U.S. officials accused Iran on Wednesday of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for President Donald Trump.
The announcement was made at a hastily called news conference Wednesday evening -- 13 days before the election and one day before the final presidential debate.
John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official, and FBI Director Chris Wray called out both Russia and Iran for having obtained voter registration information, though such data is sometimes easily accessible and there was no allegation either country had hacked a database for it. Iran used the information to push out spoofed emails, officials said, and also created a video that Ratcliffe said falsely suggested that voters could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” Ratcliffe said. “We will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections. And we will continue to work with our many partners to disrupt and to impose costs and consequences on any adversary, that attempts to interfere in our democratic processes.”
Wray and Ratcliffe did not describe the emails linked to Iran, but officials familiar with the matter said the U.S. has linked Tehran to messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four states, including battleground locations like Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona. The emails falsely purported to be from the far-right group Proud Boys and warned that “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.
Though Democratic voters were targeted, Ratcliffe said the spoofed emails were intended to hurt Trump, though he did not elaborate on how. One possibility is the messages may have been intended to align Trump in the minds of voters with the Proud Boys after he was criticized for failing to unequivocally denounce the group during the first presidential debate.
News4Jax spoke with political expert Chris Hand about Wednesday night’s announcement and the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee gave a bipartisan warning to voters Wednesday afternoon. Hand said whatever the foreign involvement is, the American people ought to be deciding the outcome of the election.
“I think one of the remarkable aspects of what happened today is not just the FBI news conference where they talked about these Iranian and Russian threats to election security but also the joint statement that the chair and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee," Hand said. "Florida’s own (Sen.) Marco Rubio, who’s the chair, (and) Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who’s the ranking member, put out a bipartisan joint statement, urging Americans to be cautious about what they believed, particularly online, and the election information they spread because of this potential foreign involvement.”
News4Jax has been reporting that the FBI and Alachua County Sheriff’s Office are investigating threatening emails sent to Florida Democrats.
In a Facebook post Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Office said it is aware of an “email that is circulating, purported to be from the Proud Boys."
“In the email, the sender claims to have personal information and directs the receiver how to vote or there will be consequences,” according to the Sheriff’s Office post.
The email addresses the recipient by name and then says:
“We are in possession of all your information You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you”
The email address appears to come from firstname.lastname@example.org.
But the chairman of the Proud Boys in Florida said his group did not send the emails, telling the Miami Herald the email was “spoofed.” He said his group does not send mass emails.
The Herald spoke to a student at the University of Florida who received one of the emails.
“Thankfully, they messed up at the end,” she said. “I know there is no way for them to know who I actually vote for.”
For reference, the entire state voter file is available to any member of the public, including a person’s name, address, party affiliation, voter registration date, and other data -- but who a person votes for is strictly anonymous.
At least 183 voters associated with UF received the email threats, and people in other states also got the same thing.
The FBI Jacksonville supervisor in charge of elections crimes said he couldn’t comment specifically on this case but said attacks on democracy are prevalent.
“It’s changed since 2016 to 2020. We’ve had a lot of factors, foreign influence just got into it,” said Special Agent Mark Hoffman.
An FBI spokesperson sent News4Jax the following statement prior Wednesday’s news conference:
“Though the FBI’s standard practice is to neither confirm nor deny any investigation, we take all election-related threats seriously whether it is vote fraud, voter suppression, or threats from cyber or foreign influence actors. The FBI Jacksonville Division is committed to supporting our election security partners throughout the state of Florida, and protecting our communities as Americans exercise their right to vote. Help from the public is also vital to our effort. We encourage members of the public to remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious, election-related activity to their local FBI field office or online at tips.fbi.gov. To learn more about federal election crimes visit www.fbi.gov/elections, and for tips and best practices to protect digital devices, social media accounts, private information and more visit www.fbi.gov/protectedvoices.”
Ryan Kennelly also got one of the threatening emails.
“I think calling it out for what it is,” Kennelly told CNN. “It’s useless words to try to ruin a civil society, and I think calling it out and letting it be seen for what it is will hopefully encourage people to ignore it and combat it and come together and just do what’s right and go vote.”
The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections said Tuesday that it’s working with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
“If any individual engages in any form of voter intimidation, our office will refer the case to state and federal law enforcement,” the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections said in a media release. “We are committed to providing a safe and secure voting process for all voters.”
Voters like Kim Barton, who also got an email, are sending a message to others.
“Don’t let anyone intimidate you or silence your voice," Barton told CNN. "That is the most important thing. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what this democracy is all about -- having your say -- so don’t let anyone do that to you.”
In addition to some News4Jax viewers and Alachua County Democrats, a number of registered Democrats in other counties -- including Brevard, Clay and Charlotte -- reported receiving the emails, as well. Supervisors of Elections in Duval and St. Johns counties said they weren’t aware of any voters getting the same threats.
Chris Freedman, a co-founder of the cybersecurity firm OnDefend, said criminals are always trying to use the internet to take advantage of people -- whether it’s for money or political gain.
“In the sense of political, my guess is that nation-states are trying to put their thumb on the election,” Freedman said. “When you’re attacking voters and creating voter fraud, you’re affecting our country in the most negative way.”
Freedman said savvy spammers can use servers in other countries and spoof websites and accounts, disguising them as the real thing and wreaking havoc.
“Right now, voters need to be very vigilant in interacting with emails. Assume they are malicious first and then try to investigate them before interacting with them,” Freedman said.
For more information, contact the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections at 352-374-5252.
If you receive such a message, report it to authorities.
The FBI has set up a page with helpful information to keep voters away from scams and election-related crimes.