Iran was behind a threatening email sent to Democratic voters that purported to be from the white supremacist group Proud Boys, Department of Homeland Security officials told The Washington Post Wednesday.
News of the email, which advised registered Democrats in several states to “Vote for Trump or else,” surfaced Tuesday. A queer Floridian had alerted the state’s largest LGBTQ+ rights group, Equality Florida, which called for a federal investigation of the matter. The email included a threat to “come after” recipients if they did not vote for Donald Trump’s reelection, although ballots are secret, so there is no way the sender could know how a given person voted.
DHS staffers, speaking to the Post on condition of anonymity, said officials in the department talked with state and local election administrations about the matter Wednesday. The Iranian senders took advantage of the fact that the company hosting the Proud Boys’ official website had recently dropped the group, so hackers could use the domain name to send emails, according to DHS.
“Without a secure host, the domain stood vulnerable to exploitation, cybersecurity experts said. Voters using Comcast, Yahoo and Gmail accounts were affected,” the Post notes.
In addition to Florida, voters reported receiving the email in Alaska, and there was at least one report of it in Pennsylvania and one in Arizona. Florida, Pennsylvania, and Arizona are all considered swing states in the presidential election, while Alaska usually goes Republican.
The Post’s article came out shortly before the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of national intelligence held a press conference on threats to election security from Iran and Russia. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe talked about “spoofed emails” from Iran that are “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” NBC News reports.
He did not specifically mention the email citing Proud Boys, but he said the public may have seen news coverage of the message, so it was clearly what he meant. He “did not explain how the emails were damaging to Trump, because they were urging Democrats to switch to the Republican Party,” NBC notes.
The Proud Boys group is known for its support of Trump, who during the first presidential debate refused to denounce white supremacists and even sent an encouraging message to the organization, saying, “Stand back and stand by.”
Ratcliffe continued, “Additionally, Iran is distributing other content to include a video that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots even from overseas.” Iran and Russia, he said, have separately obtained some U.S. voter registration information. No action has been seen from Russia, however.
After Ratcliffe spoke, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the reporters in attendance, “We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.”
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray continued. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.” He advised voters to be “discerning consumers” of information and report any suspected criminal activity.
Ratcliffe and Wray did not take questions from journalists.