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U.S. charges Iranians for alleged cyber plot to meddle in 2020 presidential election

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna
FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

November 18, 2021

By Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States announced criminal charges on Thursday against two Iranians it accuses of launching a cyber disinformation campaign to meddle in the 2020 U.S. presidential election that targeted voters as well as elected members of Congress and a U.S. media company.

The U.S. Treasury also announced it was imposing sanctions on six Iranians and one Iranian group for trying to influence the 2020 U.S. election.

Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi, 24, and Sajjad Kashian 27, are each charged with obtaining confidential U.S. voting information from at least one state election website and conspiring with others to sow disinformation to try to undermine Americans’ confidence in the election’s integrity.

Senior U.S. law enforcement officials told reporters on Thursday they had no evidence to suggest that any of the alleged hacking activity had an impact on the election results.

The indictment alleges the Iranian hackers gained access to an unnamed U.S. media company’s computer network in a plot to disseminate false claims about the election, but their plot was foiled through intervention by the FBI and the company, which the indictment did not identify by name.

As part of their alleged conspiracy, they also sent Facebook messages purporting to be a group of volunteers from the far-right Proud Boys group to Republican members of Congress and members of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign, the indictment alleges.

It also alleges they tried to access voter registration data from 11 state websites, and in one case managed to download data from one state website that contained information about 100,000 of its registered voters.

“This indictment details how two Iran-based actors waged a targeted, coordinated campaign to erode confidence in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system and to sow discord among Americans,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

U.S. suspicions about Iranian interference in the 2020 presidential election surfaced in October of last year.

Two weeks before the November election, top intelligence officials in the Trump administration alleged that both Russia and Iran were attempting to interfere in the election, and had gained access to some U.S. voter registration data.

Some voters had reported receiving emails purporting to be from the Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed club of “Western chauvinists” who have since come under scrutiny after some of its members took part in a Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

While the Proud Boys deception was previously known, the details about the hackers’ efforts to break into a media company were not made public until Thursday’s unsealing of the indictment.

According to court documents, the hackers hoped to leverage their access to the media company to spread disinformation about the election. But the FBI had warned the victimized company, helping it to kick out the hackers.

U.S. officials and election security experts have long feared such a cyber attack after a series of similar incidents occurred over the last two years in Eastern Europe.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Chris Bing;Editing by Bernadette Baum and Howard Goller)

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