The latest revelations about Russia and Iran obtaining American voters’ registration records throws a bombshell twist into the presidential campaign less than two weeks before the election.
The announcement by the US Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, and FBI director Christopher Wray made clear that foreign powers were using the data to send threatening emails to voters and to undermine confidence in the election.
The fact that these two powers are trying to shape the outcome of the US presidential election should surprise nobody. In fact, back in July US intelligence agencies publicly warned that Russia, Iran and China were all seeking to meddle in the presidential race.
US intelligence agencies offered a second, detailed briefing in August with a wealth of detail on who the foreign actors were targeting and how they were for doing so.
During the briefing William Evanina, director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, said the US believed that China hoped that Donald Trump would lose, because Beijing saw the president as “unpredictable”.
Mr Evanina said that China had grown increasingly critical of the Trump administration because of its hostile actions against Beijing – from blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic to criticising the country’s authoritarian crackdown in Hong Kong and pushing allies not to use its 5G technology.
On Iran, the counterintelligence director said that the country was working against Mr Trump’s re-election because of his hardline “pressure” campaign against Tehran.
“We assess that Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections,” he said.
“Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content.”
By contrast US intelligence assessed that Russia was working to denigrate Mr Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, because of his policies on Ukraine during the Obama administration.
Mr Evanina said the measures were consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of Mr Biden while in office, when he supported Ukraine’s autonomy from Russia.
“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” Mr Evanina said.
But such tactics were going on well before 2020. In America’s 2018 midterm elections, the US Justice Department actually brought a criminal case over alleged Russian interference.
The charges were against Elena Khusyaynova, a 44-year-old Russian-based accountant who was accused of taking part in a $10 million scheme on targeted social media ads and web postings intended “to sow division and discord in the US political system”.
The complaint alleges the effort targeting the 2018 election was part of a broader campaign dubbed Project Lakhta, with the Russian Internet Research Agency at the centre of the endeavours.
During the 2018 races, “Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns… to promote their strategic interests”, said Dan Coats, who was Director of National Intelligence at the time.
Mr Coats offered little detail, but said officials found that Russia continued to use social media, fake personas and Russian state media outlets in the hope of polarising US voters.
And of course there was Russia’s infamous 2016 election meddling campaign. Russia’s Internet Research Agency set up thousands of social media accounts designed to smear Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.
In addition, Kremlin-backed figures hacked the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials and publicly released damaging emails at strategic points during the election campaign.
Moscow’s pervasive meddling attempts were thoroughly examined during a two-year federal investigation, which led to charges against 26 Russians and three Russian organisations.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel who led the probe, later said the findings on Russian interference “deserves the attention of every American”.
That warning was repeated during Wednesday night’s briefing, with FBI director Mr Wray urging voters: “Be thoughtful, careful and discerning consumers of information online.”