Foreign attempts to sway US elections dangerously high and rising, officials warn

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -An increasing number of foreign actors, including non-state actors, are seeking to influence U.S. elections, and Russia, China and Iran, while the most significant, are far from alone, U.S. officials told a Senate committee on Wednesday.

“Specifically, Russia remains the most active foreign threat to our elections,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said. “The Russian government’s goals in such influence operations tend to include eroding trust in U.S. democratic institutions, exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the United States, and degrading Western support to Ukraine.”

Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairman, said declassified intelligence assessments identified not just Russia, China and Iran but also Cuba, Venezuela, Islamic militants “and a range of foreign hacktivists and profit-motivated cybercriminals” as seeking to influence U.S. politics.

“The barriers to entry for foreign malign influence – including election influence – have become almost vanishingly small,” Warner said.

The senator listed foreign efforts to influence elections and public opinion, including harassment operations against candidates and impersonations of U.S. organizations, such as Russian imposter social media accounts purporting to represent the Tennessee Republican party and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We’ve witnessed increasingly large numbers of Americans – of all political stripes – who simply do not trust U.S. institutions, from federal agencies and local law enforcement to mainstream media institutions, coupled with an increased reliance on easily manipulated internet media platforms,” Warner said.

Congressional committees began looking into reported foreign – particularly Russian – efforts to influence American public opinion after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin had sought to boost Republican Donald Trump’s chances of winning the White House in 2016.

Moscow has denied involvement.

Trump is running for reelection this year against Democratic President Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in 2020.

As the election approaches, officials also are increasingly worried about the risks that artificial intelligence poses to elections, including by the use of convincing “deepfakes” that trick voters.

Separately, a bipartisan group of senators, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, called on Congress on Wednesday to approve $32 billion in funding for AI research to keep the U.S. ahead of China in the powerful technology.

Wednesday’s hearing was the intelligence panel’s first open hearing on the subject during the 2024 U.S. election cycle, with more scheduled, including a session with unspecified technology companies.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; editing by Jonathan Oatis)


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