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Russian meddling efforts intensifying as US election nears

The Russians are still meddling.

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Jeremy Herb
CNN — The Russians are still meddling.

Over the past week there have been fresh warnings over Russian hackers targeting the 2020 election, the indictment of a Russian man stealing Americans' identities as part of election meddling, and sanctions against a Russian-linked politician for spreading disinformation.

The episodes are a stark reminder that Russian-linked election interference efforts -- along with the potential threat from countries like China and Iran -- are ramping back up with the November 3 election less than two months away, suggesting Moscow is still looking to duplicate its wildly successful 2016 meddling campaign.

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There are signs the Trump administration is taking steps to counter Russian efforts. In addition to new sanctions this week, the intelligence community's top election security official Bill Evanina publicly announced last month that Russia was actively working to denigrate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But those actions are playing out against a backdrop of President Donald Trump still refusing to accept that Russia is interfering to benefit his campaign -- and at the same time that Trump's key advisers are putting forward a misleading argument that the bigger election interference threat comes not from Russia but from China, which the intelligence community said prefers Biden but is not actively engaging in a meddling campaign.

New whistleblower complaint

Democrats' concerns that the White House is intentionally playing down the threat from Russia for Trump's benefit were exacerbated this week by a new whistleblower complaint alleging acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf instructed DHS officials to "cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference," and focus activities carried out by China and Iran.

"This is clearly part of a pattern where they put pressure on the agencies to adopt, manipulate, color their analysis, because if they tell the truth, it will be embarrassing to the president," House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Thursday. "It's dangerous, because if they're not sharing this information with the American people, the country isn't protected.

Trump's Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has also cut off in-person election interference briefings for members of Congress, a move that Democrats charge puts the public at risk of being duped by Russian interference again in 2020.

DHS said in a statement following the whistleblower complaint that the "allegations are patently untrue." But both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are investigating the charges in the whistleblower reprisal complaint filed by Brian Murphy, who previously oversaw the intelligence division at the department.

Pointing to China

Trump this week pushed a misleading claim on Twitter that China is interfering in the 2020 election and attempting to hurt his reelection bid by encouraging race protests, promoting a conservative article at odds with his intelligence community's assessment of Beijing's efforts to date.

Attorney General William Barr and national security adviser Robert O'Brien have also claimed China poses the biggest election interference threat, blurring the line between broader national security concerns from China and specific election interference efforts coming out of Moscow.

There is a threat of election interference out of China and Iran, in addition to Russia. On Thursday, Microsoft announced that Russian, Chinese and Iranian hackers have all attempted to hack people and organizations involved in the 2020 election.

"The activity we are announcing today makes clear that foreign activity groups have stepped up their efforts targeting the 2020 election," Microsoft wrote on its website.

Still, the intelligence community has been clear publicly that the active state-sponsored meddling campaign is coming from Russia.

2016 redux

In the 2016 campaign, Russia-linked hackers successfully hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were released during the homestretch of the campaign to embarrass the Democratic nominee.

Microsoft said the same Russian hacking group identified as primarily responsible for the attacks in 2016 had recently targeted national and state parties in the US and consultants who work for Republicans and Democrats.

Bob Woodward's new book "Rage," which will be released Tuesday, included new details that the CIA and NSA had obtained evidence the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, which was not activated. A former senior US official who was briefed on the intrusions said the Woodward report referred to one of the most alarming incidents from the 2016 election.

Russian-linked actors are also pushing disinformation intended to hurt Biden. Evanina's statement last month specifically accused Andriy Derkach, a Russian-linked Ukrainian lawmaker, of "spreading claims about corruption" to undermine Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party.

The Treasury Department went a step further on Thursday, sanctioning Derkach for waging a years-long "covert influence campaign" that centered on "cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning US officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election."

Treasury said Derkach was an "active Russian agent for over a decade" with close connections to Russian intelligence services.

Derkach has worked with the President's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who collaborated with the Ukrainian to spread anti-Biden material during last year's impeachment proceedings against Trump.

"I never put any of his information in my report to State, and met (Derkach) long after my investigation was over," Giuliani told CNN late Thursday night, referring to a controversial packet of documents the former New York mayor gave to the State Department last year as part of his anti-Biden efforts.

Identity theft and disinformation

In addition to the sanctions against Derkach, federal prosecutors on Thursday indicted a Russian man accused working to steal the identities of Americans to open bank and cryptocurrency accounts.

The charges announced in federal court in Northern Virginia against Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, of St. Petersburg, Russia, were part of the US government's response against Russians the US says are involved in Moscow's election interference efforts. Treasury also announced sanctions against Lifshits and two others allegedly part of what the US named Project Lakhta, the Russian-based effort to conduct political and electoral influence in the US.

In the private sector, social media companies who were caught flat-footed in 2016 by Russian efforts to spread election disinformation are seeking to be more proactive as Election Day gets closer.

Earlier this month, Facebook said that it had disrupted an operation trying to target Americans from people associated with the infamous St. Petersburg troll group, known as the Internet Research Agency, that was part of Russia's election interference efforts in the 2016 US presidential election.

And Twitter announced Thursday it was expanding its policies against election-related misinformation, pledging to either add fact-check labels or hide altogether tweets that contain "false or misleading information that causes confusion" about election rules or posts with "unverified information about election rigging."

One potential implication of Twitter's move: It could ramp up the company's checks on tweets from the President himself, who lashed out when Twitter when first fact-checked him. Trump has repeatedly spread false claims on the platform that mail-in voting is massively fraudulent, he's preemptively questioned the validity of the results election and he's encouraged voters to cast two ballots, which is illegal.

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