WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has known for weeks that Iran and Russia had hacked local governments and obtained voter registration and other personal data, two U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.
At a news conference Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe alleged that Iranian intelligence used the hacked information for a recent campaign of emails that purported to be from the white nationalist group the Proud Boys, which were sent to intimidate Florida Democratic voters. They added that Russia was also working to influence the election.
The two intelligence officials said that Iran’s intention wasn’t entirely clear but that one goal was to sow chaos and undermine confidence in the election. Both officials said it would hurt the Trump campaign if a white nationalist group was exposed as having sought to bully Democrats.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Thursday that Iran and Russia got the data by hacking local governments.
In a technical alert issued Thursday, the FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said that hackers working for the Russian government had broken into several local government networks and that as of the beginning of October had stolen data from at least two of them. In at least one instance, the hackers were able to crawl the victim’s computer network to access a wide array of information, including how to reset passwords and print ID badges.
While the agencies said they had yet to see the hackers intentionally disrupt election operations, they said hackers “may be seeking access to obtain future disruption options” or “to influence U.S. policies and actions.”
Iranian and Russian officials have denied the allegations.
The Department of Homeland Security had previously warned about the hacks in an Oct. 8 report.
This week, the officials said, intelligence agencies detected that Iran had “weaponized” some of the data by sending emails purportedly from the Proud Boys to Democratic voters in Florida, Arizona and Alaska. Google said Tuesday that the emails had gone to 25,000 Gmail users.
Officials and private experts said it was a major escalation by Iran, which had never before done anything like that in a U.S. election.
Ratcliffe said Wednesday night that the Iranian effort was meant to hurt President Donald Trump. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that when Ratcliffe briefed senators about the emails, he didn’t say they were meant to hurt Trump, but Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, didn’t dispute Ratcliffe’s characterization in a statement Thursday.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News on Thursday that he had asked Ratcliffe for a “fuller briefing” about his assertion that the alleged Iranian actions were meant to benefit Trump.
“The Iranians using the Proud Boys as a false flag operation, that could cut both ways, either intimidating Democratic voters or enraging Democratic voters,” Schiff said. “So I would like to see the intelligence behind the conclusion that the director expressed.”
The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that some elements of the Iranian government would like to see Joe Biden defeat Trump.
After a series of meetings Wednesday, officials decided to hold a news conference to alert the public about the emails, the officials said. The warnings issued at Wednesday night’s news conference were in part designed to deter Iran from other election interference plans, which the officials declined to detail.
Officials remain very concerned that Russia has its own set of voter data, and they said U.S. spy agencies don’t have good insights into what, if anything, Russia plans do with it. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia would like to see Trump re-elected.