'24/7, 365 days a year threat': Russian information warfare continues in 2020, FBI director says

February 11, 2020
In The News

The FBI's Director Christopher Wray said that Russian disinformation efforts continue heading into the 2020 elections.

“It never stopped,” Wray told the House Judiciary Committee last week. “It happened in 2016, and it’s been continuing ever since then. It may have an uptick during an election cycle, but it’s a 24/7, 365 days a year threat.”

Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island pressed Wray about the bureau’s fight against malign foreign influence.

“This is something that is at the top of our list as a priority because it goes right to the heart of who we are as a country,” Wray said, pointing to his 2017 creation of the Foreign Influence Taskforce.

The FBI director said that it “might sound a little counterintuitive at first, but one of the things we know the Russians have attempted to do, in addition to some of the more publicized things, is to try to spin up some of the domestic terrorism type activity that occurs in the country.”

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California asked Wray if the Russians were interfering in the 2020 elections.

“I don't think we’ve seen any ongoing efforts to target election infrastructure like we did in 2016,” Wray responded. “We certainly are seeing — and have never stopped seeing, really, since 2016 — efforts to engage in influence by the Russians.” 

Wray added, “That’s not just an election cycle issue, but of course now that we are in election year, it is an effort to influence our public in that regard.” 

The FBI director declined to confirm or deny whether the Russians are backing any particular candidate, but said “the efforts to sow discord on both sides of an issue and to generate controversy and to generate distrust in our democratic institutions on our election process, that is very much ongoing.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation concluded that Russian military intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee and provided thousands of stolen emails to WikiLeaks for dissemination but did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

Swalwell asked whether any countries besides Russia were capable of carrying out the same sort of election meddling.

“I don’t see if we’ve seen other countries trying to do exactly that,” Wray testified. “Certainly other countries like China, for example, have very active malign influence efforts in this country. Theirs is a little bit different than the efforts I was just describing, but it is still very active and very serious. In their instance, it’s more geared towards trying to shift our policies and public opinion to be more pro-China on a variety of issues.”

But, the FBI director said, “We do know that other adversaries besides Russia are looking very closely at what the Russians have done and taking note of it and are giving active consideration to whether that’s a playbook that they should adopt.”

The Trump administration’s National Counterintelligence Strategy, released on Monday, warned of the “expanding array of foreign intelligence threats” from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and others.

Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania asked what the bureau is doing to combat Russia’s online disinformation efforts.

“The things we love about social media, if you apply to this context, it’s like injecting steroids into disinformation efforts that have existed for years,” Wray said. “They find an issue Americans feel passionate about and then spin it up to pit us against each other.”

When Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California asked about election security efforts, Wray said, “We are taking a three-prong approach.” This includes investigations into election infrastructure cyber intrusions, intelligence sharing with state and local officials, and engagement with campaigns to promote better “cyber hygiene.” 

“I will say that we assess that the Russians continue to engage in malign foreign influence efforts … fake personas, trolls, bots, state-sponsored media, the whole gamut and bag of tricks,” Wray warned Democratic Rep. Joseph Neguse of Colorado. “Also, just like any sophisticated actor, they continue to refine their approach. We saw that from 2016 to 2018. We see that from 2018 moving forward. Happily, we’re refining our approach too, and we’re trying to stay ahead of it.”