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Opinion: Security officials are on high alert to protect voting

Four years into Trump’s presidency, malign actors have not been deterred from attacking our elections and attempting to hijack our democracy to pursue their personal agendas. Instead, our adversaries are likely feeling empowered to do so, as evidenced by the dizzying range of threat streams facing the US this election week.
There is some good news. According to senior officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Chris Krebs — our physical votes are secure. Krebs said he is “confident that no foreign cyber actor can change your vote, and we still believe that it would be incredibly difficult for them to change the outcome of an election at the national level.”
Meanwhile Wray has noted that, “We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our election infrastructure — and today that infrastructure remains resilient. You should be confident that your vote counts. Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that foreign agents won’t still be hard at work in the days ahead. Intelligence and law enforcement professionals have been tracking threats from adversaries including Russia, Iran, and China. And we have domestic concerns to worry about too, especially from violent extremists, lone wolf attackers, or militia groups who may feel encouraged by Trump’s rhetoric.
Cyberattacks are a concern in the run up to the election and as votes are being counted and certified, foreign adversaries may try to compromise or disrupt infrastructure related to the election and may also try to hack political parties, campaigns and their affiliates to get information they can leak. These cyberattacks are nothing new. Chinese hackers compromised the computer networks of candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 election cycle, Russia successfully hacked Democratic targets in 2016 and we have indications that they are still at it. Microsoft indicated that these nations, along with Iran, have tried to hack people and groups connected to the election. Google, too, has said that hackers targeted both 2020 presidential campaigns.
Cyberattacks against election infrastructure are ongoing. Russian hackers targeted the networks of dozens of state and local governments and stole data from at least two servers. A Department of Homeland Security threat assessment warns that Russia, “which possesses some of the most sophisticated cyber capabilities in the world, — can disrupt or damage US critical infrastructure networks via cyberattacks.”
CISA has also noted that an Iranian actor targeted state election websites and they believe this led to the mass dissemination of voter intimidation emails and election related disinformation in mid-October 2020. While foreign actors may not yet have the ability to change votes, they have demonstrated an ability to target and penetrate critical infrastructure, and they may choose to activate infrastructure disruption options in the days ahead.
We also can’t rule out the ability of our adversaries to change Americans’ opinions about candidates. In September, Wray testified that “this year’s election cycle, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, provides ample opportunity for hostile foreign actors to conduct disinformation campaigns and foreign influence operations in an effort to mislead, sow discord, and, ultimately, undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and values and in our government’s response to our current health crisis.” He has also stated that the FBI has seen “very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020.” There have also been indications that Iran and China are also working to influence public opinion to varying degrees.
What a Trump win will mean for Putin
In addition to threats in cyberspace, there are also real physical threats. This includes violent voter intimidation, which may be buttressed by Trump cheering on his supporters’ violent harassment of a Biden campaign bus in Texas and urging supporters to be “poll watchers.” The FBI is now investigating the incident in Texas, much to Trump’s chagrin.
The DHS Inspector General recently warned that sufficient measures have not yet been taken to protect physical security at places like polling and ballot storage locations. Homeland Security specifically flagged risks threats posed by domestic violent extremists, especially lone offender attacks. DHS also noted that the typical election-season threat environment has been exacerbated by violence “related to government efforts to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic and amidst otherwise ongoing lawful protests.”
Anti-government protesters are already amped up; a self-proclaimed member of the far-right Proud Boys was arrested after he allegedly threatened to blow up a voting site and the FBI has charged a group of individuals with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Unfortunately, Trump has fanned these flames by serving as a cheerleader for dangerous conspiracy theorists.
If voting results are delayed — or Trump refuses to accept them — physical risks will likely increase. Trump has already made comments that could encourage civil unrest, like when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate. That is concerning, especially when we consider that background checks to purchase firearms hit a record high this summer.

One thing is clear: there are multiple live threats at play this election. Federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel are hard at work trying to identify, investigate, and neutralize them. However, their ability to protect us is hamstrung by the President’s own domestic disinformation campaigns and dog whistles to his supporters indicating that he won’t object to what they do to keep him in office. Trump might not be paying attention, but Americans should be.



 

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