Voters who went to the polls last month in the United States’ midterm elections can rest assured that their votes were registered and counted properly.
However, a new report by the U.S. intelligence community concluded Americans were subjected to ongoing influence operations and disinformation campaigns by several countries, a finding that could trigger automatic sanctions.
“The activity we did see was consistent with what we shared in the weeks leading up to the election,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement late Friday.
“Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States to promote their strategic interests,” he added.
Early signs were there
In the months leading up to the November vote, intelligence and security officials, and analysts had expressed concerns that countries like Russia and even non-state actors might seek to physically compromise U.S. voting systems.
But the fears, based on evidence Russian hackers had accessed some U.S. state and local systems, such as voter databases, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election did not play out according to the new assessment.
“At this time, the intelligence community does not have intelligence reporting that indicates any compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would have prevented voting, changed vote counts, or disrupted the ability to tally votes,” Coats said.
The report, required under an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September, supports the initial assessment by Homeland Security officials the day of the election and in the weeks that followed.
“There were no indications at the time of any foreign compromises of election equipment that would disrupt the ability to cast or count a vote,” Christopher Krebs, director of the DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said a week after voters went to the polls.
Report could spur new sanctions
The new report now goes to the U.S. attorney general and to the Department of Homeland Security, which have 45 days to review the findings. Should they concur with the intelligence community’s assessment, Russia, China and Iran could be slapped with new sanctions.
Those measures could include blocking access to property and interests, restricting access to the U.S. financial system, prohibiting investment in companies found to be involved, and even prohibiting individuals from entering the United States.
Additionally, the president’s executive order authorizes the State Department and the Treasury Department to add additional sanctions, if deemed necessary.
But as in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when the CIA and FBI concluded with “high confidence” that Russia sought to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral process and help then-candidate Donald Trump win election, gauging the success of the 2018 meddling efforts is difficult.
“We did not make an assessment of the impact that these activities had on the outcome of the 2018 election,” Coats cautioned in his statement. “The U.S. intelligence community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.”
That impact will likely be debated in U.S. political circles, fueled in part by the president’s own attacks against the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia’s activities and into possible collusion with Trump’s own campaign staff.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Still, some lawmakers see the new intelligence community assessment as reason to act.
“The Russians did not go away after the 2016 election,” Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Warner, who previously criticized the president’s executive order for failing to lay out strong, clear consequences for election meddling, said it was no surprise China and Iran tried to manipulate American voters, and that the problem will only get worse.
“We’re going to see more and more adversaries trying to take advantage of the openness of our society to sow division and attempt to manipulate Americans,” he added. “Congress has to step up and enact some much-needed guardrails on social media, and companies need to work with us so that we can update our laws to better protect against attacks on our democracy.”
Executive order praised
Former officials have urged patience, praising the executive order as a good start and cautioning it will take time to see how well it works.
“I don’t know that it will be a complete solution,” said Sean Kanuck, a former intelligence officer for cyber issues, said when the order was first introduced. “I doubt it will completely change the incentive-cost-benefit analysis of the other side.”
Even after the executive order was unveiled, U.S. officials, as well as social media companies, continued to turn up evidence that Russia and others tried to meddle in the 2018 U.S. midterm election.
In October, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against 44-year-old Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, charging her with helping to finance disinformation campaigns on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, targeting both Republican and Democratic voters.
As with previous efforts, the accounts were designed to make it appear as though they belonged to American political activists and some managed to generate tens of thousands of followers.
Later that month, Facebook said it had removed 82 accounts, pages or groups from its site and from Instagram that originated in Iran and targeted liberal U.S. voters.
But U.S. officials and experts have also warned that the heavy focus on social media and influence campaigns, and the lack of evidence of tampering with U.S. voting systems and databases, should not be seen as a victory.
Saving ‘best tricks for 2020’
They say that just as the U.S. has hardened its systems against attacks and intrusions, cyber adversaries like Russia have been watching and learning, with their eyes perhaps on a much more significant target.
“The Russians were going to save their best tricks for 2020,” said William Carter, deputy director, Technology Policy Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted in the days before the U.S. midterm elections in November.
“They’re going to let us chase our tails in 2018 and look for them where they’re not,” he added.