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Iran Blamed For Threatening Election Emails, U.S. Intelligence Officials Say

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. government has warned of foreign attempts to interfere in this election. Now we appear to know at least partly what that looks like. Last week, some Americans got threatening emails about the 2020 election. And U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran is behind them. John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, says Iran used voter information that's either public or available for purchase. Here he is speaking yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN RATCLIFFE: This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Noel. Good morning.

KING: What was in these emails?

PARKS: So I'll just read you one. This was obtained by Alaska Public Radio, and it came from an email address that made it seem like it was coming from the far-right group, the Proud Boys. Quote, "you are currently registered as a Democrat. And we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you have received our message and will comply." These messages included party registration data. In some cases, they included people's phone numbers and addresses, which really gave a lot of people, you know, the impression that somebody was actually watching them. Google says the emails were sent to about 25,000 of its Gmail users alone, according to CNN, but that spam blockers seem to have blocked about 90% of those attempts.

KING: Did their job, OK. So the claim is they're being sent by the Proud Boys. U.S. intelligence agencies, though, say what?

PARKS: Yeah. Officials say these emails actually came from Iran and they're part of the most recent instance here of election interference, foreign adversaries attempting to influence the minds of American voters. This is one of the most overt election-related actions we've seen so far from Iran. Officials say cyber actors from Iran, as well as from Russia, accessed voter rolls, which in a lot of cases - in most cases, I should say - are public records. But in this case, they basically used these public records for nefarious purposes. It's unclear at this point how Russia is planning to use this sort of data. And separately, Iran also seem to have circulated a video that seemed to indicate some sort of plot for foreign adversaries to be able to cheat using mail-in ballots. None of that is true, but they were circulating a video trying to spread that narrative.

KING: OK. You've been covering election interference for a long time now. Do you think this will influence how people vote?

PARKS: It really depends on how successful these national security officials and local election officials can be at cutting through some of this noise and reaching the voters who were actually affected by these emails and also reassuring other voters who are just worried about this. Obviously, all this is easier said than done in the current political climate. I talked to Ariane Tabatabai, who is the Middle East fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. She said not to get distracted by trying to find some sort of political strategy to attacks like this.

ARIANE TABATABAI: There is this assumption that Iran is really trying to push one candidate, and that's Vice President Biden. But the ultimate objective is actually to undermine faith in democratic institutions and our elections.

PARKS: She says Russia still remains the biggest cyberthreat here. But the bottom line is all of America's adversaries, whether it's Iran, Russia or China even, are in a stronger position when American democracy is strained and polarized as opposed to united. So if all this sort of attack does is confuse some voters, make people angry, make people more worried to vote, you have to assume that they view it as a victory.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.