According to a report by the United States National Intelligence Council assessing foreign threats to the 2020 election, US adversaries—especially Russia—attempted to interfere in the election in support of former President Donald Trump, to tarnish and discredit the reputation of President Biden and the Democratic Party, undermine public confidence in the electoral process, and deepen the country’s sociopolitical divides. This process was carried out by a collection of Russian governmental organizations. The main findings of the US intelligence report on the elections can be summed up as follows:
1- No indications of technical manipulation of the election: The report concluded that there is nothing indicating that any foreign actor attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 US election, including voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation, and results reporting. It is difficult for foreign actors to manipulate electoral processes on a wide scale without detection.
2- Organized Russian interference in the US election: The report held that Russia—which actively intervened in the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump—was involved again for the same goal in 2020. President Putin set up Russian governmental organizations with the aim of carrying out operations to denigrate the Democratic Party and President Biden, support Trump, undermine public trust in the electoral process, and inflame sociopolitical divisions in the country.
Unlike the 2016 election, according to the report, the 2020 election did not see Russian cyberattacks to access election infrastructure. Rather, various Russian actors worked to influence, one way or another, US public perceptions and spread misleading narratives, including unsubstantiated claims about President Biden and the US media.
According to some American experts, this finding corresponds with what was already widely known about Russian influence attempts. In this sense, the evaluation did not uncover anything new, but misconceptions still persist due to the relentless efforts by Trump and his supporters to deny that Russia had any role in helping him win the presidency.
3- Indirect Russian support for Donald Trump: The US intelligence assessment indicated that member of Ukrainian Parliament Andrii Derkach had direct ties to Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and that Derkach has ties to Russian intelligence. As the US election approached, Moscow pushed the “Ukraine corruption issue” in an attempt to support Trump and undermine Biden.
4- China’s steers clear of influencing US election results: The report noted that China did not try to influence the US election to change its outcome, though it tried to take some limited steps to undermine President Trump’s reelection. According to some, China not trying to change the election results stems from the view that the US election’s outcome is not important enough to risk interference, and that China can shape US policy towards it regardless of who wins the election.
5- Iran’s attempt to undermine Trump’s reelection: According to the report, Iran’s Supreme Leader authorized a multi-pronged campaign aimed at undermining former US President Donald Trump’s reelection, although it did not promote his rival Joe Biden. This campaign involved Iranian military and intelligence services, using overt and covert messaging and cyber operations with the goal of undermining public confidence in the electoral process and US institutions, as well as deepening division and tensions in US society.
6- Venezuela, Cuba, and Hezbollah’s limited roles in the election: The report noted that some foreign actors—such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Hezbollah—took limited steps to influence the election, but they were much smaller in scale than those taken by other actors.
7- Trump’s politicization of intelligence work: Former President Trump has repeatedly expressed disbelief at the intelligence community’s findings on Russian intervention in the elections. He also went beyond that by appointing people loyal to him to head up the US intelligence community, enabling him to obstruct, distort, or nullify the findings of various intelligence agencies.
8- Risks of politicizing intelligence work: Some claim that the most serious adverse effect of politicizing intelligence work was not misleading decision-makers, but rather decision-makers misleading the public. This was relatively true for George W. Bush’s marketing of the Iraq war to the public, which required picking intelligence information and grouping stories together to tell a false story of terrorist alliances that was at odds with the opinions of the intelligence community.
But the misuse of intelligence in the Trump era—although there was no new war—was more evident. Many stress that President Trump played a large role in politicizing the work of US intelligence, which poses a major risk to decision-makers and the public. The new intelligence assessment is not expected to affect the false beliefs of Trump supporters, who will dismiss its findings as biased against them.
In conclusion, some experts believe the copy of the intelligence assessment of foreign attempts to influence the 2020 US election warrants more attention than it received, as an attempt to correct prevailing misconceptions about this subject. In this regard, they count on the Biden administration to use the intelligence information properly, as it will be the biggest safeguard against further politicization of intelligence over the next four years. But the role of Congress is also important, as it had the biggest role in releasing this report, in addition to another report on domestic violent extremism.