Two Iranians charged with spreading election disinformation, threatening people to vote for Trump


FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a news conference over ransomware cyberattack at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC on November 8, 2021.

Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

A federal grand jury in New York indicted two Iranian nationals on charges related to a cyber-based disinformation effort to intimidate and influence U.S. voters in order to benefit the presidential reelection campaign of Donald Trump last year.

“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” said one threatening email sent to tens of thousands of Democratic voters, according to prosecutors.

The emails purported to be sent from the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group in the United States that supported Trump during the election.

Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi, 24, and Sajjad Kashian, 27, are charged in a five-count indictment with conspiracy to commit fraud against the United States, computer fraud, voter intimidation, and transmission of interstate threats.

The Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program on Thursday offered a reward of up to $10 million for information about the men, who are not in custody.

The two “experienced Iran-based hackers” worked for a cybersecurity company now known as Emennet Pasargad, which provided services to the Iranian government, the Department of Justice said.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on that company, both defendants and four other Iranian nationals who comprise the company’s leadership.

The two men are accused of obtaining confidential voter information from at least one state’s election website, getting data on more than 100,000 voters. The state was not identified.

They are also accused of sending intimidating emails to voters and disseminating a video that contained disinformation about purported vulnerabilities in the election infrastructure, according to the Justice Department.

Prosecutors said the duo also gained unauthorized access to a U.S. media company’s computer network as part of their effort. That company was not identified.

“If not for successful FBI and victim company efforts to mitigate [that intrusion, it] would have provided the conspirators another vehicle to disseminate false claims after the election,” the Department of Justice said.

The indictment says that members of the conspiracy in October 2020 sent “Facebook messages and emails … to Republican Senators, Republican members of Congress, individuals associated with the Presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, White House advisors, and members of the media, falsely claiming that the Democratic Party was planning to exploit ‘serious security vulnerabilities’ in state voter registration websites to ‘edit mail-in ballots or even register non-existent voters.'”

“In the False Election Messages, the members of the conspiracy claimed to be a ‘group of Proud Boys volunteers,'” the indictment says.

The indictment appears to undercut claims from leading intelligence officials in the Trump administration, who said in 2020 that Iran was opposed to Trump’s reelection.

The indictment, filed in federal district court in Manhattan, “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,” said Matthew Olsen, an assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s National Security Division, in the press release.

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According to prosecutors, the men told voters in emails, “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,” the email went on to say. “We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”

Just a few weeks before the 2020 election, John Ratcliffe, Trump’s final director of national intelligence, scheduled a news conference with little warning to declare that Iran was sending “spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage” Trump.

Shortly before that news conference was arranged, The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had warned state and local elections officials about a foreign government’s efforts to send threatening emails to Democratic voters while posing as members of the Proud Boys.

Ratcliffe did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the indictment.


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