SALT LAKE CITY — As local FBI officials in Utah talked about the agency’s role to protect the 2020 election from fraud and abuse Thursday, their boss in Washington described to a congressional committee “very active” efforts by the Russians to influence the outcome.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that the interference is primarily aimed at hurting Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Russians have been using social media and “proxies, state media, online journals” to sow divisiveness and disorder and denigrate what they see as an anti-Russian establishment in the U.S, Wray said.
“In Utah, I don’t think we’ve necessarily seen anything,” said Paul Haertel, special agent in charge in Salt Lake City, adding he had just learned of the Russian meddling before Thursday’s press conference.
Election security is one of the FBI’s highest national priorities, he said. It is the main federal agency responsible for investigating election crimes and election-related civil rights as well as foreign influence and malicious cyber activity aimed at political campaigns and elections.
Haertel said officials know Russia has shown the most interest in influencing U.S. elections.
“But we know other nations are taking a page out of the playbook,” he said. “We cannot let our guard down when it comes to protecting our elections.”
The FBI and the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which oversees state elections, has worked closely together since 2018 to safeguard elections in the state. An elections security team — which includes the FBI, Homeland Security, Utah Department of Public Safety and other agencies — meets regularly to share information, said Justin Lee, state elections director.
“A lot of the groundwork that we’ve put in over the years and the relationships we’ve built up are putting us in a good place right now as far as being able to monitor things,” he said.
Special agent Casey Harrington, who oversees the FBI cyber task force in Utah, said to the FBI’s knowledge, no foreign government has attempted to tamper with a U.S. vote count.
“That being said, cybercriminals have been able to compromise U.S. voter registration databases. I want to highlight, it’s in the past. This year the FBI has not seen any attack on election infrastructure or voter registration databases,” he said.
Harrington said the agency has provided guidance to political campaign managers and their IT staffs through the Protected Voices Initiative.
In addition to cybercrime, the FBI investigates voter and ballot fraud, civil rights violations and campaign finance violations.
That being said, cybercriminals have been able to compromise U.S. voter registration databases. I want to highlight, it’s in the past. This year the FBI has not seen any attack on election infrastructure or voter registration databases.
–FBI Special agent Casey Harrington
Maintaining the integrity of the election is critical for representative government to function, said Drew Scown, supervisory special agent over financial crime and public corruption. When the legitimacy of elections are corrupted, democracy is threatened, he said.
In addition to election-related crimes the FBI investigates, Scown listed activities that are not criminal, including giving voters a ride to the polls, offering stamps for mail-in ballots, candidates making false claims about themselves or other candidates and asking an opponent to withdraw from a race.
Suspicious election activity can be submitted to the FBI online at tips.fbi.gov or by calling the Salt Lake City office 801-579-1400.