FORT MEADE, Md. – Russia’s war in Ukraine and anti-regime protests in Iran limited both Moscow and Tehran’s ability to try to influence or interfere in the recent U.S. midterm elections, a senior American military official said Monday.
U.S. agencies were on high alert before November’s vote for potential cyberattacks or foreign influence operations, particularly after adversaries were judged by intelligence agencies to have meddled in the last two presidential elections. But there was little sign of disruption in the midterms.
“I was surprised by the lack of activity we saw from the Russians, the Iranians, or the Chinese,” said Army Maj. Gen. William Hartman, who leads the U.S. Cyber National Mission Force, which partners with the National Security Agency in detecting and stopping election intrusions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been mired in a prolonged war with tens of thousands of casualties since he ordered an invasion of Ukraine in February. And Iran’s leaders are waging a bloody crackdown against street protests sparked by the September death of a 22-year-old woman, in one of the largest sustained challenges to their power since the 1979 revolution.
Hartman noted that Russia’s domestic, military, and foreign intelligence services are expending more resources than previously expected on Ukraine, which has put up greater resistance than many in Moscow or Washington expected.
Though on an apparently lesser scale than in recent elections, all three countries have been linked by the U.S. to alleged influence efforts this year.
The FBI in October warned that an Iran-linked cyber group was considering so-called “hack-and-leak” operations to publish and amplify stolen data. The Justice Department in March charged five men with surveilling and harassing Chinese dissidents, including a little-known congressional candidate.
And Russia, which was accused by U.S. intelligence of trying to support Donald Trump’s presidential bids in 2016 and 2020, was alleged to be seeking to amplify doubts about the integrity of the election.
Hartman met with reporters after a ceremony establishing the Cyber National Mission Force as a sub-unified command. The designation establishes the mission force, created in 2012 under U.S. Cyber Command, as a permanent entity that can set higher standards for hiring and development for technological expertise in the military, he said.
The model he and other proponents of growing military programs on cyber have suggested is akin to U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees special forces responsible for high-profile U.S. successes like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“We really want to build the JSOC of Cyber Command,” Hartman said.
The mission force is tasked with several signature priorities of the head of U.S. Cyber Command, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who also leads the National Security Agency and is expected to leave both roles next year.
Among the force’s work is its “hunt forward” missions in which military cyber experts go to ally and partner countries to check their networks for intrusions or vulnerabilities. Several dozen U.S. personnel were in Ukraine for months before the larger war began, leaving just before Putin’s invasion.
The force also takes on an election defense role working with the NSA, which spies on electronic communications and is believed to be the nation’s largest intelligence agency.
Hartman declined to say whether members of his force took down or deterred any foreign influence activities this year.