In a new report issued on March 16, U.S. intelligence charged that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized a covert cyber campaign to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The campaign’s goal was to “undercut former President Trump’s reelection prospects – though without directly promoting his rivals,” according to the declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Iran also sought to “undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions, and sow division and exacerbate societal tensions.” The ODNI had “high confidence” in its assessment.
Iran’s military and intelligence services used social media, fake news websites and spoof emails. Tehran operated “at least several thousand” social media accounts that published more than 1,000 pieces of online content, the report claimed. Iranian hackers tried to exploit weaknesses in individual state election websites and news media; it also phished emails to get access to the accounts of campaign staffs as well as current and former senior government officials. The ODNI did not confirm whether the hacking was successful.
The ODNI also said that Hezbollah, Iran’s closest political and military ally in Lebanon, also tried to influence the election. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah “probably saw this as a low cost means to mitigate the risk of a regional conflict while Lebanon faces political, financial and public health crises,” the report said. It provided no specific information about Hezbollah’s cyber activities, but noted that they were smaller than the campaigns by either Iran or Russia.
In October 2020, the FBI and the Cyber Security & Infrastructure Agency had warned that Iranian hackers had "successfully obtained voter registration data in at least one state” from an election website. And on November 4, the Justice Department took down 27 websites used by the Revolutionary Guards to "covertly influence United States policy and public opinion.”