took advantage of specific events in the United States to anchor their themes, including the shootings of church members in Charleston, South Carolina, and concert attendees in Las Vegas; the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and associated violence; police shootings of African-American men; as well as the personnel and policy decisions of the current U.S. presidential administration,” the statement said.
The Justice Department said it had received “exceptional cooperation” from Facebook, Twitter and other companies in marshaling the evidence.
The arrest and the intelligence community warnings come just a little more than two weeks before a pivotal midterm election that could alter which party controls Congress, and potentially affect President Donald Trump’s ability to carry out his agenda. The Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have in recent months warned of an increased risk of cyberattack.
In July, Coats said that the “warning lights are blinking red again,” similar to the kind of warning that U.S. intelligence agencies had seen in the months before the 9/11 attack. Coats said that while U.S. agencies weren’t seeing the kind of intrusion into election systems they had seen before the 2016 elections, “we fully realize we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.”
Nielsen echoed Coats’s warning in early September, adding that “our digital lives are in danger like never before.”
While most of the focus on foreign campaigns disrupting U.S. election has been focused on Russia, in recent weeks, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have stepped up attacks on China, saying that Beijing too is running sophisticated campaigns to sway American voters.
“Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies,” Pence said in a speech in early October. “As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
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