Florida lawmakers briefed on foreign election interference

It was the first publicly known time Florida lawmakers were briefed on foreign interference since U.S. intelligence officials concluded last week that Iran and Russia had taken specific efforts to influence the election.
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando.
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Oct. 30, 2020

In a classified briefing Friday, several Florida members of Congress were provided information about all known efforts of foreign interference in the 2020 election in Florida.

It was the first publicly known time Florida lawmakers were briefed on the matter since U.S. intelligence officials concluded last week that Iran and Russia had taken specific efforts to influence the election, including through hundreds of threatening emails sent to Florida voters earlier this month.

Lawmakers who attended the briefing — including U.S. Reps. Michael Waltz, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala — did not divulge details discussed at the classified briefing.

The briefing, led by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, took place remotely in different secure locations across the state. It covered all known forms of attacks and disinformation campaigns in Florida tied to foreign governments, according to a person familiar with the briefing who was not allowed to speak publicly about it.

“The public servants that work for the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, they care and they understand the threat to our democracy, and I know they are working hard,” Murphy said at a news conference in Orlando following the briefing.

Soto, a Central Florida Democrat, said after the briefing that he continues to have a “high degree of confidence about the accuracy of Florida’s election” and that federal law enforcement will inform the public about foreign interference efforts.

Murphy and Waltz, a Northeast Florida Republican, asked the FBI to brief the Florida congressional delegation after U.S. intelligence officials said last week that Iran and Russia had taken steps to influence the 2020 election, including in Florida.

The office of the Director of National Security John Ratcliffe initially turned down the request, citing a lack of “bandwidth prior to the election.” But on Tuesday, the office reversed course, and agreed to brief lawmakers on Friday morning.

“It was initially denied, but they came around and we were glad to be able to get a little bit of time to get additional details about what exactly happened — at a classified level,” Murphy said.

In Florida, hundreds of menacing emails were sent to voters in at least six Florida counties from a sender purported to be affiliated with the Proud Boys, a far-right pro-Trump group that denied involvement. The emails warned recipients to vote for Trump “or we will come after you.”

Ratcliffe has attributed the emails to Iran, though a spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nation has denied Tehran’s involvement. The spoofed emails were “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump,” Ratcliffe said.

The assertion immediately raised suspicions among Democrats, who criticized Ratcliffe for politicizing the intelligence community to “carry water for the president.” POLITICO reported this week that Ratcliffe went off script when he alleged the intimidating emails were meant to damage the president’s re-election bid.

Soto and Murphy were not asked and did not comment on Ratcliffe’s claims during the news conference Friday.

This election year, Florida lawmakers have also been concerned about Spanish-speaking residents in Florida being exposed to a barrage of deceptive claims and disinformation in social media and private messaging groups in Whatsapp.

Mucarsel-Powell, a Miami Democrat who attended Friday’s briefing, last month asked the FBI for a briefing on what she described as a “surge in posts containing false or misleading information on social media.” The FBI turned down her request for a briefing, telling her in an Oct. 15 letter that it was “not in a position to provide a briefing at this time.”

The FBI, however, noted in the letter that “foreign actors and cyber criminals have been and continue to spread false and inconsistent information through various online platforms in an attempt to manipulate public opinion, discredit the electoral process, and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”

“As in 2016 and 2018, we know that these adversaries are actively trying to influence electoral processes and outcomes of the 2020 election,” the FBI wrote in the letter.

At the press conference on Friday, Soto said he believes the country is better prepared to handle foreign interference efforts than it was four years ago.

He pointed to social media companies taking a stricter approach to political advertisements, federal law enforcement getting better at identifying threats and communicating the problem to the public, and media outlets getting better at sniffing out “propaganda efforts of foreign nations.”

“I think in all those four areas, America has learned and we have great confidence in our election security and the knowledge of the public,” Soto said.

In 2016, none of Florida’s federal elected officials were able to disclose which two counties saw their election systems penetrated by a Russian spear-phishing attack, and were angry that the FBI withheld the information when Florida voters were the victims.

Then, in 2019, Sen. Rick Scott and Florida’s 27 House members received classified briefings from the FBI. The FBI did not allow lawmakers to say which two counties were breached, and were unable to provide lawmakers with the names of other Florida counties that were victims of attempted but unsuccessful breaches, even in a classified setting.

The names of the counties, St. Lucie and Washington, were eventually made public in media reports.

Ceballos reported from the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Bureau in Tallahassee, and Daugherty reported from the McClatchy Bureau in Washington, D.C.

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