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Intelligence Paper Report – Threats Facing National Elections


Typically, governments always seek to shape political and economic conditions worldwide for their benefit. In the US and Europe, foreign governments have employed cyberattacks and social media agitation to influence information environment. These efforts aim at influencing foreign policies to benefit the involved countries’ political, economic, and military influence. However, when such activities impact on electoral processes, the intelligence community (IC) characterizes it as election influence. In most circumstances, elections have been influenced through attempts to target the elections’ technical aspects including voter registration, casting and counting of ballots, and reporting of results. One of the best-known election foreign interference entail the 2016 presidential elections where Russia sought to prevent Hillary Clinton’s election in favor of Donald Trump. Besides, countries such as Iran and China have in the past engaged in clandestine attempts to influence opinion in the US. This report identifies and informs state and local agencies on the potential threats to the US National Elections.

Threats Facing National Elections

Cyber Attack on Systems and Databases

Illegal access to personal data among the US political actors has significantly increased in the past few years. For instance, in the 2016 general elections, the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) communications were leaked. Such leaks occur when data is hacked. The perpetrators through hacking access private data of political actors through digital devices, data servers, or social media accounts. Undoubtedly, when personal data is copied and leaked, its confidentiality is threatened. On the other hand, deleting or manipulating the data violates its integrity while disrupting the network changes the data’s availability.

Besides, cyber attacks on the national elections threatens its integrity by breaching voting machines and voter lists, yet these two elements are critical in the election process. The attacks also utilize political opponents’ information to influence campaigns like in the case of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The DNC’s leaks significantly impacted on the Democratic party since they were leaked shortly before Clinton’s nomination as the presidential candidate. Therefore, the state and local agencies need to be conversant with potential cyber attacks on systems and databases that have in the past influenced election outcomes.

Fake News and Computational Propaganda

Typically, the national elections have been subjected to misinformation. Indeed, political scientists and scholars remain concerned about the public’s knowledge on political and public issues. Misinformation among citizens threatens democracy and results from digital media. Recent elections worldwide have been subject to extensive documentation of disinformation campaigns.

Misinformation occurs in the form of fake news, where algorithms, automation, and human curation have been used to distribute misleading information to the public using social media networks. Actors also use bots and sock-puppets to spread fake news and propaganda among users. Political bots such as dampeners suppress messages while amplifiers make messages. On the other hand, sock-puppets are human-operated fake accounts that enable actors to hide their identities. By so doing they impersonate credible information sources such as news agencies, making it appear that a group of people spread messages or hold opinion that they do not in actual sense.

The 2016 election was characterized by significant amount of fake news. Studies show that fake news pieces recorded greater engagement on Facebook that top stories from major news outlets. It is imperative to acknowledge that the fake news sites were operated by domestic and foreign actors. For instance, the transnational right-wing networks were synonymous with spreading fake news in the US. Also, Russian actors used political ads and fake identities to post fake news on Facebook and other social media platforms. A common fake news posted included the Pope endorsing Donald Trump which aimed at benefiting Trump and the Republican party at the expense of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. Therefore, it is the mandate of state and local agencies to remain vigilant on the existence of fake news and computational propaganda and potential impact on election outcome.

Preference Manipulation through Big Data and Micro-Targeting

The increasing use of digital technologies facilitate mass data accumulation aimed at disseminating misleading information to the target populace. It is essential to note that in the past, democratic campaigns have employed targeted messaging and data accumulation. This practice has significantly expanded due to unprecedented growth in the accumulation and processing of computational data, facilitating micro-targeted manipulation. Contrary to the pre-digital era, foreign actors can access data, making extraterritorial electioneering easier. Foreign actors manipulate people in ways that undermine or shape their political participation.

This form of threat requires that the actors access extensive data of the target populace and disseminate information to them in a manner that influences their opinions. The actors use algorithms that sift through massive amounts of data and identifies the relevant target population. Due to the complexity and proprietary nature of the algorithms, micro-targeted messaging often evades public scrutiny. An example of micro-targeted messaging involves ‘dark posts’ used in the 2016 presidential election. The Trump campaign’s dark posts entailed information where Hillary Clinton referred to African-American men as predators. Such ads and posts are believed to have been spearheaded by Russian actors, having purchased over 3,000 micro-targeted Facebook ads. Besides, Russian propagandists are believed to have organized rallies using data from Facebook and Twitter. Also, the actors are believed to have organized competing demonstrations in Houston that supported and opposed Muslims in the US. Therefore, state and local agencies need to recognize the existence of preference manipulation through micro-targeted messages as a threat to national elections.

Internet Trolling

Internet trolling remains a threat to national elections. Trolling entails threatening and disruptive online behaviors. In the political scene, internet trolling encapsulates political activities marked by refusal to participate in productive exchange of ideas that characterize any democratic process. Foreign interference in elections continues to gather pace. These actors use threats and intimidation tactics including death threats, smear campaigns, and reputational damage.

Besides, foreign actors employ doxxing to intimidate and harass individuals. Doxxing involves publishing personal information in environments that depict intimidation. When such information is published online, other people can use the information in harassment, threat, and prank campaigns. It is essential to note that the doxxers enjoy anonymity and, therefore, act with relative impunity while making their targets insecure. Trolling also involves trivializing memes which potentially increase political polarity.

In the 2016 election, foreign governments sponsored multiple trolls that promoted fake news. Political commentators observed the use of trolls by the Trump camp to organize harassment campaigns against opponents and journalists. There was a significant disruption of the voting process whereby trolls were used against Democratic party voters which included misinforming them on where and how to vote. Indeed, the Russian government has been subjected to constant criticism on its involvement in internet trolling. Reports suggest that the Russian government sponsor “troll armies” to comment on social media platforms, consequently shaping public debate on election matters. Therefore, state and local agencies need to be aware of internet trolling as a threat used by foreign governments to influence national election outcome.

Threat Actors


Russia remains synonymous with election interference in the US (Pomerleau, 2020). The Russian government is believed to have had a hand in the 2016 presidential election outcome and also conducted influence operations against the 2020 presidential election. In 2020, the President Putin denigrated President Biden and the Democratic party and supported President Trump. Although there were impersistent cyber-attacks from Russia in 2020 compared to 2016, the IC believes that the Russian state and proxy actors serving the Kremlin’s interests played a role in influencing public perception in the US. The IC noted that Moscow employed individuals linked to Russian intelligence in laundering influence narratives including misinformation on President Biden through US media and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to Trump’s administration.


Iran played a significant role in the 2020 presidential election. The Iranian government conducted an influence campaign aimed at undercutting President Trump’s reelection prospects (Pomerleau, 2020). Besides, this action intended to exacerbate the inherent division in the US, creating confusion, and undermining the election’s legitimacy. The IC observes that Tehran’s campaign was designed to influence US policy towards Iran and distract US leaders with domestic issues while amplifying messages sympathetic to the Iranian regime. It is essential to note that Iran sent e-mails to individual US voters, spreading voter fraud allegations.


China was synonymous with the electoral process during the 2020 presidential election (Pomerleau, 2020). Although China was mentioned multiple times throughout the electioneering period, the IC did not find substantial evidence regarding Chinese influence on the election outcome. China and the US have been at loggerheads for an extended period, particularly on trade issues. In this regard, China sought to stability in its relationship with the US and therefore, did not see the essence of interfering with the process. This is because if caught, it could have exacerbated the already fragile relationship. However, it is essential to recognize Beijing’s ability to engage in such practices in the future.


Lebanon is considered as one of the additional actors that attempted to influence 2020 election outcome. The IC discovered that Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah supported efforts to undermine President Trump’s reelection prospects. By so doing, Nasrallah saw this as an opportunity to mitigate the inherent conflict and crises faced by Lebanon.


Cubal is also identified as an actor in influencing national elections in the US. Cuba participated in influencing the 2020 presidential election outcome by pushing pro-Democrat and anti-Republican narratives. This attempt was aimed at undermining President Trump’s reelection prospects. The IC concluded that the Cuban intelligence engaged in low-level activities in advancing this effort.


The US and Venezuela had a rather unhealthy relationship during President Trump’s regime. The IC determined that the adversarial relationship between President Maduro of Venezuela and President Trump prompted the former to try and influence public opinion in the US against the latter. However, the IC recognizes the absence of solid evidence regarding the Venezuelan current and past regimes’ involvement in election interference.

Roles, Responsibilities, and Technical Capabilities of the Primary US IC Partners

Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)

The ODNI oversees the integration of all intelligence functions (US Intelligence Community, n.d.). The intelligence community (IC) entail 18 statutory elements within the six cabinet departments. Being part of the IC, the ODNI spearheads support provided by the IC to military and policy makers across the government. Besides, the ODNI acts as the principal intelligence advisor to the president. On the other hand, the ODNI oversees the development of IC data strategy, facilitating information and data recovery.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

The FBI is mandated to investigate and prevent acts of domestic and international terrorism (US Intelligence Community, n.d.). Typically, it is the lead agency within the IC for investigating terrorist acts. Besides, it protects the US against espionage, cyber operations, and foreign intelligence. As an IC partner, FBI uses an electronic system to collect and store personal data, whose access is limited to appropriate security measures.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

The CIA is mandated to manage collected information associated with US security (Suciu, 2019). This information management process involves collection and analysis. The collected information can be of foreign individuals, places, and events needed by the US government but cannot be easily obtained diplomatic contacts or publicly available sources. Besides, the CIA engages in counterintelligence and covert action operations. The CIA is endowed with an information security model known as the CIA triad involving confidentiality, integrity, and availability that guides its security procedures and policies.

National Security Agency (NSA)

The NSA is a primary member of the IC. In this regard, high degree of confidentiality is paramount. The NSA is mandated to collect, process, and disseminate intelligence information (US Intelligence Community, n.d.). The information is collected from foreign electronic signals aimed at aiding in national foreign and counterintelligence purposes. Besides, the NSA prevents access to classified national security information by foreign adversaries. The agency has a technology transfer program that provides access to NSA technology particularly to businesses, thus enhancing information collection and threat detection.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is headed by the Secretary of Homeland Security. Under this leadership, the DHS ensures safety for the US citizens (Strategy, 2018). It is responsible counterterrorism and cybersecurity (Trump, 2017). The DHS also ensures security in the aviation industry, along the US borders, and in maritime. Besides, the DHS protects national leaders and critical infrastructure. It detects and protect the country against chemical, biological, and nuclear threats while also responding to disasters.

Recommendations to Improve Strategies, Collection, and Threat Assessments

The IC should increase strategic analytical capacity of its intelligence services (McAleenan, 2019). Indeed, there is an increased tempo in modern life contributed by digital explosion. As a result, there is increased human interactions which sets precedence for unpredictability and fragility. Besides, increased digital application complicates the operating environment for strategic environment. Therefore, there is a need to enhance IC’s strategic analytical capacity to counter the problems associated with digital explosion.

Besides, the IC should intensify training of data collectors and threat analysts to counter the increasing operating environment’s complexity. Threat assessors need to integrate creative intelligence to pattern recognition and imagination, leading to a better understanding and assessment of potential threats.

Additionally, the IC should increase its partnership with allied intelligence partners. Ideally, the US and Western states face similar challenges and threats. Bilateral intelligence exchange will be fundamental in information collection and threat assessment. It is imperative to acknowledge that the changing threat landscape prompts for more collective effort in strategic response shaping and coordination.


State and local agencies need to be aware of threats pertaining to electoral processes in the US. Technological advances have facilitated digital interference in US national elections. Common threats include cyber-attacks, fake news and computational propaganda, manipulating people’s preferences through micro-targeting, and internet trolling. This report identifies various actors in election interference including Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. However, China remains a potential threat. Also, the report outlines the roles and responsibilities of primary partners of IC including the ODNI, FBI, CIA, and NSA. This report presents an opportunity for the state and local agencies to recognize the relevance of the DHS intelligence reports, creating security awareness among these two entities.


McAleenan, K. (2019). Strategic framework for countering terrorism and targeted violence. Department of Homeland Security.

Pomerleau, M. (October 30, 2020). The US military is targeting foreign actors to defend the presidential election. Cybernet.

Strategy, C. (2018). National Cyber Strategy of the United States of America. (pp. II, 1-3).

Suciu, P. (February 12, 2019). The Role of the Intelligence Community in Homeland Security: From Competing Agencies to True Community.

The US Intelligence Community. HMLS 414 4055: Homeland Security and Intelligence.

Trump, D. J. (2017). National security strategy of the United States of America. Executive Office of The President Washington DC Washington United States.


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