July 24, 2020 / 5:28 PM / 19 days ago

U.S. counterspy gives rare warning on foreign meddling in U.S. election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Voters should be on high alert for foreign interference in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, the U.S. counterintelligence agency chief said on Friday in a rare warning that the public should screen information, check online sources and report suspicious actions.

Naomi Chavez Lopez votes as her three-year-old son Mateo waits next to her at Sonoma Elementary School during the primary election in Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S., June 2, 2020. New Mexico Republicans sued to block efforts to hold a mail-in statewide election which was proposed amid fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. REUTERS/Paul Ratje

William Evanina, chief of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), said that with just over 100 days to the election, it was “imperative” his agency share with voters some of the information about possible interference that U.S. spies have given to campaigns and legislators.

“The American public has a role to play in securing the election, particularly in maintaining vigilance against foreign influence,” said Evanina, who directs the counterintelligence branch of the U.S. Office the Director of National Intelligence.

“At the most basic level, we encourage Americans to consume information with a critical eye, check out sources before reposting or spreading messages, practice good cyber hygiene and media literacy, and report suspicious election-related activity to authorities,” he added in a written statement.

A January 2017 U.S. intelligence community assessment found Russia meddled in the 2016 election and its goals included aiding U.S. President Donald Trump, who has cast doubt on whether Moscow interfered in that vote.

Given the complexity of U.S. vote counting and auditing systems, Evanina said it would be “extraordinarily difficult for foreign adversaries to broadly disrupt or change vote tallies without detection.”

However, Evanina said U.S. spy agencies now see foreign adversaries trying to compromise U.S. political campaigns and candidates, as well as elections infrastructure.

He said foreign nations are trying to influence U.S. voters via social and traditional media, using issues including the coronavirus pandemic and domestic protests as disinformation fodder.

Evanina said his agency was mainly concerned with interference by China, Russia and Iran, though other unnamed countries and non-state actors “could also do harm to our electoral process.”

Leading Democratic legislators complained that Evanina’s warning did not go far enough.

They said his statement “gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together.”

“The statement, moreover, fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, and top intelligence committee Democrats Sen. Mark Warner and Rep Adam Schiff in a statement.

“To say without more, for example, that Russia seeks to ‘denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America’ is so generic as to be almost meaningless,” the Democrats added.

Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Richard Chang

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