In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, law enforcement, intelligence, and election officials were on high alert for digital attacks and influence operations after Russia demonstrated the reality of these threats by targeting the presidential elections in 2016. Six years later, the threat of hacking and malign foreign influence remain, but 2022 is a different time and a new top-line risk has emerged: physical safety threats to election officials, their families, and their workplaces.
In July 2021 the Department of Justice launched a task force to counter threats against election workers, and the US Election Assistance Commission released security guidance for election professionals. But in public comments this week, lawmakers, top national security officials, and election administrators themselves all spoke expressed concern that misinformation about the security and validity of US voting continues to shape a new threat landscape going into the midterms.
“In New Mexico, the conspiracies about our voting and election systems have gripped a certain portion of the electorate and have caused people to act,” New Mexico’s Secretary of State and top election official Maggie Toulouse Oliver testified before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee yesterday. “During the 2020 election cycle, I was doxxed and had to leave my home for weeks under state police protection. Since 2020, my office has certainly seen an uptick in social media trolling, aggrieved emails, and calls into our office, and other communications that parrot the misinformation circulating widely in the national discourse. But more recently, especially since our June 2022 primary election, my office has experienced pointed threats serious enough to be referred to law enforcement.”
In a discussion on Tuesday about midterm election security at the Fordham International Conference on Cyber Security in New York City, FBI director Christopher Wray and NSA director Paul Nakasone emphasized that federal intelligence and law enforcement view foreign adversaries that have been active during past US elections—including Russia, China, and Iran—as potential threats heading into the 2022 midterms. But threats against election workers now appear at the top of their list.
“We are … positioning ourselves to understand our adversaries better, so we do have a series of operations that we’re conducting now and in the future as we approach the fall,” Nakasone said on Tuesday. “But I think the other piece of it is, this isn’t episodic, this for us is a persistent engagement that we have across time, in terms of being able to understand where our adversaries are at, what they’re trying to do, where we need to impact them, understanding how they’re getting better.”
When asked how the FBI handles misinformation that stems from foreign influence operations but ultimately embeds itself in the domestic psyche, Wray said that the Bureau simply has a set of enforcement mandates around elections that it focuses on carrying out.
“We’re not the truth police,” he told the conference. “It’s not to say there isn’t an important role for calling out falsity versus truth, it’s just that our contributions are fairly specific. We’re targeting foreign malign influence. We are investigating malicious cyber actors, whether they are foreign or otherwise, that target election infrastructure—so cyber activity. We are investigating federal election crimes, and that covers everything from campaign finance violations, to voter fraud and voter suppression, to something that we’ve seen an alarming amount of over the last little bit—threats of violence against election workers, which we’re not going to tolerate.”
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