FBI Director Warns of Ongoing Russian 'Information Warfare' Into 2020 US Presidential Election

Russian Flag. Image for representation. (Reuters)

Russian Flag. Image for representation. (Reuters)

FBI Director Chris Wray said that Russia, just as it did in 2016, is relying on a covert social media campaign aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord.

Washington: FBI Director Chris Wray said on Wednesday that Russia is engaged in information warfare heading into the 2020 presidential election, although he said that law enforcement has not seen ongoing efforts by Russia to target America's election infrastructure.

Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Russia, just as it did in 2016, is relying on a covert social media campaign aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord. That effort, which involves fictional personas, bots, social media postings and disinformation, may have an election-year uptick but is also a round-the-clock threat that is in some ways harder to combat than an election system hack, Wray said.

"Unlike a cyber-attack on an election infrastructure, that kind of effort in a world where we have a First Amendment and believe strongly in freedom of expression, the FBI is not going to be in the business of being the truth police and monitoring disinformation online, Wray said.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are on alert for election-related cyber activity like what occurred in 2016, when Russians hacked emails belonging to the Democratic campaign of nominee Hillary Clinton and probed local election systems for vulnerabilities.

"I don't think we've seen any ongoing efforts to target election infrastructure like we did in 2016," Wray said on Wednesday. His appearance came two days after Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa were marred by a malfunctioning app that caused a delay in the reporting of results.

Though local and federal officials have stressed that the problems weren't caused by a foreign intrusion, the error played into existing unease surrounding election security and risked amplifying concerns about the integrity of the voting process. Even without signs of election system targeting, Wray said Russian efforts to interfere in the election through disinformation and fake news had not tapered off since 2016. He said social media had injected steroids into those efforts.

"They identify an issue that they know that the American people feel passionately about on both sides and then they take both sides and spin them up so they pit us against each other," Wray said.

At another point in the hearing, Wray avoided a direct answer when asked if President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr or other administration officials had asked him for investigations into Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden or son Hunter Biden, or into any members of Congress.

Wray initially said, "I have assured the Congress, and I can assure the Congress today, that the FBI will only open investigations based on the facts, and the law and proper predication." After Nadler said he assumed that answer meant that neither Trump nor Barr nor other administration officials had requested improper political investigations, Wray tried again -- "No one has asked me to open an investigation based on anything other than facts, the law and proper predication."

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