“This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy,” Ratcliffe said.
“We have already seen Iran sending spoof emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President (Donald) Trump,” Ratcliffe added. “You may have seen some reporting on this in the last 24 hours, or you may have even been one of the recipients of those emails.”
Ratcliffe did not explain what he meant by his statement that the emails — which were sent to registered voters from “[email protected]” and warned recipients to “Vote for Trump or else!” — were intended to damage the President.
Democrats and a group of former intelligence officials have accused Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman tapped to lead the intelligence community this year, of selectively declassifying intelligence in the run-up to the election to help Trump’s campaign, and Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee criticized him after the press conference.
A source in a Florida election office told CNN that during an FBI briefing Wednesday, agents told them the Proud Boy email threats about voting for Trump came from a nation state — and they are seeing them across the country. The source said the agents told them these emails “were not the work of a Florida guy in his basement.”
Russia has not taken the same actions, Ratcliffe said, but has obtained some voter information, just as Moscow did in 2016.
Ratcliffe spoke alongside FBI Director Chris Wray at a hastily arranged news conference on Wednesday evening to announce the foreign election interference.
“We are prepared for the possibility of actions by those hostile to democracy,” Ratcliffe said.
Just before the news conference began, the top two members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — Sens. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat — released a joint statement warning about foreign interference in the election.
“As we enter the last weeks before the election, we urge every American — including members of the media — to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting,” the statement read. “State and local election officials are in regular contact with federal law enforcement and cyber security professionals, and they are all working around the clock to ensure that Election 2020 is safe, secure, and free from outside interference.”
Along with Russia and China, Iran was named as one of three foreign adversaries seeking to interfere in the 2020 race in an unprecedented statement from the intelligence community’s top election security official, Bill Evanina, on August 7.
“We assess that Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on on-line influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content,” the statement, issued on behalf of the entire intelligence community, said.
“Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of US pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change,” it added.
The same statement said that the US intelligence community assesses “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.'”
“This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia … Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” it added.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Donie O’Sullivan and Evan Perez contributed to this report.