Iranian nationals charged in campaign to undermine 2020 US election

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The Iranians claimed to be Proud Boys volunteers, the indictment said.

Two Iranian nationals have been charged in a disinformation campaign meant to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, including by threatening physical violence if registered Democrats failed to switch their affiliation and vote for then-President Donald Trump.

Seyyed Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian obtained confidential information about American voters from at least one state election website, sent those people threatening emails and gained access to a news network’s computer system that would have allowed them to disseminate false claims about the election, according to the indictment.

ABC News reported in October 2020 Iran and Russia had obtained voter information.

“As alleged, Kazemi and Kashian were part of a coordinated conspiracy in which Iranian hackers sought to undermine faith and confidence in the U.S. Presidential elections,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams.

The indictment did not name the state infiltrated, but Florida law enforcement and the FBI previously had said they were investigating the threatening emails sent to registered voters.

The Iranians, both of whom are believed to be in Iran and out of reach of U.S. law enforcement, claimed to be a group of Proud Boys volunteers, according to the indictment. They allegedly sent Facebook messages and emails to Republican officials that claimed Democrats were going to exploit vulnerabilities in voter registration websites. They also allegedly sent registered Democrats messages that threatened physical injury if they did not change their affiliation and vote for President Trump, the indictment said.

“We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone … everything). You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for,” the indictment quoted the emails as saying.

There was no evidence the campaign successfully convinced any voter to actually change their registration, according to a Justice Department official.

“State-sponsored actors, including Iranian groups, have engaged in covert and deceptive activities to disseminate disinformation through websites and social media designed to undermine Americans’ faith in U.S. elections,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Thursday. The U.S. government took decisive and disruptive action against those seeking to interfere with the sanctity of our elections, including the FBI warning the public of the attempts ahead of the 2020 elections.”

The day after the election, the Iranians tried to use stolen credentials to hack their way into an unnamed American media company’s computer networks, the indictment said. The company alerted the FBI, which stopped them from altering any content or disseminating false claims, according to a Justice Department official.

Prosecutors described Kazemi and Kashian as experienced computer hackers who worked as contractors for an Iran-based company formerly known as Eeleyanet Gostar, which the U.S. believes is linked to the Iranian government.

In conjunction with the Dept. of Justice, the U.S. Treasury has also sanctioned the Iranian company and six of its employees, who it said were involved in this disinformation campaign to influence the 2020 U.S. elections.

The firm, now known as Emennet Pasargad, was previously sanctioned under its former name by the Trump administration for supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its electronic warfare wing.

Kazemi and Kashian were employees at Emennet and actually “executed cyber-enabled operations,” according to the Treasury. Four other Iranians serve on Emennet’s board of directors and are being sanctioned for their role at the firm.

“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,” Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen said.