Russia is seeking to hurt Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign through social media and influence operations, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned today.
Moscow is carrying out efforts to sow discord in the U.S. “primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as an anti-Russia establishment,” Wray told lawmakers during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on threats to the nation.
“Russia continues to try to influence our elections, primarily through what we call malign foreign influence,” Wray said. It’s an assessment sharply at odds with that of President Donald Trump, who still dismisses as a hoax the intelligence community’s finding that Russia worked to help him win the White House in 2016.
U.S. national security agencies haven’t yet seen Russia trying to break into election infrastructure as it did in 2016 when it hacked voting databases, Wray said.
U.S. agencies previously focused on “efforts to combat malign foreign influence focused solely on the threat posed by Russia,” Wray said, but now the Federal Bureau of Investigation is “widening its aperture” leading into the Nov. 3 election “to confront malign foreign operations of China, Iran, and other global adversaries.”
In prepared testimony, Wray said, “This year’s election cycle, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, provides ample opportunity for hostile foreign actors to conduct disinformation campaigns and foreign influence operations in an effort to mislead, sow discord and, ultimately, undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and values.”
Under questioning, Wray declined to say that the anarchist movement Antifa, cited often by Trump and Attorney General William Barr, is the biggest domestic threat.
“Antifa is a real thing. It’s not a fiction,” Wray said. “But it’s not an organization or a structure. We understand it to be more of a movement or maybe you could call it an ideology.”
Wray said the FBI is focused on stopping violence that is being carried out by individuals affiliated with both left-wing and right-wing groups, including from people who identify themselves as Antifa supporters.
Under questioning from Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Wray indicated that white supremacist violence is the largest portion of what he described as the most significant domestic terrorism threat in the country: “racially motivated violent extremism.”
Though racially motivated violence is a broader term that encompasses multiple ideologies, he said “people ascribing to some white supremacy type of ideology is certainly the largest chunk of that.”
Under questioning from lawmakers, Wray also characterized Qanon as “a sort of complex set of conspiracy theories” that has, at times, inspired violent acts. Believers, some of whom have won congressional primary elections, have embraced outlandish, baseless claims — some rooted in antisemitic tropes — about a secret cabal of Satan worshipping government leaders running an international child sex ring.
Its adherents have characterized Trump as a hero fighting to put a stop to it.
Wray said the FBI doesn’t investigate any particular set of beliefs but would pursue any violence that might stem from it. “I don’t think we’ve seen lethal attacks involving that kind of motivation,” he added.
The hearing opened with controversy, as Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf declined to appear even after the Democratic-led committee subpoenaed him.
Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee’s chairman, called Wolf’s absence “an appropriate metaphor for the Trump administration’s dereliction of duty” on homeland security issues. He noted Wolf has made public comments, including in appearances on Fox News.
Brian Murphy, who was the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence chief until he was demoted, has filed a whistle-blower complaint asserting that Trump administration officials suppressed intelligence on Russian election interference and the threat from white supremacists.
Murphy said the department’s chief of staff sent him an email directing him to stop dissemination of intelligence products about Russian disinformation efforts because it “made the president look bad,” according to the complaint filed with the DHS inspector general.