Authorities 'concerned' about potential threats ahead of New Hampshire primary

BySasha Pezenik, Aaron Katersky, and Josh Margolin ABCNews logo
Sunday, January 21, 2024
Potential threats loom over start of presidential election
Ahead of the New Hampshire primary Thursday, authorities are already mapping out potential threats to its election.

CONCORD, N.H. -- Before the first ballot is cast in New Hampshire's presidential primary, authorities are already mapping out potential threats to its election - and strategizing how to stop them, according to a new assessment by the New Hampshire Information and Analysis Center (NHIAC).

The confidential analysis, distributed to law enforcement on Jan. 17 and obtained by ABC News, describes an array of possible plots by those who might seek to disturb the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday.

The document notes there is "no information to indicate any specific, credible threat." But it underscores that this should not lull law enforcement and government officials into disregarding potential risks - and the grave importance of vigorously troubleshooting would-be attacks in advance.

"The NHIAC remains concerned about threats posed by foreign terrorist organizations, racially motivated violent extremists, domestic violent extremists, homegrown violent extremists, and other nation-state or criminal actors looking to disrupt the US elections," the bulletin said.

"Numerous attacks and disrupted plots in recent years demonstrate the continued interest" of foreign and domestic extremists to prey on "mass gatherings and other soft targets," including "symbolic events," the bulletin said. Few political events are more symbolic than the first primary. And, officials warn, that there are those who "have the ability to disrupt, suppress, or discourage voters from participating" in New Hampshire.

The new analysis comes at the start of the high-stakes presidential election season and during a time of heightened threats of almost every type.

"The 2024 election cycle is occurring at a time when the US is facing one of the most volatile and dangerous threat environments it's faced since Sept. 11," said John Cohen, the former intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now an ABC News contributor. "In today's threat environment, the lack of credible information regarding a specific plot or attack does not mean the threat is not out there. We know the threat is there."

A powder keg global environment looms over the 2024 presidential primary, experts say. The 2024 election was already going to be the first presidential race since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. It is also marked by increasingly toxic political rhetoric, the intermingling of the courtroom and campaign trail as former President Donald Trump faces four criminal trials, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. In addition, hate speech, misinformation and disinformation are running rampant on social media, and rapidly evolving technology remains vulnerable, experts say.

These circumstances present ripe opportunities for adversarial countries who have "aimed to influence US elections in the past by undermining public confidence in the electoral process and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions," the New Hampshire analysis said.

"The current threat environment rests on the foundation of anger, the polarization that has become all too pervasive in our society. And pervasive in our political discourse as well," Cohen said. "Election officials need to be prepared to counteract if something occurs - but you can't wait 'til it happens."

Some state election officials, including Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, have already been the victim of "swatting" incidents -- false reports of an ongoing emergency or threat to prompt an immediate tactical law enforcement response, intended to cause fear and harass -- as well as death threats and other harassment.

Public events - especially contentious political ones - offer a "convenient target for anyone already considering violence, or a way to express their grievance, or to disrupt things," said Elizabeth Neumann, former DHS assistant secretary and an ABC News contributor. "So, we need our law enforcement to be as agile as possible."

The New Hampshire analysis outlines potential threats from foreign "cyber operations" to "covert influence operations" targeting election security, political parties, campaigns or public officials, the analysis said. Advancing and increasingly "hyper-realistic" artificial intelligence is an "expected" tool to "spread false narratives and influence public perception."

The bulletin also includes a detailed list of "potential threat indicators" that could signal "pre-operational surveillance or attack planning" that law enforcement officials should be on the lookout for - like suspicious and "unattended" luggage that could conceal explosives, an "increase in social media traffic discussing event vulnerabilities" as well as "loss of power at event locations, creating an inability to hold voting."

State and local election websites, email addresses and social media platforms are "among the top election vulnerable platforms," according to the bulletin, with phishing schemes and other efforts enabling malicious access to networks and servers "which can negatively impact elections and/or election infrastructure."

New Hampshire holds voting "through secure, non-electronic, means," the bulletin notes: voting is conducted "through paper ballots, counted by offline machines and are then transported to the Secretary of State's Office, via the New Hampshire State Police."

Record turnout is predicted in New Hampshire's Republican primary, the state's secretary of state, David Scanlan, predicted Friday.

The dynamic threat landscape underscores the significance of robust analyses like these, Cohen said: it offers a "roadmap" for how authorities work "to ensure that the election is safe and secure, and the public is safe and secure."

In fact, the analysis includes a literal map of New Hampshire's polling locations.

New Hampshire public safety officials have been going over contingency plans for the primary with their secretary of state's office, Tyler Dumont, spokesperson for New Hampshire's Department of Safety told ABC News. He added they're continually mindful of what's happening in other states and around the globe - to do everything they can to prepare for anything.

"As with all large-scale events in the state, we are working with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to ensure preparedness for any potential emergency situation," Dumont said. "Our members are committed to ensuring all citizens can vote safely on Tuesday."

"The threat seems daunting, but it's less daunting if you have a plan," Cohen said. "And we're beginning to see that planning taking place."