U.S. spy agencies are ready to warn voters about foreign election interference — if it's severe enough

Updated

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely tracking attempts by foreign adversaries to influence the 2024 election through “deepfakes” or other false information and are ready to alert the public if necessary, officials said Wednesday.

A decision to notify the public about attempted election interference by foreign actors would be up to the leaders of the country’s intelligence agencies, including intelligence chief Avril Haines, officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, told reporters.

The decision to issue a public warning would follow a review by digital forensic experts and intelligence analysts, the ODNI officials said. It would be based on an assessment of whether the disinformation was serious enough that it “could affect the election outcome,” an official said.

Intelligence officials briefed reporters Wednesday amid growing concern from lawmakers that federal agencies are not sufficiently prepared to respond to a rising tide of disinformation fueled by new technology and deep divisions in American society.

But at a media briefing, ODNI officials said a new office created to monitor information operations by foreign enemies has gathered experts from across the country’s intelligence agencies and is holding regular exercises to prepare for the election.

“We’re taking a very proactive approach,” an ODNI official said.

Haines, the director of national intelligence, set up the Foreign Malign Influence Center in September 2022, more than two years after Congress ordered its creation following revelations of Russian election interference in the 2016 polls.

Russia continues to pose the most serious risk for foreign interference in the U.S. election, as it hopes to undermine Western support for Ukraine and weaken American democracy, officials said.

“We do consider Russia to be our primary threat for this election,” an ODNI official said. China is taking a “more cautious” approach, while Iran operates as a “chaos agent,” trying to disrupt the democratic process, the official said.

U.S. authorities already have privately notified targets of malicious foreign disinformation, including local governments, companies and individuals. Intelligence officials declined to specify the number of those cases but said they have issued more of those “non-public” notifications recently, partly because foreign adversaries are more focused on U.S. presidential elections.

Federal officials have issued a public warning about foreign election disinformation once, in 2020, when Iran was accused of orchestrating emails to registered voters purportedly from the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys. The emails threatened the recipients with physical injury unless they switched parties and voted for President Donald Trump.

To insulate the office from partisan political bias, career civil servants in the intelligence community oversee the effort to track foreign information operations aimed at the election, officials said.

Intelligence reporting shapes the monitoring of foreign influence operations, and intelligence analysts flag cases. If an instance of disinformation is not sufficiently “severe” or if it is orchestrated by a domestic actor, the case is dropped, officials said. The FBI or other domestic agencies would then decide whether to pursue the matter.

“We are not going to look at domestic actors,” the official said. “It’s not within our writ.”

The center tries to cultivate “partnerships” with state and local agencies, but officials are aware that some local officials may lack trust in the federal government, the official added.

Some experts and members of Congress have expressed concern that the polarized political climate in America could lead to an overly cautious approach by the intelligence agencies and the FBI to call out threats to the election from disinformation spread by foreign powers. Trump and his supporters have portrayed the Justice Department and the intelligence agencies as carrying out a secret political agenda to persecute him and thwart his agenda.

But intelligence analysts have flagged or “nominated” more cases of potential foreign influence operations in recent months, surpassing levels seen in the last four to five years, officials said.

“There have been more nominations than we have ever seen,” the official said, declining to provide more data or other details.

Asked whether some foreign governments deemed to be U.S. partners or allies are also engaging in election influence operations, the ODNI official said: “We go where the intelligence takes us.”

It takes about a week for a specific threat to be vetted as credible and reviewed by senior officials, the ODNI officials said. The process is being “streamlined,” and if there were an urgent case near Election Day, it could take less than 24 hours, the officials said.

ODNI officials also said more foreign actors are spreading disinformation, including proxies and private companies hired out by governments. Intermediaries complicate efforts to trace the sources of false information, the officials said.

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