U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner was targeted by an online disinformation operation designed to support Iranian political interests, according to a report from a cybersecurity firm. The senator says he was warned by the FBI months ago that it could happen.

In mid-February, social media companies took action against 11 Facebook and Instagram accounts, along with nearly 40 on Twitter, that are believed to have been part of the pro-Iranian operation. Last year, the network of accounts was caught impersonating Republican candidates on social media.

At least one account posing as an American within the disinformation operation replied to an October 2019 tweet from Gardner, telling him to impeach President Donald Trump. Another account in the network then posted a video of anti-Gardner Twitter replies, falsely inflating the extent of online opposition to the senator, according to a Feb. 12 report from the cybersecurity company FireEye.

“They have aimed messaging at various influential individuals based on those individuals’ stances toward matters that are relevant to Iranian interests,” said a FireEye spokesperson.

FireEye stopped short of claiming impersonators worked for or in coordination with the Iranian government but said the accounts sent “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and anti-Trump messaging” that can be linked to Iran “based on both promoted narratives and limited technical indicators.” In some cases, the accounts made personal posts in Persian years before adopting American personas and posting political messages in English.

Gardner, a Yuma Republican, is a frequent critic of Iranian leaders. He opposed former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and supported the killing of Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian military leader, earlier this year. The impersonator network frequently focused on those two topics, according to FireEye analysts, cheering the nuclear deal and criticizing Soleimani’s killing.

“I had been briefed by the FBI that we would be the target of foreign interference, not only over Iran but China as well,” Gardner said in an interview Friday. “So, this report is the smoking gun that that’s actually happened.”

Gardner said he and other members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee were told by the FBI several months ago that some members of the committee would likely be targets of foreign interference. He said the FireEye report shows social media companies need to remain vigilant and transparent.

“I’ve been very hard on the radical leadership of Iran and have stood up against them. They, obviously, believe they want to manipulate people to try to interfere with the election for their purposes, because they may want somebody else in this (Senate) seat who’s not as tough on Iran,” said Gardner, who is running for re-election this year. FireEye’s report does not allege Iranians tried to shift the results of upcoming elections.

Last year, FireEye determined the pro-Iranian disinformation network impersonated congressional candidates, published letters to the editor in American newspapers, and posed as journalists to interview American officials, activists and citizens. In 2018, FireEye found Iranians likely used a network of inauthentic news websites and social media accounts to promote Iranian political narratives online.

“Ultimately, what Iran, Russia and China are trying to do is reduce the trust in our institutions and the integrity of our elections,” Gardner said of disinformation efforts. “I have always said this is something I take seriously. I’ve acted against Russia appropriately and have taken a number of steps against Iran.”

Source » denverpost