WASHINGTON — Two U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News the Trump administration has known for weeks that Iran and Russia had successfully hacked local governments and obtained voter registration and other personal data.
During a Wednesday press conference, FBI Director Chris Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe charged that Iranian intelligence used the hacked information for a recent campaign of emails allegedly from the white nationalist group the “Proud Boys” sent to intimidate Florida Democratic voters. They added that Russia was also working to influence the election.
The two intelligence officials said Iran’s intent wasn’t entirely clear, but that one goal is sowing chaos and undermining 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.
On Thursday, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters that Iran and Russia got the data through 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 successfully broken into several local government networks, and 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 across 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 disrupting 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 charges.
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 this data by sending emails allegedly 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 say this was a major escalation by Iran, which has never done anything like this in an American election.
Ratcliffe said Wednesday night that the Iranian effort was meant to hurt President Donald Trump. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said that when Ratcliffe briefed senators on the emails he did not say they were meant to hurt the president, but Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, did not dispute Ratcliffe’s characterization in a statement issued Thursday.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News on Thursday that he asked DNI Ratcliffe for a “fuller briefing” on 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,” said Schiff. “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 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 press conference were in part designed to deter Iran from other election interference plans that the officials declined to detail.
Officials remain very concerned that Russia has its own set of voter data and said U.S. spy agencies do not have good insights into what, if anything, Russia plans do with the data. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia would like to see Trump re-elected.
Kevin Collier contributed.