There are no “specific or credible” threats to disrupt election infrastructure in this year’s midterm contests, one of the nation’s top cybersecurity officials said Sunday, even as the federal government remains concerned about attempts – both online and in-person – to interfere in the vote.
“It is a very complex threat environment. You have cyber threats, you have insider threats, you have rampant disinformation and, yes, very worryingly, you have threats of harassment, intimidation and violence against election officials, polling places and voters,” Jen Easterly, the director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, told CBS.
“Let’s be really clear,” Easterly said, “that has to stop.”
That appraisal of election-year threats comes as tensions are rising over the potential for violence surrounding this year’s elections, partly fueled by online extremism and fraudulent information about election security.
The warnings took on alarming urgency Friday, when a man who’d previous posted memes and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election allegedly attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their home in California.
President Joe Biden, voting early in his home state of Delaware, warned Saturday that online conspiracies and disinformation were directly tied to real-life violence like the attack on Paul Pelosi.
“You can’t condemn the violence unless you condemn those people who are arguing that the election is not real,” he said outside a polling station. “The talk has to stop. That’s the problem.”
Federal officials on Friday warned that domestic violent extremists pose a heightened threat to the 2022 midterm elections in a joint intelligence assessment sent to state and local officials and obtained by CNN.
The bulletin, released by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, US Capitol Police and National Counterterrorism Center, says that perceptions of election fraud will likely result in heightened threats of violence. The bulletin did not list any specific credible threats.
Enduring perceptions of election fraud related to the 2020 general election continue to contribute to the radicalization of some violent extremists and likely would “increase their sensitivity to any new claims perceived as reaffirming their belief that US elections are corrupt,” according to the assessment.
Easterly said Sunday that disinformation about elections “can be used to sow discord that can undermine confidence in election integrity, and that can be used to incite violence.”
“We’ve seen Russia, we’ve seen Iran, we’ve seen China, use the playbook for influence operations,” she told CBS. “That’s why it’s so important that Americans realize that they need to build resilience against that.”
The FBI said earlier this month that Russian and Chinese government-affiliated operatives and organizations are promoting misinformation about the integrity of American elections. The assessment underscored how the explosion of voting conspiracy theories in the US has created fertile ground for foreign operatives since former President Donald Trump’s 2020 electoral defeat.
Some election officials have called on CISA to do more to help them combat disinformation and to help protect election officials. CISA rejected a multimillion proposal from a contractor to protect election workers from harassment in part because of legal concerns and questions about the plan’s efficacy, CNN reported last month.
In the weeks since CNN reported that election officials have called on CISA to do more to help them combat misinformation, Easterly, the agency’s director, has tweeted and spoken publicly about election security multiple times.
On Election Day, Easterly said her agency will be in “direct communication with all of the state and local election officials whose job it is to run and administer elections. We’re going to be working to share information, and we’re going to be working to be able to respond to anything that happens.”
CNN’s Sean Lyngaas contributed to this report.