WASHINGTON: The top US counterintelligence official on Friday (Aug 7) warned that Russia, China and Iran will all try to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, with Russia already trying to undercut presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
In an unusual public statement, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said those countries were using online disinformation and other means to try to influence voters, stir up disorder and undermine American voters' confidence in the democratic process.
"We assess that China prefers that President Trump - whom Beijing sees as unpredictable - does not win re-election," said Evanina.
"China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China's interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China."
He pointed to China's criticism of Trump's handling of the coronavirus epidemic, of the US closure of China's Houston consulate, and of the US administration's stances on Chinese actions in Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
"Beijing recognises that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race," Evanina said.
Foreign adversaries also may try to interfere with US election systems by trying to sabotage the voting process, stealing election data, or calling into question the validity of election results.
"It would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale," Evanina insisted.
Multiple reviews by US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia acted to boost now Trump's 2016 campaign and undercut his rival Hillary Clinton's chances in that election. Trump has long bristled at that finding, which Russia denies.
Evanina warned on Friday that Russia is already going after former Vice President Biden and what it regards as an anti-Russia US "establishment."
Evanina said Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian politician, has been "spreading claims about corruption - including through publicised leaked phone calls" to undermine Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party.
Trump supporters in the US Senate have launched investigations questioning Biden's son Hunter's involvement in alleged business activities in Ukraine.
Evanina said "Kremlin-linked actors" also are trying to "boost President Trump's candidacy via social media and Russian television."
Evanina said Iran is likely to use online tactics such as spreading disinformation to discredit US institutions and President Trump and to stir up US voters' discontent.
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Mark Warner, thanked Evanina for his warning in a statement and added that all Americans "should endeavour to prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections, influence our politics, and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions".
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump's re-election campaign, insisted that Trump has been "tougher on Russia than any administration in history."
"We don’t need or want foreign interference, and President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square," Murtaugh added.
This will be an unusual year for US voters. The coronavirus pandemic is expected to result in many more voters than usual casting ballots by mail, which could mean it will take longer to learn who won.
Trump has been attacking the idea of voting by mail, saying despite research to the contrary that it is likely to result in fraud.