China, Russia, Iran and Cuba all tried to meddle in 2022 US congressional elections, intelligence assessment finds

LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 08: A man votes in the 2022 midterm election on Election Day on November 8, 2022 in Lansing, Michigan. After months of candidates campaigning, Americans are voting in the midterm elections to decide close races across the nation. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

A man votes in the 2022 midterm election on November 8, 2022, in Lansing, Michigan.Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Foreign government efforts to target the 2022 US midterm elections appeared to grow compared with the 2018 elections, according to a declassified intelligence assessment released Monday, with a “diverse and growing group of foreign actors” participating.

There was no known order from any foreign leader to “undertake a comprehensive, whole-of-government influence campaign” like the one Russia carried out in 2016, according to the report. But the assessment found that China, Russia, Iran and Cuba all tried to meddle in congressional elections in 2022.

The intelligence community assesses with high confidence that China “tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both US political parties” – likely as part of a broad series of directives by Chinese Communist Party leaders since 2020 to “intensify efforts to influence US policy and public opinion in China’s favor.”

China intensified its efforts to heighten sociopolitical divisions, according to the assessment, but still focused more on efforts to support or undermine a small number of specific candidates based on whether Beijing perceived their policy positions to be in its favor. Party leaders “repeatedly have instructed officials to focus on Congress because Beijing is convinced that Congress is a locus of anti-China activity,” according to the report.

Still, “Beijing almost certainly viewed the US midterm elections as an opportunity to portray the US democratic model as chaotic, ineffective, and unrepresentative, and frequently directed [People’s Republic of China] messaging to highlight US divisions on social issues, such as abortion and gun control.”

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US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that China has been more active in election influence activities aligns with reports from tech firms. Suspected Chinese operatives have used images made by artificial intelligence to mimic American voters online and provoke discussion on divisive political issues, Microsoft analysts warned in September.

Chinese officials likely had freer rein to conduct influence operations because they believed they were under “less scrutiny during the midterms” and that the risk of any US retaliation was lower than in 2020, the US intelligence report said.

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Russia, meanwhile, sought “to denigrate the Democratic Party before the midterm elections and undermine confidence in the election, most likely to undermine US support for Ukraine,” the intelligence community assessed, also with high confidence.

The intelligence community found that the Kremlin “conducted extensive research and analysis of US audiences,” identifying key demographics, narratives and platforms that it believed would be effective in amplifying Russia’s message. Among those targeted audiences were “US constituencies that they believed were more sympathetic to Russia’s emphasis on ‘traditional values,’” according to the assessment, which describes the findings as some of the “most explicit reporting to date on Russia’s US-focused influence operations.”

The assessment also confirms that Russian military officials proposed delaying the Russian withdrawal from the Ukrainian city of Kherson until the day after the 2022 midterms “to avoid giving a named US political party a perceived win before the election.”

Russian actors also generally sought to weaken confidence in Western democratic institutions, the assessment found, by “[casting] aspersions on the integrity of the midterm elections, including by claiming that voting software was vulnerable, Americans expected cheating to undermine the midterm elections, and Democrats were stealing the elections.”

The assessment also detailed Iran’s influence activities during the midterms, finding that Tehran sought to exploit perceived social divisions and undermine confidence in US democratic institutions – but that its efforts were limited by competing priorities, including the need to manage internal unrest.

Broadly, intelligence officials found, foreign actors shied away from technically challenging efforts to change literal votes and instead sought to influence US elections by damaging the public perception of the integrity of their results.

The intelligence community also observed that other countries – including Cuba – engaged in more narrow efforts to support or undermine specific candidates, apparently predicated on the candidate’s willingness to advance policies that aligned with that country’s interest.

The assessment did not study the impact the influence campaigns may have had on the outcome of the 2022 elections.

CNN’s Sean Lyngaas contributed to this report.

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