Intelligence Report: Russia, Iran Conducted Influence Operations in 2020 Election

This videograb shows Russian President Vladimir Putin as he gives a speech to war veterans
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

A recently published United States intelligence report said Russia and Iran conducted influence operations in the 2020 presidential election — Russia in favor of then-President Donald Trump and Iran against Trump. One intelligence unit assessed China also took some steps to try to undermine Trump’s re-election, the report said.

The assessment, dated March 10, 2021 and published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Tuesday, also reported a range of additional foreign actors — including Lebanese Hezbollah, Cuba, and Venezuela — took some steps to attempt to influence the election.

The report said:

… We assess that Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S. Unlike in 2016, we did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure.

… We assess that Iran carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s reelection prospects — though without directly promoting his rivals — undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions, and sow division and exacerbate societal tensions in the U.S. We have high confidence in this assessment. We assess that Supreme Leader Khamenei authorized the campaign and Iran’s military and intelligence services implemented it using overt and covert messaging and cyber operations.

… We assess that China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election… The NIO for Cyber assesses, however, that China did take some steps to try to undermine former President Trump’s reelection.

Influence operations were defined in the report as “activities intended to directly or indirectly affect an election — including candidates, political parties, voters or their preferences, or political processes.”

Some progressive media figures used the report to falsely claim the reports about Hunter Biden’s laptop, which contained emails showing business deals with Chinese businessmen that may have benefitted then-former Vice President Joe Biden, were part of a Russian influence campaign.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes retweeted a journalist for Defense One asserting that the ODNI report said the laptop stories “came from the Kremlin” and said, “The same dudes that ran the play last time!”

Hayes and the Defense One journalist later deleted their tweets. “Deleted the above tweet because the DNI report doesn’t mention the laptop,” Hayes conceded.

Cliff Sims, former deputy director of national intelligence for strategy and communications and former director of White House message strategy during the Trump administration, pointed out that the Trump administration’s assertions about Iran influence operations were substantiated despite a Politico report that seemed to question their credibility.

The Politico report characterized then-DNI Director John Ratcliffe as going “off script” when describing Iranian influence efforts.

“Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe went off script when he alleged during a press conference last week that Iran was sending intimidating emails to Americans in order to ‘damage President Trump,’ according to two senior administration officials with knowledge of the episode,” Politico reported.

The report differentiated “election influence” from “election interference,” which it defined as when “a foreign government, as part of its election influence efforts, attempts or takes actions to target the technical aspects of elections — including voter registration, casting and counting of ballots, and reporting of results.”

The report said there were no indications that any foreign actor attempted to “interfere” in the 2020 elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results.

The report details Russia, Iran, and China’s influence operations:

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