The Justice Department announced charges Thursday against two Iranians who are accused of helping to orchestrate a cyber-enabled campaign to intimidate and influence American voters in the 2020 election.
The campaign, which U.S. intelligence officials first described in October 2020, involved emails to tens of thousands of registered voters purporting to be from the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys. The emails threatened the recipients with physical injury unless they switched parties and voted for President Donald Trump.
The indictment, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the two Iranian defendants tried to compromise voter registration websites in 11 states “to create the appearance that election results could not be trusted” by misrepresenting that the election web sites could accept fraudulent ballots, a senior Justice Department official told reporters on a conference call.
One attempt was successful, prosecutors say, and the pair got information about more than 100,000 voters. The targeted state wasn’t identified.
The defendants were identified as Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian. The State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information about their activities, officials said.
The pair is also charged with creating and disseminating a video containing “disinformation about purported election infrastructure vulnerabilities” and with hacking into an unnamed U.S. media company’s computer network, an attack that was thwarted before any false claims could be sent.
The campaign didn’t work — no voter registrations were changed, officials said.
“This indictment details how two Iran-based actors waged a targeted, coordinated campaign to erode confidence in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system and to sow discord among Americans,” said Matthew G. Olsen, the assistant attorney general for national security. “The allegations illustrate how foreign disinformation campaigns operate and seek to influence the American public. The department is committed to exposing and disrupting malign foreign influence efforts using all available tools, including criminal charges.”
The Iranians aren’t in custody, but the charges and the sanctions will hamper their travel.
The indictment doesn’t attribute the campaign to the Iranian government, but intelligence officials have done so publicly.
The Justice Department identified Kazemi and Kashian as “experienced Iran-based computer hackers who worked as contractors for an Iran-based company formerly known as Eeleyanet Gostar, and now known as Emennet Pasargad.”
Eeleyanet Gostar is known to have provided services to the Iranian government, the Justice Department said in a news release.
Kazemi and Kashian are both charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse, intimidate voters and transmit interstate threats, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; one count of voter intimidation, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison; and one count of transmission of interstate threats, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Kazemi is also charged with one count of unauthorized computer intrusion, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and one count of knowingly damaging a protected computer, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The Justice Department statement said the Treasury Department separately imposed sanctions on Emennet Pasargad, Kazemi, Kashian and four other Iranian nationals who lead Emennet Pasargad.
Ken Dilanian is a correspondent covering intelligence and national security for the NBC News Investigative Unit.