That could include direct attacks on US election infrastructure, the sources said, among a wide range of options.
The sources said there was no evidence that Putin made a decision to interfere in the upcoming elections or that he favored the candidates. Nor will attempts to hack into the voting infrastructure be easy, because voting systems in the United States are pervasive and decentralized.
But while Putin was previously less willing to attempt to directly interfere with state voting systems — opting instead to order clearing of voter registration databases and conduct influence campaigns to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections — intelligence officials believe Putin may be ready now. to go further than in previous intervention efforts.
“As we apply pressure and as Ukraine exerts pressure, he will certainly expand the options he may consider,” said a source familiar with the intelligence community’s assessments. “So what could he do? I don’t think there was any real conclusion to that. Just looking at a wide range of things.”
Another source familiar with the intelligence said one option might be to “directly attack election infrastructure,” reflecting “a change in Putin’s risk tolerance, as we saw with his invasion of Ukraine.”
A US official made it clear that the assessments were not based on direct intelligence.
“We don’t have any direct intelligence that Russia is looking to target state or local systems or elections more directly than before, but we certainly anticipate the possibility. We will continue to share any intelligence about the growing threats with government and local officials,” the official told CNN.
Putin is more willing to take risks
Sources familiar with internal deliberations told CNN that the intelligence community has made understanding Putin’s mindset a priority since early in the invasion. Initial assessments pointed to his increasingly unpredictable behavior, and US officials believe Putin is more willing to consider the risk because of his anger over Russia’s failures in Ukraine — something his advisers have done, which officials say they have not told him the full truth. Don’t prepare for it.
Intelligence officials briefed lawmakers last week on Putin’s accounts of potential influence operations, according to another US official familiar with the briefing.
The briefing acknowledged that if Putin shifts his focus to doing mischief outside Ukraine, the US midterm elections this year represent a potential target for Russian agents, according to the US official. Russian actors also tried to influence the 2016 and 2020 elections.
The briefing did not mention specific intelligence that the Kremlin will target US elections, according to the official, but rather that the election is one of several areas the Russian government could target for influence operations in response to the war in Ukraine.
“If Putin feels cornered, he could turn his cyber forces in any number of directions,” the US official said, adding that officials are on high alert given the US midterm elections this year.
While it would be difficult for Russia to tamper with voter statistics, another source noted that Russia would not need to change many, if any, votes “to question the security of the entire voting institution.”
Another source said that even if Russian hacking efforts did not affect the outcome at all, spreading chaos and distrust of voting systems might be enough to achieve victory.
When asked about the assessments, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
“Our Election Threats Executive continues to lead the intelligence community’s efforts against external threats to the U.S. election,” ODNI spokesman Nicole DeHae said in a statement to CNN.
Elections are not the only goal Russia can consider. The US government has begun to warn that Russia may attempt to attack critical US infrastructure, and has urged private owners and operators to prepare.
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