Federal officials charge two Iranians over disinformation, threat campaign in 2020 election

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Nov. 18 (UPI) — An indictment unsealed Thursday in New York charges two Iranians with a cyber-enabled disinformation and threat campaign aiming to sway the 2020 presidential election in Donald Trump‘s favor.

Seyyed Kazemi, 24, and Sajjad Kashian, 27, both of Iran, coordinated the campaign from approximately August 2020 until November 2020, along with other unnamed co-conspirators, the indictment filed in the Southern District of New York shows.

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Charges include a count of conspiracy, two counts of computer fraud, including unauthorized access in furtherance of a criminal act and knowingly damaging a protected computer, one count of voter intimidation, and one count of transmission of interstate threats.

Kazemi and Kashian allegedly obtained confidential U.S. voter information from at least one state election website and sent threatening email messages to intimidate and interfere with voters, according to court documents.

Their actions were “part of a coordinated conspiracy” by “which Iranian hackers sought to undermine the faith and confidence in the U.S. presidential election,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York said in a statement.

“The United States will never tolerate any foreign actors’ attempt to undermine our free and democratic elections,” Williams added. “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.”

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In particular, in October 2020, conspirators sent tens of thousands of emails to registered Democrats and threatened the recipients with physical injury if they did not change their affiliation and vote for Trump, the indictment alleged.

The conspirators falsely claimed to be from the Proud Boys, a group of far-right militants who sometimes engage in violence against people whom they perceive as a threat to their values, the indictment noted.

In October 2020, conspirators purporting in be part of the Proud Boys also sent Facebook messages and emails to Republican lawmakers, individuals associated with the Trump campaign, White House advisers, and members of the media, the indictment alleged. The messages falsely claimed that the Democratic Party was planning to exploit “serious security vulnerabilities” in state voter registration websites to “edit mail-in-ballots or even register non-existent voters.”

In September and October 2020, conspirators attempted to compromise approximately 11 state voter websites, including state voter registration websites and state voter information websites, with one successful attempt, resulting in the unauthorized downloading of information on more than 100,000 voters, the indictment alleged.

No voter registrations were actually changed, officials said.

A senior Justice Department official told reporters on a conference call Kazemi and Kashian tried to compromise the registration websites to misrepresent that they could accept fraudulent ballots and “create the appearance that election results could not be trusted,” NBC News reported.

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According to court documents, Kazemi and Kashian also allegedly created and disseminated a video containing disinformation about purported election infrastructure vulnerabilities and attempted to access, without authorization, several states’ voting-related websites.

They also successfully gained access to a U.S. media company’s network that would have provided them another means to disseminate false claims if the FBI and the company hadn’t intervened, according to allegations in the indictment.

Kazemi and Kashian are experienced Iran-based computer hackers wo work as contractors for an Iran-based company formerly known as Eeleyanet Gostar, and now known as Emennet Pasargad.

Along with the unsealing of the indictment, the Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on Emennet Pasargad, Kazemi and Kashian.

Kazemi and Kashian are not in custody, but the Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program offered rewards of up to $10 million each for information on Kashian and Kazemi.