The top US intelligence official warned at an impromptu news conference on Wednesday night that Iran and Russia were attempting to influence American voters just two weeks from the November 3 presidential election.
John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said both countries had obtained “voter registration information” and that Iran had sent emails designed to “intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President [Donald] Trump”.
The disclosure came during an evening news conference at FBI headquarters that was announced just minutes before it began. Mr Ratcliffe was joined by Christopher Wray, the FBI director, who made general comments about election security. Neither took questions.
The announcement appeared to be connected to a wave of emails this week sent to Democratic voters that purported to be from the Proud Boys, a far-right group that gained notoriety after Mr Trump told them to “stand back and stand by” at the first presidential debate.
The emails, sent to voters in Florida and Alaska, urged their recipients to vote for Mr Trump “or else”, according to US media reports.
Mr Ratcliffe, who was a Texas congressman before his appointment by Mr Trump this year, said Iran was also distributing “a video that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas”.
“This video and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots are not true,” he added.
He said the US had not yet seen similar actions from Russia, but said “they have obtained some voter information, just as they did in 2016”.
Mr Ratcliffe did not offer details on what voter information Iran and Russia had obtained or how they had done so. Many US states make voter registration information public.
“These accusations are nothing more than another scenario to undermine voter confidence in the security of the US election, and are absurd. Iran has no interest in interfering in the US election and no preference for the outcome,” Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the UN, told ABC News.
Earlier on Wednesday, Marco Rubio and Mark Warner, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, respectively, urged voters “to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting”.
Google confirmed that it had seen evidence of the suspected Iranian operation, including about 25,000 emails sent to Gmail users. Some 90 per cent of those emails were blocked by its spam filters, it added.
The company also said that it had removed a video file from Google Drive and a video from its social media platform YouTube related to the campaign.
“We referred the matter to the FBI and will continue to work with law enforcement and others in the industry to identify and remove any related content,” Google said.
The announcement by Mr Ratcliffe came at a moment of high tension in Washington with just 13 days to go until the presidential election.
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US officials have warned for months that foreign actors would seek to interfere in the 2020 election. During the 2016 campaign, Russia hacked and leaked Democratic party emails.
Last month, Microsoft said Russian hackers were targeting both parties, while a group in China had attacked people associated with Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate. People linked to Mr Trump’s campaign had been targeted by hackers in Iran, Microsoft said.
Democrats have also been fearful that Mr Trump could use the US government’s law enforcement apparatus to benefit his campaign. In recent weeks, he has publicly pressured Mr Wray and William Barr, the attorney-general, to take action against Mr Biden, his political rival.
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