Join us on Thursday, October 1 at 10:00am EDT/4:00pm CEST/5:00pm EEST for an interactive, virtual discussion on the threat malign financial activity poses to democracies across the transatlantic space, co-hosted by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. We will be joined by Federal Elections Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, Hybrid CoE Director Teijia Tiilikainen, ASD Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph, and Hybrid CoE Senior Analyst Janne Jokinen. Register here

Our Take

Iran’s attempts to interfere in U.S. democratic institutions and processes have been on the rise, making the news several times during the 2020 election cycle. Iran’s toolkit includes the use of cyberattacks, information manipulation, and malign finance in its influence operations, Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai writes in one of the first comprehensive discussions of the Iranian regime’s efforts to undermine democracy. The report also makes recommendations for addressing Iranian interference efforts.

Covert foreign money transforms the civic infrastructure of open societies into an asymmetric weapon, converting freedoms into methods of attack that weaken democracies, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph writes in Financial Times

Democracies must stand up for their values and create legal constraints that dissuade corporations like Disney, which has come under fire for its new Mulan movie, from pandering to the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship, China Analyst Bryce Barros and Research Assistant Etienne Soula write in an ASD blog post

Chinese state media and diplomats have been hard at work portraying last Monday’s virtual summit between Chairman Xi Jinping and European leaders as a testimony to the strength of EU-China ties, despite most European commentary pointing to the summit’s failure to deliver anything of value, Research Assistant Etienne Soula writes in the latest Hamilton 2.0 blog post

Read ASD’s latest coronavirus and information manipulation work here.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Last week, Russian state media and diplomats continued to emphasize the safety of and demand for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. At the same time, state media questioned the safety of Western vaccines under development and continued to push back on “Western attacks” on Sputnik V, with one article labelling criticism as part of “a corporate cold war against humanity.” Russian coverage of FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before Congress, which included assessments of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2020 election, was limited, but RT continued to reiterate claims that there is “no evidence” to support allegations of Russian interference. Chinese diplomats and state media last week provided extensive coverage of climate-fueled natural disasters in the United States, using the events to criticize President Trump’s climate policies. Meanwhile, Iranian messengers continued to criticize the U.A.E. and Bahrain over their normalization of relations with Israel. Further, in two widely engaged-with tweets, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attacked President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo, accusing the former of having been “bamboozled” by the latter into assassinating “ISIS’ enemy #1,” Maj. Gen. Soleimani. 

Read more here.

News and Commentary

U.S. Federal agencies crack down on Irainian state-backed hacking: On September 17, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against dozens of individuals and a front company associated with a prolific Iranian hacking group, known as Advanced Persistent Threat 39, for an alleged years-long malware campaign targeting Iranian dissidents, journalists, and international companies. Separately, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging three Iranian hackers for stealing critical data from U.S. satellite and aerospace companies. Earlier in the week, the Justice Department announced charges against two other Iranian nationals for alleged involvement in a cyber theft campaign and indicted two additional Iranian nationals for retaliatory hacking operations following the U.S. killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai has argued that, as Iran continues to develop a toolkit of tactics to challenge democracy, including cyberwarfare, the United States must adequately address the gaps in its ability to deter and defend against these efforts. (Treasury Department, The Hill, Justice Department, CyberScoop, ASD) 

Negotiations between U.S. companies and Chinese social media app TikTok remain unsettled: Citing national security concerns, President Trump threatened to block a deal between major U.S. companies and the Chinese short-form video app TikTok if its owner, ByteDance, did not fully divest its interest in the platform. President Trump had previously given his “blessing” to a deal announced by TikTok on September 19. The deal would create a new U.S.-based company, TikTok Global, of which ByteDance would retain 80 percent, with U.S. companies Oracle and Walmart receiving a combined 20 percent stake. However, on September 21, Oracle executive Ken Glueck disputed TikTok’s description of the ownership structure, stating, “Americans will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.” Complicating matters, ByteDance has since claimed that it has no plans to transfer ownership of the algorithms that power TikTok. Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce delayed plans to ban TikTok from U.S. app stores until September 27. ASD Emerging Technology Fellow Lindsay Gorman has warned that the proposed restructuring of TikTok could set a dangerous precedent for multinational companies to conform to the value systems of host countries—potentially playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes. (The New York Times, BBC, Reuters, Twitter) 

In Case You Missed It

A top-secret CIA assessment found that Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials are “probably directing” an interference operation aimed at the 2020 presidential election, according to The New York Times. 

  • The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved two pieces of election security legislation, which would boost research surrounding election infrastructure security and make it a federal crime to hack federal voting systems. 
  • Facebook announced that it will take steps to “restrict the circulation of content” on its platform if the November election results in chaos or violent civic unrest. 
  • Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe agreed to brief congressional intelligence committees in person on threats to the November election, reversing a previous decision by the administration .
  • Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone stated that foreign influence operations are “the next great disruptor” in the operational environment of the U.S. intelligence community.
  • U.S. allies and partners from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East announced they will join the “AI partnership for Defense,” a new partnership focused on sharing lessons and best practices in using AI for defense missions.
  • Twitter will require certain political candidates, elected officials, and journalists to strengthen their passwords in an attempt to defend against hackers in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election.

ASD in the News

As U.S. increases pressure, Iran adheres to toned-down approach, The New York Times. Comments from Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai 

Who will control the new TikTok? A key question threatens the deal Trump “blessed,” Fortune. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman

Trump’s TikTok deal: What just happened and why does it matter?, NPR. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman

Voter attitudes and foreign influence: Protecting the vote, Center for a New American Security, Virtual Event with Director Laura Rosenberger 

StraightTalk: Voting in America | Democracy at risk: Safeguarding votes, voters, election integrity, the Riley Institute at Furman University. Virtual event with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Foreign and domestic disinformation vie for dominion, AFEA. Comments from Director Laura Rosenberger 

Q&A with David Levine from StraightTalk: Voting in America mini-series, The Paladin at Furman University. Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

A comprehensive plan to innovate democracy in Europe, European Partnership for Democracy. Includes contributions from ASD and cites ASD research 

Future of DHS project, Atlantic Council. Includes contributions from Director Laura Rosenberger and cites ASD research

For Iran, negotiations aren’t optional, Foreign Policy. Written by Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai and Henry Rome

Democratic health communications during COVID-19: A RAPID response, University of British Columbia. Written by Non-Resident Fellow Heidi Tworek

Quote of the Week

“The most urgent task American leaders face is to ensure that the election’s results are accepted as legitimate. Electoral legitimacy is the essential linchpin of our entire political culture. We should see the challenge clearly in advance and take immediate action to respond.”

  • Dan Coats, former Director of National Intelligence, wrote in the New York Times.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.