Foreign governments including Iran, China, and Russia are expanding their covert operations to influence the 2020 U.S. elections, according to multiple senior intelligence and Trump administration officials who disclosed Monday that these countries are using a series of networks to foment unrest in America.
In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the United States is already laying the groundwork to boost its own counter-operations and detection methods in order to thwart a possible attack on the nationwide election systems, as well as social media efforts by rogue nations to influence any results, these officials said.
Top U.S. intelligence, law enforcement, and military officials have already begun to meet with the 2020 political contenders as well as the respective political parties in a bid to unify data collection and help pinpoint the source of any foreign cyberstrike.
While Russia has been the primary focus since its well-documented efforts to sway the contentious 2016 presidential election and later the 2018 congressional midterms, intelligence officials disclosed that they have expanded their efforts to also monitor Iran, China, and North Korea.
"We're focused on both infrastructure security as well as foreign influence operations," a senior intelligence official said during a Monday afternoon press call that was held only on background. "From our perspective, … we do believe the 2020 elections are a potential target for state and nonstate actors."
"Foreign influence operations remain a considerable area of concern," the official said, noting that Russia’s plan "is to pit Americans against each other" in order to foment discord and undermine the U.S. political system. China, too, has attempted to sway the public discourse through its use of propaganda outlets, and "Iran is increasing their use of social media" toward this end, the official said.
The United States is undertaking what it calls a "whole of government" approach to the problem that includes uniting intelligence, law enforcement, and military agencies.
U.S. officials see the 2020 elections as featuring a "continuing risk environment" that has motivated these agencies "to double down," according to a senior administration official, who also discussed pressing security issues.
At this point, the U.S. intelligence community has "no indication any foreign adversary" has compromised the election network. Officials, however, are tracking multiple countries that have plans that "could affect results."
New security protocols, equipment, and other measures have already been enacted to combat potential threats, officials said, emphasizing that the effort includes scores of local and state-level election sites.
"We’ve learned a lot during the past few years," the administration official said. "We continue to learn, we continue to find ways to do better."
However, officials admitted that not every instance of election interference might be reported to the public. Officials said such disclosure "might do more harm than good," and encourage rogue nations and cyber criminals to continue launching operations.
Computer hacking remains the "highest priority" for officials at the Department of Justice, which has installed election officers across the country to work with local jurisdictions.
"We enter the 2020 election cycle attentive to the threat," another senior administration official said.
The FBI also is "laser focused" on foreign influence operations, according to a senior law enforcement official working on election security. The FBI mounted an extensive effort to secure the 2018 midterm elections and will be "focused on the job ahead" in the 2020 cycle, the official said.
Like the other agencies, the FBI had primarily been focused on Russia, but has expanded its mission to "China, Iran, and North Korea, among others," according to the law enforcement official.
"Foreign influence operations are continuous and not only conducted during election time," the official emphasized.
For the 2020 cycle, the Department of Defense also is playing a role. It will provide specialized support in services of the entire U.S. government, including working to combat threats to America’s critical infrastructure.
The goal is to "stop threats before they reach the homeland," according to a third senior administration official, also speaking only on background about the situation.
While election security may not have been a chief priority for the U.S. military in past years, officials said they "see it for the foreseeable future as an enduring mission."