The evening of October 21, the Director FBI, Christopher Wray and the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe informed the United States public that they had confirmed that foreign actors were engaged in an attempt to influence the United States election. Ratcliffe specifically called out Iran and Russia, noting some voter registration data had been obtained by Iran and separately by Russia.

Ratcliffe noted how this “data can be used to send false information to registered voters in the hope of causing confusion, chaos and false confidence in American democracy.”

Spoofed emails sent to Florida voters

On October 21, spoofed emails were received by voters in Florida and other states, designed to intimidate the voter. The content of the email, directed the recipient to change political parties and to vote for a specific presidential candidate. The text threatened the voter with harm. These emails, according to Ratcliffe originated with Iranian cyber entities. Media reports that such emails had been received by some voters in the state of Florida.

While many entities have speculated as to the genesis of the voter registration data being used by Iran, with speculation that the state of Florida’s election infrastructure had been hacked. The very real truth is that these datasets are public record and available for the asking, at no charge from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections. Therefore, while a hack may have occurred (the press conference made no reference as to how the data was acquired), it wasn’t necessary.

A review of the available data in the case of Florida, showed that the openly available data contained sufficient granularity as to make the “spoofed email” operation a matter of simply creating a mail-merge of the names/emails and the miscreant’s desired content.

The actions by the alleged Iranian entities was a low-risk, low cost, operation designed to undermine the confidence in the election process. The ostensible originator of the emails was selected so as to be viewed with disdain by the recipient and to lend credence to the message designed to intimidate.

Press Conference Purpose

The unexpected press conference, by the FBI director and the DNI was designed to forestall any spin-cycle of cross-party accusations – the desired outcome of the foreign instigators. In addition, by immediately addressing the Iranian action, the populace may have confidence that the security of the various election entities in the United States remains a top priority of the FBI.  

Director FBI Wray forcefully stated, “We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines the public confidence in the outcome of the election. When we see indications of foreign interference or federal election crimes, we’re going to aggressively investigate and work with our partners to quickly take appropriate action.” He continued how the FBI was working with both technology and social media companies to ensure that their respective platforms were not being used to spread disinformation and propaganda.

Our advice remains the same, “Voters in the U.S. will need to be alert as they read and digest information from dubious sources as the foreign intelligence entities continue to attempt to drive the U.S. electorate into disarray and disunity undermining the democratic ideals of the republic.”

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of