U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said on Wednesday that Russia and Iran have both tried to interfere with the 2020 presidential election.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia,” said Ratcliffe said.
“We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.”
Ratcliffe was referring to emails sent Wednesday and designed to look like they came from the pro-Trump Proud Boys group, according to government sources.
The announcement at a rare news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the U.S. government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and to undermine American confidence in the vote.
WATCH | FBI identifies attempts at U.S. election interference by Russia and Iran:
U.S. intelligence agencies previously warned that Iran might interfere to hurt Trump and that Russia was trying to help him in the election.
Outside experts said that if Ratcliffe was correct, Iran would be trying to make Trump look bad by calling attention to support and threats by the sometimes-violent group.
A spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied Iran had sought to meddle in the election.
“Iran has no interest in interfering in the U.S. election and no preference for the outcome,” Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.
U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who received a classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on election security, said he disagreed with Ratcliffe that Iran was specifically trying to hurt Trump.
“It was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case and Russia in many more cases is to basically undermine confidence in our elections. This action I do not believe was aimed … at discrediting President Trump,” Schumer told MSNBC in an interview.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has directed government agencies “to proactively monitor and thwart any attempts to interfere in U.S. elections, and because of the great work of our law enforcement agencies we have stopped an attempt by America’s adversaries to undermine our elections.”
The emails are under investigation, and one intelligence source said it was still unclear who was behind them. Some of those emails also contained a video, debunked by experts, that purported to show how fake ballots could be submitted. Ratcliffe said that claim was false.
‘Healthy dose of skepticism’
Officials at the news conference said Americans can still be confident that their vote will be counted.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” FBI director Chris Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
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 has centred on Russia, which hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election, and China.
The news conference was held as Democratic voters in at least four battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, have received threatening emails, falsely purporting to be from the Proud Boys, that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.
Most voter registration information is public. The voter-intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers.
Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the Nov. 3 election, for which early voting is ongoing.