The U.S. government’s top counterintelligence official said Monday that he was concerned Russia or other foreign adversaries could exploit the chaos of the Iowa caucuses to sow distrust in the integrity of America’s elections.
“How can an adversary take what happened in Iowa and pour gasoline on it?” Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told reporters at a briefing.
Evanina’s comments came as he unveiled a strategy document aimed at guiding the government’s national security priorities over the next two years. The document identifies the U.S. economy, infrastructure, democracy and supply chains as areas being routinely targeted by foreign governments and in need of heightened protection.
Election security, particularly combating foreign influence in U.S. politics, accounts for one of the counterintelligence community’s top priorities as voters head to the polls this year.
A malfunctioning app used by the Iowa Democratic Party caused a delay in the reporting of caucus results last week and fueled calls for a recanvassing. Because of the delay and after observing irregularities in the results once they did arrive, The Associated Press says it cannot declare a winner.
Though state and federal officials say there are no signs the system was hacked, Evanina said he was concerned disinformation spread by bots and social media — and accepted as truth by Americans — could dissuade voters from casting ballots and feed a narrative that the election process can’t be trusted.
The U.S. is on alert for interference in the current presidential election. In 2016, Russia relied on a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion on hot-button social issues and also hacked emails from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign that were then released by WikiLeaks to help the successful campaign of Republican Donald Trump.
Asked how Russia might interfere in the 2020 election, Evanina said, “My concern is the unknown.” He said the government had to be prepared for everything.
In focusing on foreign interference in elections, the strategy document touches on a sensitive subject for Trump. The president has been dismissive of intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and he was impeached by the House after multiple officials testified he pressured Ukraine, a critical foreign ally, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Senate acquitted Trump last week.
Evanina said he had not encountered resistance from anyone in the White House in making election security a top priority.
The strategy document comes as U.S. officials warn about Russian influence campaigns aimed at shaping public opinion ahead of the 2020 election and about Chinese efforts to pilfer American technology for Beijing’s economic gain.
The report was released just after the Justice Department announced charges against four members of the Chinese military, accusing them of stealing the personal information of roughly 145 million people by hacking into the Equifax credit reporting agency. That data is valuable for intelligence agencies looking to target Americans and exploit potential weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
“We have to be able to recognize that as a counterintelligence issue, not a cyber issue,” Evanina said of the hack.
The strategy consists of five objectives, including protecting critical infrastructure like electrical grids, countering foreign hacking and intelligence operations, and safeguarding U.S. supply chains so foreign countries can’t compromise them with malicious software or surveillance technology.
The goals identified by the counterintelligence center line up with what Trump administration officials have been publicly discussing in recent weeks.
FBI Director Chris Wray told lawmakers last week that though the FBI had not seen Russian efforts to target election infrastructure, foreign influence operations — reliant on bots, disinformation and fake online personas — have continued unabated since the 2016 presidential election.
To counter foreign influence campaigns, the report calls for strengthening government partnerships with social media and technology companies, and doing better at identifying and deterring those activities.
But the foreign influence singled out in the report goes beyond elections, encompassing the possible manipulation of ordinary citizens and policymakers.
Evanina said a particular concern was foreign government efforts aimed at molding the thinking of local elected representatives before they arrive on a national stage.
“If they look to influence a city councilman, a state representative, and they know that person is a shining star — well, where is that person 10 years from now?” Evanina asked. Possibly a president.
The U.S. government also needs to be focused on efforts to steal personal information and research from Americans, the document says.
Attorney General William Barr last week warned against what he said was China’s ambition to dominate new, high-speed, wireless networks, citing both economic and national security concerns. He suggested the U.S. consider investing in Western telecommunications companies that compete against China’s dominant players like Huawei and ZTE.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the nation’s governors to be wary of China, which he said was targeting individual states to expand political and economic influence.