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Iran and Russia were too distracted to meddle in midterm elections, US general says

<i>US Navy Chief Petty Officer Jon Dasbach/US Cyber Command</i><br/>Domestic unrest in Iran and Russia's war in Ukraine may have distracted Tehran and Moscow from making more of an effort to interfere in the 2022 US midterm election. Maj. Gen. William J. Hartman is pictured here at Fort Meade on December 19.
US Navy Chief Petty Officer Jon Dasbach/US Cyber Command
Domestic unrest in Iran and Russia's war in Ukraine may have distracted Tehran and Moscow from making more of an effort to interfere in the 2022 US midterm election. Maj. Gen. William J. Hartman is pictured here at Fort Meade on December 19.

By Sean Lyngaas, CNN

Domestic unrest in Iran and Russia’s war in Ukraine may have distracted Tehran and Moscow from making more of an effort to influence or interfere in the 2022 US midterm election, a top US military cyberofficial said Monday.

“We collectively saw much less focus from foreign adversaries, particularly the Russians” in targeting the 2022 election compared to previous elections, Maj. Gen. William J. Hartman, who leads the Cyber National Mission Force of US Cyber Command, the military’s offensive and defensive hacking unit, said at a press briefing at Fort Meade, home to Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.

Hartman said he was “surprised” by the relative lack of activity from the Russians and Iranians during the midterm election. The US military’s cyber forces have taken a more active role in defending US elections from foreign interference since 2018 by targeting computer networks used by Russia and others to try to sow discord.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of Cyber Command, confirmed to reporters this month that the command conducted offensive and defensive cyber operations in an effort to protect the midterms from foreign interference and influence.

Nakasone declined to go into details on the operations, but said the command focused on taking down the computer infrastructure used by foreign operatives “at key times.”

“There was a campaign plan that we followed and it wasn’t just November 8. it covered before, during and until the elections were certified,” said Nakasone, who also leads the National Security Agency.

Foreign governments tend to use established agencies to meddle in elections rather than create new organizations to do that on the fly, Hartman said. And the security services in Russia and Iran were preoccupied in the weeks and months before Americans went to the polls in November.

Iranian security forces carried out a bloody crackdown on protesters this fall after a woman died in the custody of the so-called morality police. Russia’s military, meanwhile, pummeled Ukrainian cities with drone and missile strikes to try to turn the tide of the war.

As they have since they were caught flat-footed by Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, US officials prepared for a range of foreign actors to try to influence voters or interfere with the vote in 2022.

Asked in July whether the war in Ukraine would distract Russia from interfering in the US midterm election, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “quite confident the Russians can walk and chew gum” and that US officials were preparing accordingly.

But foreign operatives from Iran and Russia generally reused old tactics and tools in their influence operations during the US midterms rather than try anything brand new, Nakasone told reporters this month.

While there weren’t any reports of high-impact foreign interference activity during the midterm elections, there were attempts by Russian, Iranian and Chinese operatives to influence voters, according to researchers.

Suspected Russian operatives used far-right media platforms to denigrate Democratic candidates in battleground states just days before the elections, according to Graphika, a social media analysis firm. For their part, alleged Chinese operatives showed signs of engaging in more “Russian-style influence activities” that stoke American divisions ahead of the midterm vote, according to the FBI.

On Election Day, pro-Russia hackers took responsible for a cyberattack that knocked the website of the Mississippi secretary of state’s website offline. The incident didn’t affect the tallying of votes.

“It is likely that a primary objective of the identified pro-Russia actors was to build the perception of influencing the elections—potentially in hopes of supporting future narratives that would undermine the credibility of the election results,” Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm owned by Google, said in an analysis published Monday.

Mandiant said it had “moderate confidence” that whoever ran that Russian hacktivist group’s channel on the Telegram messaging app was coordinating their operations with actors sponsored by Russia’s military intelligence agency.

“This year some [foreign groups] seemed most interested in reinforcing the notion that they still posed a threat, even if they didn’t push too hard to actually affect outcomes” of the election, John Hultquist, Mandiant’s vice president of intelligence analysis, told CNN.

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CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.

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