The Justice Department has accused Iranians of attempted interference in the 2020 election, including efforts to influence Republican lawmakers, Democratic voters and American news reports.
An indictment unsealed Thursday charged two Iranian nationals, Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian with computer fraud and voter intimidation. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, said it imposed new sanctions on six Iranian people and one Iranian entity.
“Working with others, Kazemi and Kashian accessed voter information from at least one state’s voter database, threatened U.S. voters via email, and even disseminated a fictitious video that purported to depict actors fabricating overseas ballots,” Damian Williams, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. “The United States will never tolerate any foreign actors’ attempts to undermine our free and democratic elections. As a result of the charges unsealed today, and the concurrent efforts of our U.S. government partners, Kazemi and Kashian will forever look over their shoulders as we strive to bring them to justice.”
According to the indictment, the Iranian conspirators sought to compromise 11 states’ voter registration and voter information websites in September and October 2020, and they successfully exploited computers in one unnamed state.
The conspirators then allegedly sent messages to Republicans claiming Democrats intended to exploit state websites’ security vulnerabilities to edit mail-in ballots and register non-existent voters. The emails and Facebook messages were sent to GOP members of Congress, people associated with former President Trump’s campaign, and others.
The Justice Department also accused the conspirators of posing as Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, and emailing tens of thousands of registered voters to threaten harm to those people if they did not vote for Mr. Trump. The targeted voters were registered Democrats.
The conspirators also compromised the content management system used by “dozens of newspapers and other publications,” which the indictment said could have been used to spread false claims about the election. The actors’ ability to create and edit fraudulent content was ultimately stopped by the FBI, according to the indictment and the Treasury Department.
The Treasury Department said it was sanctioning Mr. Kazemi and Mr. Kashian over their alleged attempts to influence the 2020 election. The Treasury used its authority under an executive order issued by Mr. Trump and renewed by President Biden that blocks various transactions and restricts American financial institutions from making loans or providing credit to them. The sanctions also block Americans from engaging in transactions with those who are sanctioned.
The two men were employees of Iranian cyber company Emen Net Pasargad, formerly known as Net Peygard Samavat Company, according to Treasury, which sanctioned the company over its alleged role in attempting to influence the election; evading sanctions; and allegedly having assisted, sponsored, or supported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Electronic Warfare and Cyber Defense Organization (IRGC-EWCD).
Treasury said it also sanctioned Emen Net Pasargad’s manager, Mohammad Bagher Shirinkar, and people serving on Emen Net’s board of directors, including Mostafa Sarmadi, Seyyed Mehdi Hashemi Toghroljerdi, and Hosein Akbari Nodeh.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo said the action underscores the American government’s commitment to holding “state-sponsored actors” accountable for attempting to undermine confidence in U.S. elections.
Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and chair of the Intelligence Committee, applauded the Biden administration’s actions.
“Our intelligence officials have continually warned that other countries would seek to follow Russia’s 2016 playbook,” he said in a statement. “Today’s charges and sanctions against several Iranians believed to be behind a cyber campaign to intimidate and influence American voters in the 2020 election are further evidence that attempts to interfere in our elections will continue, and we must all be on guard against them.”
The U.S. government’s revelations of alleged Iranian cyber chaos follow several disclosures by U.S. agencies, companies and American allies of malicious cyber activity by Iran.
Earlier this week, American cyber officials joined with their counterparts in Britain and Australia to allege Iranian government-sponsored hacks were laying the groundwork for ransomware attacks affecting the healthcare and transportation sectors.
Microsoft disclosed Tuesday that it witnessed “Iranian nation-state actors” increasingly using ransomware to disrupt targets and solicit funds. Microsoft said it also noticed the same actors demonstrating more patience in their hacking attempts than in other brute force attacks the Iranians have conducted.
Amid the crush of disclosures of Iran’s nefarious cyber activity to harm Americans, the Biden administration has formed a new partnership with Israel. Earlier this week, Mr. Adeyemo visited Israel to discuss national security priorities involving Iran with Israeli officials and cybersecurity entrepreneurs.
Treasury also said it was working with Israel as part of a new U.S.-Israeli task force on cybersecurity, financial technology and innovation.