Russia is engaged in “active efforts” to interfere in the upcoming US election by attempting to “denigrate” Democratic nominee Joe Biden and to undermine confidence in the voting process, the head of the FBI has warned.
“The intelligence community’s consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our election,” FBI director Chris Wray told a House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee hearing on Thursday.
“We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020 through what I would call more the malign foreign influence side of things – social media, use of proxies, state media, online journals – in an effort to both sow divisiveness and discord, and, I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly, primarily to denigrate vice president Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment.”
Mr Wray said Russia was also using a “steady drumbeat of misinformation” about mail-in voting that he feared could lead Americans to doubt the validity of their vote.
“That would be a perception, not a reality,” he said.
Democrats have warned that due to the large number of mail-in ballots, it may appear that Mr Trump has won on election night but that in the days after when every vote is counted Mr Biden will actually have won.
“Because of the new and unprecedented massive amount of unsolicited ballots which will be sent to ‘voters’, or wherever, this year, the Nov 3rd Election result may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED, which is what some want,” Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday.
“Another election disaster yesterday. Stop Ballot Madness!”
In a follow-up tweet he wrote, “Unsolicited Ballots are uncontrollable, totally open to ELECTION INTERFERENCE by foreign countries, and will lead to massive chaos and confusion!”
Asked about Mr Trump’s claims that vote-by-mail lends itself to fraud, Mr Wray told the hearing, “We have not seen a to date a co-ordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election. We have certainly investigated voter fraud committed by mail. It’s typically been at the local level.”
Mr Wray’s comments undercut his those of his own boss, Attorney-General Bill Barr, who told CNN earlier this month that mail-in voting was “fraught with the risk of fraud and coercion”.
“This is playing with fire,” he said.
“We’re a very closely divided country here. People have to have confidence in the results of the election and the legitimacy of the government, and people trying to change the rules to this methodology, which as a matter of logic is very open to fraud and coercion, is reckless and dangerous.”
WHITE SUPREMACISTS’ BIGGEST THREAT
Meanwhile, the FBI is increasingly worried about possible violent clashes between ideologically motivated extremist groups before the November election.
Mr Wray said the FBI was keeping a close eye on groups who have faced off in protests in various cities such as Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was deeply concerned about groups that are “hijacking” protests to incite violence.
In those places, Antifa and Black Lives Matters have squared off with right-wing and white nationalist activists who are often armed.
“Now you’ve got an additional level of combustible violence,” he said, citing “violent extremist groups or individuals committing violence”.
“Now you have both groups from the opposite sides adding to the combustibility and danger of the situation. We have certainly seen that in a number of cities. That’s a force multiplier, in a bad way, that I’m concerned about.”
Several people have been killed in those situations.
In August, a 17-year-old Trump supporter was charged with shooting dead two people during riots in Kenosha where scores of businesses were looted and burned down.
And at the end of August in Portland, an activist aligned with the leftist Antifa movement shot dead a supporter of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group during a protest.
The Antifa shooter, Michael Reinoehl, was killed by police days later. Mr Wray told the committee that, aside from “lone wolf” attackers inspired by foreign jihadist groups like Islamic State, white supremacists remain the biggest domestic terror threat.
“Within the domestic terrorism bucket as a whole, racially motivated violent extremism is, I think, the biggest bucket within that larger group,” he told the committee. “Within the racially motivated violent extremist bucket, people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist ideology is certainly the biggest chunk.”
Mr Wray did point out that while white supremacists have been responsible for most of the lethal terror attacks inside the US in recent years, there has been a noteworthy shift this year, with attacks by “anti-government, anti-authority” actors.
That includes the May murder of two police officers in California by a follower of the extreme right, often heavily armed “Boogaloo Bois” movement.
In the same hearing, National Counterterrorism centre director Christopher Miller confirmed that white nationalists were a particular focus of their concerns.
He said that some of the US extremists have loose ties with similar groups in Germany and Russia, including the Russian Imperial Movement that Washington formally designated a terror group in April.
But the links between US white supremacist and the foreign groups are so far relatively loose and informal, Mr Miller said.
Although some Americans have travelled to Russia to train with the Imperial Movement, the cross-border ties between groups are “nothing monolith … we are not picking up anything of a routine, systemic connection,” he said.
“(It is) more ad hoc, because they are all sitting on line together, chatting.”