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US charges two Iranians over campaign to influence 2020 election

The US Treasury Department also announced sanctions on the Iranians and an Iran-based company for their role in the alleged influence campaign.
Empty voting booths are seen in Flint, Michigan at the Berston Fieldhouse polling place on Nov. 3, 2020.

The United States sanctioned six Iranians and one Iranian cyber company on Thursday for attempting to sow discord ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, as the Department of Justice announced it had indicted two of the Iranians for their alleged involvement. 

Between August and November 2020, a group of state-sponsored Iranian cyber actors obtained or attempted to obtain voter information from 11 state election websites, according to a five-count indictment unsealed in a New York federal court. Prosecutors accused Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi, 24, and Sajjad Kashian, 27, of participation in the cyber campaign, which included successfully hacking the computer system of an unidentified US state and downloading data on more than 100,000 of that state’s voters.  

They also sent thousands of emails purporting to be from the white nationalist Proud Boys group to registered Democrats threatening physical harm if they did not switch parties and vote for then-President Donald Trump, prosecutors said. 

The emails, which included the recipients’ names and addresses, read in part: “We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone ... everything). ... You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. ... I would take this seriously if I were you.”  

According to court documents, Kazemi and Kashian also posed as Proud Boys volunteers in emails to Republican members of Congress, Trump campaign staff, White House advisers and members of the media. Their emails claimed Democrats were planning to exploit “serious security vulnerabilities” in state voting sites to “edit mail-in ballots or even register nonexistent voters.”

The day after the election, the defendants also allegedly tried unsuccessfully to use stolen credentials to gain access to the network of an unidentified media company, which had been tipped off by the FBI. Prosecutors also say they "created and disseminated a video containing disinformation about purported election infrastructure vulnerabilities."

“This indictment details how two Iran-based actors waged a targeted, coordinated campaign to erode confidence in the integrity of the US electoral system and to sow discord among Americans,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

“The allegations illustrate how foreign disinformation campaigns operate and seek to influence the American public,” he added.

Also on Thursday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Iranian cyber company Emennet Pasargad and its manager, Mohammad Bagher Shirinka, for leading the attempted influence campaign. The Treasury also designated five Iranian nationals who allegedly took part, including Kazemi and Kashian, who the Justice Department described as "experienced Iran-based computer hackers" working as contractors for Emennet.

“By taking this action, the US government demonstrates that we will hold state-sponsored actors to account for attempting to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and US institutions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Thursday. 

The State Department announced it is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information on Kazemi and Kashian’s activities.

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