Iran is responsible for emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple states aimed at intimidating the recipients into voting for President Donald Trump, US officials say, calling out both Tehran and Russia for activities meant to interfere in the presidential election.
The activities attributed to Iran mark a significant escalation for a nation that some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage.
Most public election interference discussion in the US has centred on Russia, which hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election, and China.
The announcement on Wednesday night (local time) at a rare, hastily called news conference just two weeks before the November 3 presidential election underscored the concern within the US government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia.
“This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters, that they hope will cause confusion and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”
Appearing along with FBI director Chris Wray, he insisted the US would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfered in the 2020 US election and that the integrity of the election was still sound.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Mr Wray said.
“Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.”
Mr Wray and Mr Ratcliffe did not describe the emails linked to Iran, but officials familiar with the matter said the US had linked Tehran to messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four battleground states. They falsely purported to be from the neo-fascist group Proud Boys and warned “we will come after you” if the recipients did not vote for Mr Trump.
Mr Ratcliffe said the spoofed emails were intended to hurt Mr Trump, though he did not elaborate on how.
An intelligence assessment released in August said: “Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content.”
Mr Trump, speaking at a rally in North Carolina, made no reference to the press conference but repeated a familiar campaign assertion that Iran is opposed to his reelection. He promised that if he won another term he would swiftly reach a new accord with Iran over its nuclear program.
“Iran doesn’t want to let me win. China doesn’t want to let me win,” Mr Trump said.
“The first call I’ll get after we win, the first call I’ll get will be from Iran saying ‘let’s make a deal’.”
Both Russia and Iran are also accused of obtaining voter registration information, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in some states, including Pennsylvania and Florida.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated US election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence Iran has ever done so.