US Security Officials Warn Lone Actors Likely the Biggest Election Threat
U.S. officials charged with helping to secure the upcoming midterm elections fear the most dangerous and most likely threats may be difficult or impossible to detect in advance, and that the risk of violence will only escalate once the polls close.
The assessment, based on intelligence from multiple agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Counterterrorism Center, has been shared in recent weeks with state and local law enforcement agencies, lending increased urgency to their efforts to secure the vote.
Parts of the assessment also have been shared publicly, including by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which serves as the national lead on election security.
“You’ve got these horrible physical security concerns at an unprecedented level,” CISA Director Jen Easterly told a forum in Washington on Tuesday. “Threats of intimidation, of violence, of harassment against election officials, polling places, voters.”
The most plausible threat, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be quoted and spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence, is from a so-called lone wolf — an individual who may or may not be associated with an extremist group and decides to act on his or her own.
Such individuals are likely to be driven by a belief that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was fraudulent as well as by other hot-button political issues, the official said.
Likely targets could range from election-related infrastructure, such as polling places and ballot drop boxes, to election workers, voters and even political candidates and events like Election Day rallies and watch parties, the official added, noting a decision on which target to go after could come down to ease of access.
But much of what has election security officials so concerned is that extra motivation for anyone leaning toward violence is easily accessible.
Misinformation campaign targets
This past week, CISA warned that U.S. adversaries are using misinformation and other influence operations to incite violence against election officials.
CISA officials and those with other U.S. agencies declined to share additional specifics. But some researchers have found reason to worry.
“The influence attempts … do not directly encourage people to undertake violent actions, but very likely lay the groundwork and allude to some physical action,” Brian Liston, a senior threat intelligence analyst for the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, told VOA by email.
Some of it can be tied to Russia’s infamous troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which has been reactivating accounts on social media platforms, especially those that cater to far-right audiences, and has set up a new website to promote allegations of voter fraud, he said.
“Headlines provided on the site recently say that ‘Democrats will use everything in their disposal to manipulate votes and counting,’ and … accuse Democrats of burning a mail truck in Georgia containing Republican ballots,” Liston said.
One image found by Recorded Future, posted by an IRA-linked account under the name Nora Berka, further fans the flames, claiming, “Yes, we are at war,” along with an image of former President Donald Trump holding a rifle.
The graphic further states, “Democrats are your sworn enemies.”
Recorded Future warns it is not just the troll farms.
“Russian state media and covert media sources are very likely intending to subtly lay the groundwork for some sort of physical action,” Liston said, pointing to headlines that talk about mobilizing to prevent voter fraud and secret armies.
Liston said Iran state-sponsored outlets, like the Tehran Times and Tasnim News Agency are also pushing violent undertones, noting a recent article [November 1] from the Tehran Times warning, “there are growing fears the country could slip into a civil war.”
Unlike Recorded Future, the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks official state actors and state-backed media, told VOA it has not seen information campaigns “specifically encouraging violence.”
But that does not mean that adversaries, such as Russia, would not welcome election-related violence.
“Their proven strategy is to amplify the most polarizing and extreme content to further divide the electorate,” the ASD’s Rachael Dean Wilson told VOA. “If their strategy incites or contributes to inciting violence, it would serve their ultimate goal of chaos.”
Graphika, a social media analytics firm, said it has seen a renewed effort by Russian actors to target far-right audiences in the U.S. but that the efforts have failed to make much of an impact and that the campaigns have not sought to glorify or encourage violence.
Requests for comment by VOA to the Russian embassy and to the Iranian Mission to the U.N. regarding the allegations by U.S. officials and by researchers were not immediately answered. Both have denied allegations of meddling in U.S. elections in the past.
Still, officials and researchers expect the online narratives, and the threat of violence, to persist and possibly worsen after the polls close.
The U.S. official who spoke to VOA about the intelligence assessments on the condition of anonymity, said prolonged certification processes and potential legal challenges could fuel existing grievances and spur potential attacks.
And while officials from multiple agencies admit the warnings may sound dire, they argue the events of the past several years, such as the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, warrant the high level of concern.
“We’ve seen the domestic terrorism threat grow for the last two years,” FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Robert Wells told a forum on homeland security late last month. “We’ve also seen the anti-government cases grow, obviously January 6. So, our case numbers have gone up.”
The number of reported threats against election workers also has jumped.
According to the FBI, there have been more than 1,000 reports since June 2021, leading to at least six arrests. And almost 60% of the reported threats came from seven states – Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin – all of which ran audits or saw considerable debate about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.
And the threatening chatter has not slowed.
“What really concerns us, it is the threats to election workers. It’s calls for a second civil war, which we’re seeing in some of the [social media] platforms,” Washington, D.C., Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency Director Chris Rodriguez said last month, speaking alongside the FBI’s Wells.
“We need to make sure that we have the intelligence and information we need to keep our communities safe as the experience on January 6th really showed us,” he said.