With the announcement this week that Iran is to blame for an intimidating email campaign against Democratic voters, intelligence officials in Washington are at least signaling they intend to keep the public informed about attempts to influence and undermine the election.
Transparency is a powerful disinfectant. Four years ago, President Barack Obama erred by not being more forthcoming when he learned about Russian attempts to interfere with the election. His decision to release a short and vague statement in October of 2016 fell far short of what was needed.
Elections are sensitive matters, and that is especially true when it comes to foreign influences that may be attempts to help one side or the other. But the American people deserved to be armed with all the information available about such attempts if they are to feel confident in the integrity of American democracy.
Beyond that, however, much of Wednesday’s hastily called press conference was confusing. John Ratcliffe, director of National Intelligence, said the Iranian campaign was intended “to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.” The first two seemed obvious, but the third did not.
Sources, including local news outlets in swing states, say these emails claim to be from the Proud Boys, an extreme-right group that supports Trump. The Wall Street Journal quoted from the email: “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.”
That hardly seems to be an attempt to hurt the president, unless the Iranians are trying to use a form of reverse psychology. Several Democratic leaders and liberal operatives seized on that assertion this week, accusing Ratcliffe of spinning his analysis in an effort to protect the president.
That sort of discord is unnecessary, and it likely plays into the hands of America’s enemies who would like nothing more than to inflame public rhetoric and inject distrust into the elections.
Americans would be better off focusing on Ratcliffe’s first two concerns, which could be summed up as an attempt to discredit the election. Ratcliffe also referenced a video, also attributed to Iran, that attempts to spread the notion that fraudulent ballots are being cast from foreign sources.
The chances of such ballots penetrating local safeguards and being counted are miniscule.
Nor should anyone be surprised or concerned about foreigners obtaining information about U.S. voters. In most states, including Utah, that information is public. Utah is a bit smarter than most, however, in that it keeps email addresses private.
Americans should have no illusions about foreign adversaries trying to use modern technology to influence their vote. Actually infiltrating voter databases in key states would be difficult, although officials say attempts to hack these records are incessant. Influence campaigns, however, are likely a much easier and more effective strategy.
That means voters must become more savvy. They should question every bit of information someone posts on social media. They should be in the habit of doing independent research, and of not readily accepting allegations that feed their natural biases.
If intelligence officials continue to be forthcoming about threats they discover, voters will have an extra bit of help identifying dangers, as well as greater confidence that elections will be conducted fairly and with integrity.