What We Learned in the DNI’s New Election Report

The newly released assessment is more complex and comprehensive than its 2017 predecessor, reflecting just how much the issue of foreign interference has evolved.

Never had the intelligence community weighed in so publicly on a presidential contest when on January 6, 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its unclassified report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That remarkable document concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an extensive influence campaign in support of then-candidate Donald Trump, using overt propaganda, hacking, and clandestine social media manipulation to bolster Trump’s chances while denigrating his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The report, short on specifics, raised dire concerns about the scale of continuing Russian operations. It also drew the integrity of future U.S. elections into question. 

Although the American public was left in desperate need of information, no further answers were forthcoming. Under President Trump, the “Russia thing” became the object of scorn and derision. Trump’s loyalists set to work suppressing internal intelligence assessments of Russian activities and intentionally obfuscating the issue in public statements. As the intelligence community’s analytic ombudsman concluded in a January 2021 report, ODNI’s objectivity was marred during the Trump administration by “undue influence” on the analysis, production, and dissemination of intelligence assessments. If some Trump appointees did not like particular findings about election security, they simply repackaged the conclusions into something they liked better. 

This is the context into which the ODNI and National Intelligence Council have released their joint intelligence assessment, “Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections,” the first significant unclassified report under President Biden. It presents the unvarnished views of U.S. intelligence analysts regarding serious and sustained attempts by Russia to affect the outcome of the 2020 election. It also evaluates the influence activities of Iran, China, and other state and nonstate actors. Altogether, it is a more complex and comprehensive document than the 2017 ODNI assessment, reflecting just how much the issue of foreign interference has evolved over the past four years. It enables several important conclusions: 

1. Russia’s most significant operations involved cultivating and harnessing Trump allies. In 2016, Russian agents used a third party, Wikileaks, to launder malicious information and steer U.S. political discourse. In 2020, they sought to do the same by directly targeting “prominent U.S. persons and media conduits,” feeding them hacked materials and nudging their actions. Although the report does not name these U.S.-based individuals, it clearly refers to Russia’s aggressive courting of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s former personal attorney. It also refers to a documentary, “The Ukraine Hoax,” produced by Republican strategist Michael Caputo and aired on One America News, which attacked then-candidate Biden using narratives partially engineered by Russian intelligence assets. 

This bold targeting of far-right political elites represents a dangerous evolution in Russian election interference and an echo of the sort of active measures that characterized the Cold War. It also represents a more intractable challenge than social media troll farms and sockpuppets, both of which Russia used again in 2020 to limited effect. Clandestine digital propaganda networks can be identified and removed before they accumulate significant followings. There is no such straightforward answer when Russian falsehoods are echoed on the floor of the U.S. Senate

2. Iran’s interference attempts grew notably more aggressive in 2020. Iran has long been a pioneer in the use of clandestine social media manipulation. Indeed, some Iranian influence networks on Twitter were initially misattributed to Russia. Until last year, however, most of these influence activities were essentially benign, focused on repackaging Iranian state propaganda for foreign audiences rather than attacking elections or undermining rival political systems. 

As the ODNI report makes clear, this strategy changed dramatically as Nov. 3 approached. Iran’s digital proxies expressly attacked and denigrated Trump, although they drew the line at spreading positive messages about Biden. In the final days before election day, Iranian actors went so far as to masquerade as members of the violent, pro-Trump Proud Boys organization and sent threatening emails to Florida Democratic voters demanding that they stay home. Time will tell whether these activities were undertaken in response to Trump-era policies or whether they signal a more fundamental shift in the conduct of Iranian influence operations. 

3. China determined that direct election interference was not worth the risk. Throughout 2020, the objectives and extent of Chinese influence activities remained the subject of heated debate. As information conflict between the United States and China escalated over blame for COVID-19, Chinese state media and digital proxies promoted conspiracy theories suggesting that the virus may have originated as a U.S. bioweapon. For a time, it appeared possible that Chinese information operations might expand to target the U.S. election directly. 

The ODNI report concludes that this did not happen. Indeed, according to U.S. intelligence, China was likely concerned that such a move would backfire, eliciting a harsh response from the United States with little potential upside. This lends credence to the work of scholars Diego Martin, Jacob Shapiro, and Julia Ilhardt of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project, who find that relatively few nations engage in hostile information operations targeting rival governments and political institutions even as more and more countries have developed the capability. Often, the risk of discovery outweighs the reward. 

4. Trump administration officials misrepresented the nature of influence activities around the 2020 election. Following from the previous point, Trump administration officials routinely elevated the threat of Chinese influence alongside—or above—threats from Russia and Iran. In September, then-National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien made headlines when he declared China had taken the “most active” role in influencing U.S. politic while declining to provide any details. Then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe repeatedly insisted that China was the principal foreign threat and made a habit of attacking or suppressing analysts who reached a different conclusion. 

In light of recent reports by both ODNI and the analytic ombudsman, it appears that O’Brien, Ratcliffe, and other senior Trump appointees made these claims when the preponderance of available evidence pointed in the opposite direction. They did so in order to obfuscate the true extent of Russian activities and curry favor with Trump. In so doing, they misled the American people. 

5. This report has teeth. The 2017 ODNI report, released in the final days of the Obama administration, fell short of considering a U.S. government response even as it outlined a stunningly ambitious Russian information operation. With Trump’s inauguration two weeks later, the issue was largely discarded. Not until March 2018 did the U.S. Treasury announce sanctions on Russian individuals in response to election interference. A second announcement followed in September 2020. No large, coordinated response was possible so long as Trump refused to consider it. 

Under Biden, this state of affairs has clearly changed. From the offset, this new report renumerates the powers granted by a (seldom used) Trump-era executive order to sanction any individual who might “interfere in or undermine” U.S. elections. By committing to appropriate punishment up front, this document appears to be the opening salvo in a larger Biden administration effort to illuminate the operations that targeted 2020 and to deter them in future. 

In closing, it is worth remembering just how much has changed in a few short years. As late as 2015, it would have been unthinkable that the U.S. intelligence community might publicly comment on a recent presidential election, much less discuss foreign activities meant to aid specific candidates. Now, sadly, the situation has reversed. It is difficult to imagine a future election that will not be haunted by fears of foreign interference. So long as such fears persist, these reports surely will as well.