Federal officials on Friday warned that domestic violent extremists pose a heightened threat to the 2022 midterm elections, in a joint intelligence assessment sent to state and local officials and obtained by CNN.
The bulletin, released by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, US Capitol Police and National Counterterrorism Center, says that perceptions of election fraud will likely result in heightened threats of violence.
The bulletin did not list any specific credible threats.
“Following the 2022 midterm election, perceptions of election-related fraud and dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes likely will result in heightened threats of violence against a broad range of targets―such as ideological opponents and election workers,” it states.
Enduring perceptions of election fraud related to the 2020 general election continue to contribute to the radicalization of some violent extremists, and likely would “increase their sensitivity to any new claims perceived as reaffirming their belief that US elections are corrupt,” according to the assessment.
The joint federal assessment comes as election workers are increasingly concerned about physical threats to themselves and election infrastructure, and foreign actors seek to widen divisions in the United States.
“We assess that election-related perceptions of fraud and [domestic violent extremist] reactions to divisive topics will likely drive sporadic [domestic violent extremist] plotting of violence and broader efforts to justify violence in the lead up to and following the 2022 midterm election cycle,” the bulletin states.
“The midterm elections are occurring at a time when the nation is experiencing what has been described as the most volatile, complex and dynamic threat environment in recent times,” former DHS intel chief and counterterrorism coordinator John Cohen told CNN. “Communities across the nation continue to experience mass casualty attacks and other acts of targeted violence by individuals inspired by conspiracy theories.”
Law enforcement on alert
Law enforcement across the country is on the lookout for threats to election officials, such as, intimidating behavior directed at voters, vandalism of ballot boxes and the potential of people visiting polling sites and questioning the legitimacy of voters, according to Cohen, who continues to work with state and local law enforcement.
Over past weeks, law enforcement agencies across country have been discussing steps that can be taken to mitigate these risks and ensure election is conducted in safe and secure manner, he said.
“The Department of Homeland Security regularly shares information regarding the heightened threat environment with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials to ensure the safety and security of all communities across the country,” a DHS spokesperson told CNN.
The assessment was released on the same day that Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was attacked at the couple’s home in San Francisco. The assailant who attacked him was searching for the speaker of the House, according to a source briefed on the attack.
As of Friday evening, authorities hadn’t yet determined a motive for the attack.
Cohen said it should serve as a warning to Democratic and Republican elected officials that “they are being targeted by individuals who are motivated by extremist ideological beliefs.”
On Thursday, the New York Police Department advised “elevated vigilance” in the closing days of the midterm election season, according to an NYPD bulletin obtained by CNN, though there are currently no credible threats to New York City polling sites, candidates or poll workers
There are three “primary threat vectors” concerning officials amid the midterm elections – cybersecurity, mis- and disinformation and physical security, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a conference on Wednesday.
Election officials and federal agencies have been on heightened alert for any attempt by hackers to breach computer systems that support the election process.
Unidentified hackers twice in the last month have sent phishing emails to employees of an elections board in a Midwestern state, US officials told election officials on a Friday briefing, sources familiar with the call told CNN. The apparently run-of-the-mill cybercriminal activity was blocked and didn’t result in any breach of election board computers, officials said.
The department has received reports of “a number of election officials” expressing concern about their physical security, Mayorkas said at the Homeland Security Enterprise Forum.
“And I must say in 2022, it’s a very sad state of affairs when election officials are concerned about their physical security,” he added.
Since Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, a range of foreign governments have shown more of an interest in shaping US public opinion or spreading disinformation in advance of US elections, according to US intelligence officials.
When it comes to spreading lies, Mayorkas pointed to Russia, Iran and China, saying, “the disinformation that they spread, both pre- and post-election, undermine the integrity, the perception of the integrity of the elections, to sow further discord in our country.”
Iran’s level of aggressiveness in trying to interfere in the 2020 election – in part by impersonating the far-right Proud boys – surprised some US national security officials. China considered trying to influence the 2020 election outcome, but ultimately chose not to, according to a public US intelligence assessment.
Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Russian and Chinese government-affiliated operatives and organizations have amplified misinformation from Americans about the integrity of elections, senior FBI officials told reporters this month.
But it’s physical security that has risen to the top of the list of concerns for election officials as conspiracy theories about voter fraud have boomed.
The FBI and sheriffs from across the country last week discussed the possibility of misinformation fueling violence at polling stations during the midterm elections, a sheriffs group told CNN.
Election workers have reported over 1,000 interactions, including death threats, with the public that they considered hostile or threatening to a Justice Department task force, but that is likely just a fraction of the threatening behavior that has occurred since 2020.
In response, federal officials are now offering state and local election officials training to “safely de-escalate” confrontations with voters that could turn violent, CNN first reported.
This story has been updated Friday with additional information.