An intelligence bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security warns that Russia is attempting to sow doubt about the integrity of the 2020 elections by amplifying false claims related to mail-in voting resulting in widespread fraud, assertions that have been repeatedly pushed by President Donald Trump, according documents obtained by CNN.
“We assess that Russia is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail and shifting voting processes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine public trust in the electoral process,” the bulletin, first reported by ABC News, reads.
The news comes one day after Attorney General Bill Barr condemned states for encouraging mail-in voting in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Barr also downplayed Russia’s well-documented attempts to help Trump in presidential elections, including in this election cycle, instead pointing the finger at China despite the fact intelligence agencies have not said Beijing is actively meddling in the election.
The revelation adds to the well-documented body of evidence that Russia is again interfering in a US presidential election, and also clearly indicates Moscow is tailoring its messaging to amplify false narratives that benefit the Trump campaign.
Last month, the US intelligence community’s top election security official said in a statement Russia is working to “denigrate” former Vice President Joe Biden’s White House bid, yet in the weeks since, Trump and senior members of his administration have attempted to cast the President as the victim of foreign interference by cherry-picking intelligence to suggest China is attempting to hurt his campaign.
Meanwhile, Trump has also been supported by his intelligence chief, John Ratcliffe, who curbed access of election security briefings to Congress prompting criticism from Democrats who say he is attempting to suppress information about Russian interference from the American public.
News of the DHS document prompted immediate criticism from the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff.
“The new bulletin from the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis underscores two concerning facts: First, as the Intelligence Community confirmed last month, Russia is once again seeking to interfere in our elections and sow distrust in our democratic process. And second, among the range of measures it is pursuing, Russia is echoing destructive and false narratives around vote by mail that President Trump and his enablers, including Attorney General Barr, have been aggressively promoting,” Schiff said in a statement.
“This bulletin further demonstrates why the ODNI’s cancelation of in-person briefings on election security for Congress is so dangerous—Congress must be able to directly question and engage with the intelligence community professionals with the responsibility for protecting our elections from foreign interference,” he added.
A committee official told CNN that Schiff has already requested a briefing about another DHS bulletin that was withheld by DHS in July warning of a Russian plot to spread misinformation regarding Biden’s mental health and asked specific questions of the department as part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into the potential politicization of intelligence agencies.
In a draft of the bulletin obtained by ABC News and confirmed by DHS titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Election,” analysts said with “high confidence” that “Russian malign influence actors are likely to continue denigrating presidential candidates through allegations of poor mental or physical health to influence the outcome of the 2020 election.” The bulletin, which was produced by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), also raised efforts by China and Iran to criticize Trump, ABC reported.
After news of that bulletin was published, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said his department was working to revise the intelligence report.
“The report that you reference was at the end of the day a very poorly written report,” Wolf said in a Fox News interview. “When I talked to career officials in I&A, in the office that produced the report, they also had questions about it. They’re hard at work on rewriting that report, putting it in some better context and I hope to see that report out soon.”
Barr doubles down on mail-in voting conspiracy theory
In his interview with CNN Wednesday, Barr doubled down on a conspiracy theory that foreign countries will print large numbers of counterfeit absentee ballots and send them to voters.
Experts say this scheme would be nearly impossible to pull off and is not a serious threat to the election, though Barr’s repeated promotion of this theory has given Trump more fuel to continue questioning the legitimacy of mail-in voting.
Asked what evidence he has to support this theory, Barr said he was “basing it on logic.”
Barr also diluted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia is the only country actively interfering in the 2020 election.
“I accept that there is some preliminary activity that suggests that they might try again,” Barr said of Russia. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Russia tries something again of the same general genre before.”
Senior US intelligence officials, tasked with protecting the 2020 election, recently said that there is no evidence that foreign countries are interfering with the mail-in voting process in this country.
Bipartisan officials across the country have expanded mail-in voting this year, and public health authorities are encouraging it as a pandemic-friendly way to vote. Only nine states and the District of Columbia automatically mail ballots to all registered voters – which is the specific system that Trump and Barr say poses the greatest risk for fraud.
Last week, a senior intelligence official discounted the possibility of foreign actors mass producing fake ballots to interfere in the November elections, again breaking with Trump who has continued to insist that mail-in voting poses a significant threat to election security.
“We have no information or intelligence that any nation state threat actor is engaging in activity … to undermine any part of the mail-in vote or ballots,” the official told reporters.
FBI has seen no evidence of widespread fraud
A senior FBI official also said at the time that they have not seen evidence of coordinated national voter fraud related to mail-in ballots and the bureau has assessed that even if there is fraud, it won’t tip the scales of the election results. Trump has repeatedly promoted the baseless lie that there is massive voter fraud in US elections.
The FBI is “fully aware” of the expectation that there will be an increase in mail in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic – circumstances that have created a new environment with this election cycle, the senior official said.
“We have not seen, to date, a coordinated national voter fraud effort during a major election and it would be extraordinarily difficult to change a federal election outcome through this type of model alone, given the range of processes that we need to be affected or compromised by an adversary at the local level,” they added. The official also said the FBI stands ready to tackle any potential voter fraud that might occur.
However, at the time, senior officials declined to discuss Russia’s efforts to seize upon the President’s attempts to sow mistrust and doubt about the mail in voting process.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, Katelyn Polantz, Marshall Cohen and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.