WASHINGTON — FBI Director Chris Wray said Wednesday that Russia is engaged in “information warfare” heading into the 2020 presidential election, though he said law enforcement has not seen ongoing efforts by Russia to target America’s election infrastructure.
Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Russia, just as it did in 2016, is relying on a covert social media campaign aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord. That effort, which involves fictional personas, bots, social media postings and disinformation, may have an election-year uptick but is also a round-the-clock threat that is in some ways harder to combat than an election system hack, Wray said.
“Unlike a cyberattack on an election infrastructure, that kind of effort — disinformation — in a world where we have a First Amendment and believe strongly in freedom of expression, the FBI is not going to be in the business of being the truth police and monitoring disinformation online,” Wray said.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are on alert for election-related cyberactivity like what occurred in 2016, when Russians hacked emails belonging to the Democratic campaign of nominee Hillary Clinton and probed local election systems for vulnerabilities.
But, Wray said Wednesday, “I don’t think we’ve seen any ongoing efforts to target election infrastructure like we did in 2016.”
His appearance came two days after Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa were marred by a malfunctioning app that caused a delay in the reporting of results. Though local and federal officials have stressed that the problems weren’t caused by a foreign intrusion, the error played into existing unease surrounding election security and risked amplifying concerns about the integrity of the voting process.
Even without signs of election system targeting, Wray said Russian efforts to interfere in the election through disinformation and “fake news” had not tapered off since 2016. He said social media had injected “steroids” into those efforts.
“They identify an issue that they know that the American people feel passionately about on both sides and then they take both sides and spin them up so they pit us against each other,” Wray said. “And then they combine that with an effort to weaken our confidence in our elections and our democratic institutions which has been a pernicious and asymmetric way of engaging in affect information warfare.”
At another point in the hearing, Wray avoided a direct answer when asked if President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr or other administration officials had asked him for investigations into Trump Democratic rival Joe Biden or son Hunter Biden, or into any members of Congress.
The question was posed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee chairman and one of seven House Democratic managers of the impeachment case. He asked whether Trump might have requested FBI investigations into the Bidens, lawmakers or former national security adviser John Bolton — who is due out with a book next month said to undercut a key Trump defense — as possible payback for impeachment.
Wray initially said: “I have assured the Congress, and I can assure the Congress today, that the FBI will only open investigations based on the facts, and the law and proper predication.”
After Nadler said he assumed that answer meant that neither Trump nor Barr nor other administration officials had requested improper political investigations, Wray tried again: “No one has asked me to open an investigation based on anything other than facts, the law and proper predication.”
Trump has sought, without evidence, to implicate the Bidens in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father, as vice president, was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Ukraine. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.
Wray’s appearance was his first since a Justice Department inspector general report that sharply criticized the FBI’s surveillance of former Trump campaign aide national security Carter Page. The errors produced rare bipartisan calls for changes to the federal government’s surveillance powers.
The report identified what it said were significant errors in applications to eavesdrop on Page, including omitting critical information that cut against the FBI’s original premise that Page was a Russian agent — something he has repeatedly denied.
After the report was issued, Wray told The Associated Press that the mistakes were “unacceptable and unrepresentative of who we are as an institution.”
The then-chief judge of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes wiretapping of subjects on American soil in espionage, terrorism and other national security investigations, responded to the report with an extraordinary public rebuke of the FBI and demanded that it report back on what it was doing to fix the problems.
The FBI has laid out a series of changes designed to ensure warrant applications are more closely scrutinized before being submitted for a judge’s approval and that they contain accurate information about the reliability and potential bias of sources whom agents rely on. The Justice Department has also said that the surveillance of Page should have ended before it did.
Wray bristled at the suggestion from some Republican lawmakers that he did not take criticism from the report seriously enough.
“I’ve been a prosecutor. I’ve been a defense attorney, I’ve been an assistant attorney general, I’ve been an FBI director,” Wray said. “To me, candor to the court is sacrosanct, and I don’t think there’s anybody in the FBI who’s belaboring under the misimpression that I think it’s OK to mislead the court.”