The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, in a hastily assembled news conference late Wednesday with FBI and Homeland Security officials, said that Iran and Russia had managed to steal voter registration information and were targeting voters, spreading disinformation intended to harm President Donald Trump.
But Ratcliffe’s warnings immediately drew skeptical reactions from Democratic lawmakers, some of whom had been briefed in private about the interference. They specifically disputed that the actions by Iran were intended to harm Trump.
Instead of listening to Ratcliffe, the House Homeland Security Committee said in its Twitter feed that Americans should listen to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Wray and Krebs stood with Ratcliffe at the Wednesday evening press briefing.
“Ratcliffe has TOO OFTEN politicized the Intelligence Community to carry water for the President,” the committee — led by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. — said in a tweet.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer also doubted Ratcliffe’s conclusions.
“I had the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections and not aimed at any particular figure,” Schumer said on MSNBC.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CQ Roll Call on Thursday, “I think we have to be very careful about any statements coming out from the intelligence community 13 days before the election.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., appearing on SiriusXM’s The Dean Obeidallah Show, said, “One of the real tragedies of the Trump administration is that they have corrupted some of our institutions that have been, for the most part, sort of insulated from partisan politics. And as a result of that corruption, they’ve put in the head of the DNI a political hack who does the president’s bidding, and that’s what we have sadly in John Ratcliffe.”
At the Wednesday news conference, Ratcliffe said Iran had used voter information and was “sending spoofed emails, designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.”
Ratcliffe also said emails to voters included a video alleging voter fraud from ballots cast by overseas voters, which he said was “not true” and constituted “desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.”
Anyone getting such emails and videos should not be “alarmed,” and “do not spread it,” Ratcliffe said.
Vice News said it obtained a copy of the video and posted it on YouTube after obscuring voter details. Vice said the video targeted voters in Arizona, Florida and Alaska, demanding that they “Vote for Trump or else!” The emails allegedly were from the Proud Boys group and carried the group’s logo, but Vice said its investigation showed the emails were spoofs.
In his first debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, when asked to condemn white supremacist groups in the United States because they were engaging in violence, Trump said the Proud Boys group should “stand back and stand by.” Critics have said Trump’s comments were less of a condemnation and more of a call to action.
Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the U.N., denied that Iran was interfering in U.S. elections.
“Unlike the U.S., Iran does not interfere in other country’s elections,” Miryousefi said in an emailed statement. “These accusations are nothing more than another scenario to undermine voter confidence in the security of the U.S. election, and are absurd.”
FBI discovered the hacking
At the 7:30 p.m. briefing, Wray said the FBI was closely monitoring the situation: “We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections, or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.”
In a joint statement, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the panel, said that despite efforts by foreign adversaries to sow confusion about elections, “State and local election officials are in regular contact with federal law enforcement and cyber security professionals, and they are all working around the clock to ensure that Election 2020 is safe, secure, and free from outside interference.”
Ratcliffe and Wray provided few details about Russia obtaining voter information and what the Kremlin was doing with the information. In 2016, Kremlin-backed hackers scanned election computers in all 50 states and managed to gain access to 21 state voter records. Although such access was found not to have changed the results, it’s unclear what Moscow was doing with its access in 2020.
In a public statement in August, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said Russia, China and Iran were all attempting to interfere with the elections.
In Moscow’s case, it’s using “a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” Evanina said. “This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia.”
Directly rebutting Trump’s repeated claims that Russian interference in the U.S. elections is a “hoax,” Evanina added that “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Ratcliffe, whose initial nomination to head the U.S. intelligence services was withdrawn after he was found to have overstated his prosecutorial experience in his résumé, promised lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that he would be nonpartisan. But since taking office, Ratcliffe has often echoed Trump's points.
Ratcliffe bothers Democrats
Earlier in the week, Ratcliffe went on Fox News and seemed to lend support to an unproven story carried by the New York Post about a laptop apparently containing emails by Biden’s son Hunter. While many security experts have doubted the legitimacy of the laptop and the story, Ratcliffe said it is “not part of some Russian disinformation campaign.”
Ratcliffe also has declassified and released to Republican lawmakers parts of the intelligence community’s assessment about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Democrats and former intelligence officials have said that such moves undermine trust in the spy agencies.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, John Sipher, a former station chief for the CIA who worked for the agency for 27 years, wrote that Ratcliffe “has already put himself in the running to be considered among the most destructive intelligence officials in U.S. history.”
Sipher compared Ratcliffe to Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief during World War II and the Korean War who falsified intelligence reports to please his boss and prohibited any intelligence information that challenged MacArthur’s preconceived views.
Sipher said Ratcliffe, like Willoughby, “seems to think his job is to serve only his boss, who requires that everyone agree with him at all times.”