Russia 'Amplified' the Hunter Biden Story and Spread Election Conspiracy Theories, Intel Agencies Claim

Illustration for article titled Russia 'Amplified' the Hunter Biden Story and Spread Election Conspiracy Theories, Intel Agencies Claim

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Russia wants America to hate Hunter Biden. That, and other odd claims, are at the heart of a newly declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the likes of which claims to show how foreign governments used propaganda to influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election and to sow discord, generally.

The 15-page report, published Tuesday, says multiple foreign nations used social media campaigns and other operations to push messaging to U.S. voters during last year’s election season. Russia and Iran are the biggest offenders on this list, though Cuba, Venezuela, and the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah (also spelled Hezbollah) also are accused of having joined in the fun.

The report, which was previously shared with the Biden administration and Congressional leadership back in January, reveals how America’s adversaries have sought to curry favorable political outcomes for themselves via disinformation and other means. Here are the highlights.

Russia Went After the Bidens

The Kremlin is accused of having gone to great lengths to smear presidential candidate Joe Biden while supporting incumbent Donald Trump. According to the report, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the “Russian State authorized and conducted influence operations” during the election aimed at “denigrating President Biden and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions.” The report states:

“A key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of people linked to Russian intelligence to launder influence narratives including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden through U.S. media organizations, U.S. officials, and prominent U.S. individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration.”

These operations apparently included amplifying right-wing conspiracy theories about voter fraud and electoral dysfunction, as well as helping to circulate allegations of misconduct involving Biden’s son, Hunter, and Biden himself. Russian operatives “heavily amplified related content circulating in U.S. media, including stories that center on his son,” the report claims, alleging that Russian agents sought to convince Americans that there existed “corrupt ties between President Biden, his family, and other U.S. officials and Ukraine” and that they did this through “Ukraine-linked proxies and these proxies’ networks—including their U.S. contacts—to spread this narrative to give Moscow plausible deniability of their involvement.”

Hunter infamously became a sore spot in his father’s campaign due to ongoing accusations that he had engaged in shady dealings while employed with Ukrainian energy firm Burisma. These allegations eventually ensnared the political candidate himself (who was also accused of corruption). A GOP-led investigation into the misconduct claims revealed no wrongdoing on Joe Biden’s part, though Hunter was accused of having “cashed in” on his father’s vice presidency.

Iran Went After Trump

The Trump administration was not kind to Iran: it assassinated one of the country’s most beloved military leaders, killed the Obama-era “Iran deal,” and instituted a “maximum pressure” campaign against the country that included brutal sanctions and covert operations. That is, potentially, why the nation’s leadership seems to have wanted to make Trump look as bad as possible during the 2020 presidential race.

The report says that Iran “carried out multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut President Trump’s reelection prospects.” Much of Iran’s efforts involved manipulation on social media, the report states:

“We assess that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei probably authorized Iran’s influence campaign that it was a whole of government effort, judging from the involvement of multiple Iranian Government elements…Iran focused its social media and propaganda on perceived vulnerabilities in the United States, including the response to the covid-19 pandemic, economic recession, and civil unrest.”

Much of this had been previously reported. If you’ll remember, Iranian agents were infamously outed as having run a spoofed email campaign, in which they claimed to be members of the Trump-aligned Proud Boys group. From these accounts, Iranian agents sent threatening emails to Democratic voters throughout the U.S., “demanding that the individuals change their party affiliation and vote to reelect former President Trump,” in an apparent effort to make Trump and his acolytes look bad.

China Stayed Out of It

Interestingly, the report claims that China somehow stayed above the disinformation fray, preferring to sway the presidential race using normal channels such as “economic measures and lobbying.” The report claims:

“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling, and assessed its traditional influence tools—primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying—would be sufficient to meet its goal of shaping U.S. China policy regardless of the winner,” the report claims.

Hacking Was Minimal—but Still Happened

The report also says that Russian hackers were able to gain access to state and local election systems and actually steal data, though the DNI downplays the significance of this hacking and claims it had no effect on the outcome of the election. The report says these cyber operations were part of a broader intelligence gathering effort:

We judge that Russian cyber operations that targeted and compromised US state and local government networks in 2020—including exfiltrating some voter data—were probably not election-focused and instead part of a broader campaign targeting dozens of US and global entities.

No cyber activity “attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 U.S. elections, including voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation or reporting results,” the report claims.