Russian Threat To U.S. Elections To Persist Through 2018, Intel Boss Warns Congress


Russian influence operations in the United States will continue through this year’s midterm elections and beyond, the nation’s top spy warned Congress on Tuesday.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate intelligence committee that Moscow viewed its attack on the 2016 election as decidedly worthwhile given the chaos it has sown as compared to its relatively low cost.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations,” Coats said.

The top intelligence officials in America were on Capitol Hill Tuesday because the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence convened its annual hearing on “worldwide threats.”

The hearing takes place every year, but this year’s installment takes place amid an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into whether President Trump’s campaign might have conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election.

It also followed reports about the losses of U.S. agents overseas, the theft of the NSA’s secret spying software and other major setbacks in the intelligence business.

More broadly, the world itself is also getting more dangerous.

“The risk of inter-state conflict is higher than any time since the Cold War,” Coats told senators in his opening statement.

Along with Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers also answered questions from lawmakers, as well as the heads of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Robert Cardillo.

The intelligence bosses were asked to restate their support for the 2017 report that concluded Russia had waged a campaign of what spies call “active measures” against the 2016 election. All of them did.

President Trump goes back and forth about whether he accepts there was such an attack or whether it was a “hoax” waged by sore-loser Democrats.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he was frustrated at trying to warn his constituents about the threat from foreign interference when voters were able to point to Trump’s comments and question whether it was actually happening.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as the intelligence officials, spoke to the importance of at least speaking clearly about the Russian threat, even as the issue of whether the president’s campaign colluded with the Russians remains an open question, under investigation by Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller.

“We need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to be happening, and the resilience needed to stand up and say we’re not going to allow some Russian to tell us how to vote, how we ought to run our country,” Coats said, in response to questions from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “I think there needs to be a national cry for that.”

Members of the Senate committee differed about how well they thought the United States is preparing for continued influence operations against the democratic process.

Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said he was frustrated at what he called a lack of action and a lack of coordination inside the intelligence agencies.

“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter further attacks,” Warner said. “But I believe we still don’t have a comprehensive plan.”

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, on the other hand, said extensive discussions in Congress and in the press since 2016 meant that Americans now know better what to expect.

“I think the American people are ready for this,” Risch said. “I think they’re going to look askance a lot more at the information attempting to be passed out through social media.”

Facebook and Twitter and other online platforms have become key conduits for disinformation that originates in Russia and attempts to amplify political division between Americans.

The committee also discussed the nuclear missile threat from North Korea, intellectual property theft by China and the broad peril involved with cyberattacks.

“Cyber is clearly the most challenging threat vector this country faces,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC. “It’s also the most concerning, given how many aspects of our daily lives in the United States can be disrupted by a well-planned, well-executed cyberattack.”

Sen. King complained that the United States doesn’t have a formal strategy to deter cyberattackers. Instead “all we do is patch our software and try to defend ourselves,” he said.

“We are trying to fight a global battle with our hands tied behind our back,” he added.

The Porter matter

Two FBI-related storylines also continued to pop up: One involved the timeline of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter’s resignation. The other involved accusations by President Trump and other Republicans that the intelligence community is biased against them.

FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked on Tuesday by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for a more complete order of events in terms of when the White House knew about domestic violence allegations against Porter as part of his background check process — allegations which Porter has denied.

The White House has been ambiguous about when senior officials knew about the allegations of abuse by two of Porter’s ex-wives, which could have affected his ability to get a full security clearance.

Wray said the FBI followed protocol and turned in an initial report in late July 2017. Wray declined to say what was in the report, but said that his agency received requests for a follow-up and responded to that by November and closed the file in January 2018.

That differed from some accounts of events given by the White House.

And, as has been the case at many hearings on Capitol Hill in the past few months, Wray also was given the chance to respond to criticism from President Trump that the FBI is “in tatters.” More recently, the FBI has come under more criticism due to the release of a Republican memo that alleged bias against Trump.

Wray repeated that he has “grave concerns” about omissions in the memo by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House intelligence committee, which both the FBI and the Justice Department have denounced.

“There’s no shortage of opinions about our agency … My experience has been that every office I go to, every division I go to, has patriots. People who could do anything else with their careers but they’ve chosen to work for the FBI because they believe in serving others,” Wray said. “I encourage our folks not to get too hung up on what I consider to be the noise on TV and social media.”

Copyright 2018 NPR.