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US sees Russia, China and Iran trying to influence 2020 elections

China's President Xi Jinping, shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

A Trump administration official said that Russia, China and Iran are trying to manipulate U.S. public opinion ahead of the 2020 elections but that none has successfully corrupted physical election infrastructure, which remains a potential target for state and nonstate actors.

China has primarily used conventional media outlets to advocate for certain policies, including trade, while Russia and Iran have been more active on social media platforms, a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Monday, speaking on the condition of not being identified.

The administration has previously named the three countries for attempting to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections and the 2018 midterms. The official didn’t provide specific examples of interference, saying it could compromise efforts to stop them.

A second official on the call said the administration wouldn’t necessarily disclose all foreign influence efforts over concern doing so would hamper enforcement.

The briefing comes just ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Japan, where President Donald Trump is expected to meet with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also coincides with increased tensions with Iran after the U.S. accused the Islamic Republic of attacking tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and downing a U.S. Navy drone.

Trump increased pressure Monday by imposing sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and eight senior military commanders.

A researcher at cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. said Iranian hackers have stepped up attacks against the U.S. in recent weeks. Iran’s state-backed hacking group, APT33, has sent waves of spearphishing emails to U.S. financial organizations and government entities this month in an attempt to gain access to their computer systems, according to Benjamin Read, a senior manager at FireEye.

If successful, hackers could disrupt banks’ operating systems by wiping computers and hampering critical functions, Read said. He estimates that APT33 has targeted hundreds of targets within dozens of organizations in the past two weeks.

Trump last week abruptly canceled planned airstrikes against Iran for shooting down a U.S. Navy drone on Thursday. He approved an offensive cyberstrike Thursday night that disabled Iranian computer systems used for rocket and missile launches, The Washington Post reported, citing people familiar with the matter it didn’t identify.

There is precedent for Iranian hackers targeting the U.S. financial sector in moments of tension. In 2011 through the start of 2013, hackers linked to the Iranian government launched cyberattacks on about four dozen U.S. financial institutions. The move followed the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s government and a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program believed to be carried out by the U.S. and Israel.

Yet the recent hacks against the financial sector are more sophisticated, FireEye’s Read said. While the earlier Iranian hacks on American banks disrupted service by overwhelming computers with electronic communications, the recent wave of spearphishing attacks would allow hackers actual access into networks.


© 2019 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.