WASHINGTON -- The nation's top intelligence chiefs were united Tuesday in declaring that Russia is continuing efforts to disrupt the U.S. political system and is targeting the 2018 midterm election, after its successful operation to sow discord in the most recent presidential campaign.
The assessment stands in contrast to President Donald Trump, who has mocked the very notion of Russian interference in the 2016 election and lashed out at those who have suggested otherwise. He also has said that he believes denials of Russian interference issued by President Vladimir Putin.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, Democrats demanded to know what the intelligence community is doing to counter Russia's actions and whether Trump has given explicit directions to them to do so.
"We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, without a whole-of-government response when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
The disconnect between Trump and his senior-most intelligence advisers has raised concerns that the U.S. government will not be able to mount an effective plan to beat back Russian influence operations in the midterm election. And Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said there is "no single agency in charge" of blocking Russian meddling, an admission that drew the ire of Democrats.
"The fact that we don't have clarity about who's in charge means, I believe, we don't have a full plan," said Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the committee, which is conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Russian hackers are already scanning U.S. electoral systems, intelligence officials have said, and using bot armies to promote partisan causes on social media. Russia also appears eager to spread information -- real and fake -- that deepens political divisions, including purported evidence that ties Trump to Russia, and its efforts to influence the 2016 election.
"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," Coats said.
Coats also said that social media companies have been "slow to recognize the threat" and that "they've still got more work to do."
His assessment was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly that he had "every expectation" that Russia will try to influence the coming election.
'ALL KINDS OF STEPS'
The intelligence community's consensus on Russia's intentions led Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to press officials on whether Trump has directed them to take "specific actions to confront and to blunt" Russian interference activities.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau is undertaking "a lot of specific activities" to counter Russian meddling but was "not specifically directed by the president." Pompeo said that Trump "has made very clear we have an obligation" to make sure policymakers have a deep understanding of the Russia threat.
Coats also said the intelligence agencies "pass onto the policymakers, including the president," relevant intelligence.
Reed pressed on his question: "Passing on relevant intelligence is not actively disrupting the operations of an opponent. Do you agree?"
Coats said, "We take all kinds of steps to disrupt Russian activities."
Pompeo added: "Sen. Reed, we have a significant effort. I'm happy to talk about it in closed session."
Reed responded: "The simple question I've posed is, has the president directed the intelligence community in a coordinated effort, not merely to report but to actively stop this activity, and the answer seems to be that ... the reporting is going on, as reporting [goes on] about every threat going into the United States."
Earlier in the hearing, Pompeo said the intelligence community has offensive "capabilities" to "raise the costs to adversaries" seeking to hack into election systems to disrupt voting. He took issue with King's suggestion that the U.S. government has not taken actions to deter adversaries in cyberspace.
"Your statement that we have done nothing does not reflect the responses that, frankly, some of us at this table have engaged in -- that the U.S. government has engaged in -- both during and before this administration," Pompeo said.
King, citing the nuclear doomsday movie Dr. Strangelove, said "deterrence doesn't work unless the other side knows" about the weapon.
"It's true -- it's important that the adversary knows," Pompeo said. "It's not a requirement that the world know it."
Asked whether the adversary knows about U.S. actions, he said, "I'd prefer to leave that for another forum."
Pompeo also responded to reporting last week by The New York Times and the Intercept about an intelligence operation to retrieve classified National Security Agency information believed to have been stolen by Russia. The Times reported that U.S. spies had been bilked out of $100,000, paid to a shadowy Russian who claimed to be able to deliver the secrets as well as compromising information about Trump.
Pompeo categorically denied that the intelligence agency had paid any such money, directly or indirectly. He claimed that the newspaper had been duped by the same person trying to sell the U.S. government information that turned out to be bogus.
At the end of the hearing, Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the panel hoped to release publicly the findings of its Russia investigation "before the primaries begin" in March. Their probe includes a review of the intelligence community's January 2017 assessment on Russian interference, he said. That assessment concluded that the Russians wanted to help get Trump elected.
Virtually every state is taking steps to harden voter databases and election equipment against outside attacks and to strengthen postelection audits. When the National Association of Secretaries of State holds its winter meeting this weekend in Washington, half of the sessions will be devoted wholly or in part to election security.
New standards for voting equipment were approved last fall that will effectively require manufacturers to include several security improvements in new devices.
States are moving to scrap voting machines that do not generate an auditable paper ballot as well as an electronic one; Virginia has decertified most of its devices, Pennsylvania has declared that all new devices will produce paper ballots, and Georgia -- a state whose outdated equipment produces only electronic voting records -- has set up a pilot program to move to paper.
But a host of problems remains. Roughly one-fifth of the country lacks paper ballots, and replacing digital-only machines costs millions of dollars. Federal legislation that would allot funds to speed up the conversion to paper is crawling through Congress.
Many experts, meanwhile, believe that Russian meddling in the presidential race was but a foretaste of what is to come -- not just from the Kremlin, but also from other hostile states and private actors.
The testimony on Tuesday also covered the slew of other threats that U.S. intelligence agencies see facing the country, including North Korea's nuclear program, Islamist militants in the Middle East and even illicit drug trafficking, especially the smuggling of cheaply made fentanyl, a powerful opioid responsible for thousands of deaths each year.
But as has been the case for years, the intelligence leaders presented cyberactivities of rival nations and rogue groups as the foremost threat facing the United States. They warned that such risks were likely to only grow, citing Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, along with militant groups and criminal networks, as the main agitators.
A number of senators expressed concerns that China was seeking to use private companies with ties to its government to obtain sensitive U.S. technology.
The efforts of Chinese companies to carve out a larger presence in the United States and sell more phones and other devices to ordinary Americans represents "counterintelligence and information security risks that come prepackaged with the goods and services," said Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee.
He singled out two Chinese companies, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. and ZTE Corp., as examples of what he considered a troubling trend. Both are "widely understood to have extraordinary ties to the Chinese government," Burr said.
The companies have repeatedly denied that the Chinese government is using them to spy on the United States.
Two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, introduced legislation last week to ban the U.S. government from buying or leasing telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE. They said there were concerns the Chinese companies would use their access to spy on U.S. officials, and U.S. intelligence chiefs appeared to agree on Tuesday.
Information for this article was contributed by Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris of The Washington Post; by Matthew Rosenberg, Charlie Savage and Michael Wines of The New York Times; and by Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press.
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (left) and Chairman Richard Burr confer Tuesday after a hearing on worldwide threats, including Russia’s election tampering.
A Section on 02/14/2018
Print Headline: Midterm vote Russia's prey, senators told