EXCLUSIVE: 'Quarterback' of Election Day intel effort reveals more countries seeking to influence American voters

The official who is leading America’s election security effort for all U.S. intelligence agencies vowed in a rare interview that he would resign if asked to manipulate intelligence in order to mislead voters.


The official who is leading America’s election security effort for all U.S. intelligence agencies vowed in a rare interview that he would resign if asked to manipulate intelligence in order to mislead voters less than a month before the presidential election.

Bill Evanina, who leads the election security efforts for America’s intelligence agencies, grants a rare interview to Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert.
Bill Evanina, who leads the election security efforts for America’s intelligence agencies, grants a rare interview to Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert.

Bill Evanina, the Senate-confirmed director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit, “If I believed it to be not true or not worth the value, absolutely I would quit that day.” He said he had, so far, not been told by a political appointee or the White House to withhold intelligence or change a finding. Evanina’s boss is Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a former congressman and staunch defender of President Donald Trump. Democrats and former national security officials have accused Ratcliffe of politicizing intelligence, a traditionally non-partisan domain.

Evanina, a CIA and FBI veteran, called himself the “quarterback” between the intelligence community and other federal agencies on election security, a topic he referred to as the “most important” since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Just like two decades ago, a significant, ever-expanding threat is also from abroad, the intelligence agencies have warned, and Evanina revealed a list of countries – beyond his prior public statements about Russia, China, and Iran interfering in America’s election – that he says are seeking to influence American voters, including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Cuba and Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are U.S. allies, a diplomatic status traditionally meant to strengthen American democracy and security – not undermine it.

During the more than hour-long sit-down interview inside the Kiplinger Research Library at the D.C. History Center, Evanina made a distinction between interference, such as cyber activity and hacks, and influence, which he said “is the mind of the voter.”

“We probably have 30 countries out there wanting to play in the influence game,” Evanina said.

Russian ‘wants to destroy democracy’

Evanina said U.S. intelligence has assessed Russia “wants to sow discord and wants to destroy democracy,” while China does not seek the same goal. However, “China needs America long-term to succeed as, I would say, a parasitic entity to be the global leader of the world. They need our economy. They want to influence all aspects of policy, not just germane to the presidential election. So, it’s a little bit different,” he explained.

Since its 2016 interference, “we've seen Russia change its tactics and procedures,” Evanina said. “The change is that the Russians are no longer using their own mostly proxies and bots and troll farms because they got caught. They're now taking U.S. citizens’ information and they are taking and amplifying it.”

Presented with a series of tweets from President Trump — his boss’s boss — that make false claims about the election and mail-in balloting which could be used in that exact way by a foreign country to sow discord and divisiveness among the American public, Evanina responded: "If they see a reference made by the president of the United States, a prominent U.S. senator, a business person, someone who America looks at as a voice of reason, and they believe it suits their interests, they will amplify that by a thousand to make sure that the most amount of people see it.”

READ: full transcript of two interviews with Bill Evanina

    Volume three of a bipartisan report from the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee into election interference released in February made a similar conclusion. It found that statements by elected leaders calling into question the “validity of an upcoming election” can have “significant national security and electoral consequences, including limiting the response options of the appropriate authorities.”


    Top threat to election

    In two interviews this week, including one on the National Mall steps from the U.S. Capitol the same afternoon a congressional hearing on combating misinformation in the election was underway, Evanina sought to stress the importance of public confidence in the election results and he discouraged attempts to undermine it — not just before Nov. 3, but after Election Day, as well.

    In fact, he identified loss of confidence in the electoral result as the “number one” threat to the election.

    “We look at what the Russians did in Ukraine 2014, changing their election results from the state to the cable news stations. Everything that touches the Internet is vulnerable. And we have to make sure that we are on top of that before we get to Nov. 3rd,” he said.

    Evanina is offering a final election security briefing to both presidential campaigns and the two major national parties later this month. He says he created the briefings, conducted jointly with several national security agencies, for this election cycle after the confusion during the 2016 campaign and as the threat from abroad evolved over the past four years.

    About a week ago, Evanina said the intelligence community presented all members of Congress a “very classified” document on election security – although not during an all-member, in-person briefing, a practice which DNI Ratcliffe ended in August over stated concerns about intelligence leaks. After the change generated anger from some lawmakers Ratcliffe announced a partial reversal, resuming in-person election security briefings for congressional leaders only.

    Attempts made to penetrate 2020 campaigns

    Four years ago today, Wikileaks began releasing thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democratic National Committee leaders, a leak the Mueller Report later attributed to the Russian government.

    According to U.S. intelligence, Russia is trying yet again.

    Evanina would only confirm that all three countries identified in the NCSC’s public statements – Russia, China, and Iran – have made attempts to penetrate the major campaigns and candidates this year, but he would not disclose whether those digital attempts this year were successful – only that the sheer number of attempts has soared.

    Intelligence agencies plan to brief both campaigns for a final time on election security threats later this month
    Intelligence agencies plan to brief both campaigns for a final time on election security threats later this month.

    "The attempt to gain personally identifiable information from candidates, from campaigns and prominent Americans is a big increase from 2016,” Evanina said.

    Both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, Evanina said, have taken the 2020 threat “very seriously” and have taken “mitigation aspects that I think are above and beyond that which we expected them to do. I think they’ve listened very well.”

    Unlike in 2016, when foreign actors made scans of election infrastructure in all 50 states and reportedly penetrated several jurisdictions, Evanina says the same activity has not been detected this year, and he has seen no intelligence that any foreign actor has placed malware on any election infrastructure in 2020.

    Social media partnerships

    Evanina said the U.S. intelligence community’s partnership with social media companies “to protect our democracy” has been “steadfast” in 2020.

    When asked how recently an agency has asked a social media company to take down accounts or posts associated with a foreign nation state trying to manipulate election-related content and where social media companies took swift action, Evanina replied, “last week.” He would not disclose details.

    At the same time, Evanina did label as “problematic” for intelligence-gathering efforts the ability on some social media platforms to have encrypted conversations that make it extremely difficult, by design, for anyone to eavesdrop on communications, a years-long debate involving First Amendment and cyber security concerns with no resolution.

    “It's no longer spy-versus-spy. These venues are all used by intelligence services around the world to garner influence and recruit,” Evanina said. “It just shows the vulnerability, as Americans of Western society, that we have.”

    “Our best part of our society — democracy — is a humungous vulnerability.”

      • WATCH: full interview with Bill Evanina, conducted Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2020

      Mark Albert is the chief national investigative correspondent for the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit, based in Washington D.C. April Chunko, David Postovit, Travis Sherwin, Nina Lee & Kevin Rothstein contributed to this report.

      Know of election security threats? Have a confidential tip or inside information? Send information and documents to the National Investigative Unit at


      -Pt 1: Gaps in Preparedness
      -Pt 2: White House Response
      -Pt 3: Voting Vulnerabilities

      >San Francisco Chronicle (print) version

      >DIGITAL EXTRA: Kid Hackers
      -Pt 4: Cyber Combat

      -Pt 5: Election Security Summit (Day 1; Day 2)

      -Pt. 6: Troll Hunters

      -SPECIAL: Election Security 30-minute Special

      -Pt. 7: Paper Ballots

      -Pt. 8: Lack of Funds

      -Pt. 9: Operation Blackout

      -Pt. 10: Digital Disinformation

      -Pt. 11: Voting App Hack

      -Pt. 12: Deleting the Deception

      -Pt. 13: Spotting the Spin

      -Pt. 14: 2020 Election Summit

      -Pt. 15: Election Exposure

      -Pt. 16: Election Exposure Checkup

      -Pt. 17: Return to Sender