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The video and email campaign U.S. officials say Iran used to intimidate voters

On Wednesday night, the director of national intelligence, the director of the FBI and other top U.S. officials appeared at a news briefing to discuss foreign interference in the 2020 election. They pointed in particular to a campaign they allege Iran launched to sow confusion and mistrust. But some lawmakers fear the assessment itself may have political motivations. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This afternoon, the Treasury Department sanctioned five Iranian entities for what the intelligence community calls a direct attempt to interfere in the U.S. election.

    That attempt was unveiled last night at a hastily arranged press conference. Intelligence officials accuse Iran and Russia of stealing voter data and Iran of sending e-mails and a video to Democratic voters.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

    I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The video combines President Trump with Metallica. It falsely claims to be from the right-wing extremist group the Proud Boys.

    "PBS NewsHour" isn't playing the whole video. It's designed to amplify doubts about mail-in voting. Experts say the video's claim is false, and mail-in voting is reliable.

    The video was linked in e-mails that claim: "We are in possession of all your information. You are currently registered as a Democrat, and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day, or we will come after you." It concludes, falsely: "We will know which candidate you voted for."

    Last night, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe blamed Iran and labeled the claims false.

  • John Ratcliffe:

    This video and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots are not true. These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries.

  • John Hultquist:

    These actors made a lot of claims and threats, but I think a lot of the — a lot of it is dubious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John Hultquist tracks cyber-threats for Mandiant Threat Intelligence.

  • John Hultquist:

    Their claims of knowing who people are voting for are entirely fabricated. The video includes a couple of demonstrations, all of which look to be dubious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" they believe Iranian e-mails were routed through servers in the Middle East and Europe, and arrived in at least four states.

    The intelligence community determined their origin quickly. Iranian and Russian actors also infiltrated voter data that U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" were not publicly available.

  • John Ratcliffe:

    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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a statement, an Iranian spokesman called the accusation absurd, and said Iran has no interest in interfering in the U.S. election and no preference for the outcome.

    But the Trump administration has targeted Iran with what it calls maximum pressure. Iran has lost $70 billion in oil revenue. The U.S. has sanctioned more than 1,200 Iranian individuals and entities, and, in January, killed the powerful Quds Force leader General Qasem Soleimani.

    Iran is motivated to target the U.S., says the Carnegie Endowment's Karim Sadjadpour.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    And Iranian hard-liners have long fantasized about the idea of the United States succumbing to another civil war.

    And so the fact that they're able to sow discord in the United States from so far away using very easy technology is a huge asset for Iran.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That motivation to sow discord is an Iranian export.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Iran has had practice on their own population sowing discord, going after people, impersonating others.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last night, Ratcliffe added another motivation.

  • John Ratcliffe:

    We have already seen Iran sending spoofed e-mails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Administration officials told "PBS NewsHour" the use of Proud Boys was designed to embarrass President Trump after he refused to denounce them.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But some Democrats called the assessment politicized.

    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi underneath the Capitol:

  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    I think we have to be very careful about any statements coming out about the election from the intelligence community at this time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Multiple senior former intelligence officials have told "PBS NewsHour" they're concerned Ratcliffe could politicize intelligence.

    But the intelligence community has previously released a statement accusing Iran of trying to undermine President Trump, and the intelligence community remains most concerned about Russia.

    This afternoon, DHS released a statement acknowledging Russian actors compromised aviation networks, and could disrupt computer networks in the future. Experts say foreign actors are hoping to create fear among American voters of chaos on Election Day and beyond.

  • John Hultquist:

    The unfortunate result is that this attack, this type of attack doesn't end the day we vote. It goes on in perpetuity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Intelligence officials caution, there could be more of these warnings to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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