WASHINGTON — When the nation’s top intelligence officials last spoke publicly together, in January of last year, they said that foreign adversaries were eyeing the 2020 elections as an opportunity to launch ‘‘online influence operations’’ that seek to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions and influence public opinion in the United States.
Now, the storm that the officials forecast in their annual 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment is bearing down on the final phase of the presidential campaign, according to US officials and experts.
At least three countries — Russia, China, and Iran — have taken aim at the campaigns themselves and tried to stir the passions of voters, with a mix of covert ‘‘information laundering’’ and some ham-handed propaganda.
Russia may pose the most direct challenge to this year’s election. Officials and experts also say it has reprised its 2016 seeding of social media with misleading content and is trying to amplify stories in the US press that cast former vice president Joe Biden in a negative light, officials and experts say.
An exhaustive bipartisan Senate report issued Tuesday revealed in disturbing detail the extensive web of contacts between Kremlin operatives and Trump campaign members in 2016 as Moscow attempted to sway the election in Trump’s favor, and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed the hack-and-leak campaign aimed at damaging Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Russia may not have to work as hard this time to undermine voter confidence. On a near-daily basis, President Trump asserts, falsely, that mail-in voting is rife with fraud and insists that if he loses it will be the result of unprecedented corruption.
In a recent broadside, Trump said he opposes election aid for states and an emergency bailout for the US Postal Service because he wants to restrict how many Americans can vote by mail.
A senior intelligence official said this week that his concern is potential interference efforts after Election Day when a surge in mail-in voting delays a final outcome. ‘‘We need to prepare as a nation that the election will not be decided on Nov. 3,’’ William Evanina, the top counterintelligence official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), said during an online session sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce.
‘‘I’m frankly more concerned about domestic players this time around,’’ said Bret Schafer, who studies disinformation at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
ODNI has spoken to lawmakers and the campaigns on the landscape of threats and has provided nearly 20 classified briefings.
Officials familiar with the intelligence said that many of the techniques are familiar. But the persistence and pervasiveness of the foreign efforts is alarming, the officials said.
‘‘The warning lights are flashing red. America’s elections are under attack,’’ Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, wrote in a Washington Post editorial earlier this month.
On Aug. 7, Evanina publicly stated for the first time that Russia was using ‘‘a range of measures to primarily denigrate former vice president Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ ” China, meanwhile, wants ‘‘to shape the policy environment in the United States,’’ Evanina said, and has deployed more-rhetorical methods. China would prefer that Trump lose in November, finding him ‘‘unpredictable,’’ Evanina said. But the country hasn’t actively taken a side in the race.
Evanina described Iran’s efforts as undermining democratic institutions and Trump, but they appear aspirational compared to those of Russia and China. Iranian and Chinese hackers have attempted to penetrate the Gmail accounts of staffers for the Trump and Biden campaign, but there were no indications they were successful, Google announced in June. And it’s not clear that the efforts were preludes to a release of e-mails aimed at disrupting the campaign, as happened in 2016.