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Intel chiefs warn of Russia threat to 2018 midterms

The Hill logo The Hill 2/14/2018 Morgan Chalfant
Dan Coats wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The Hill

Top U.S. intelligence officials warned a Senate panel on Tuesday that they expect Russia to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.

"There should be no doubt that Russia perceived its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The testimony from Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray and other intelligence officials affirmed heightening fears across the country that Moscow's influence in this fall's elections could rival its meddling in 2016.

Just more than a year ago, the U.S. intelligence community released an unclassified assessment publicly blaming the Russian government for waging an influence operation designed to undermine American democracy, harm Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Republican Donald Trump.

Russia's efforts included directing cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC), leveraging social media to spread false information and trying to probe voting infrastructure in 21 states. Illinois confirmed a breach of the state registration database in which hackers accessed information on 200,000 voters.

The political fallout from Russia's actions has hung over Trump's presidency, with special counsel Robert Mueller probing whether there were any links between Moscow and the Republican's campaign.

Trump himself has at times cast doubt on the intelligence committee's report, saying in November he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials. He later affirmed that he was in agreement with the intelligence agencies, after criticizing their former leaders as "political hacks."

On Tuesday, federal officials affirmed their confidence in the January 2017 report's conclusions, but also focused on the risks going forward.

"This is not going to change or stop," said NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers.

Pompeo said intelligence has "seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here," something he described as "information warfare."

While officials did not detail the extent of the activity, they signaled a willingness to discuss it with lawmakers later, during a classified session.

"Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies, using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy, sow discord and undermine our values," said Coats.

Congress sought to levy penalties on Moscow last year, passing legislation with a veto-proof majority that imposed new sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election and other destabilizing activity. Trump begrudgingly signed the bill, which also limited his ability to unilaterally ease economic sanctions on Russia.

There have also been bipartisan legislative pushes to deter future foreign interference efforts and to help state officials shore up the security of their voting infrastructure before future elections.

With weeks before the midterm primaries begin, those efforts appear to have stalled, yielding frustrations on Capitol Hill.

"This is an election year in our country, and it's frankly frustrating to me that we haven't passed legislation to help states strengthen the security of their voting systems," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said during the hearing.

The Senate panel is preparing to soon release a slate of recommendations on election security.

"Voting begins in March. That's next month," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "If we're going to have any impact on securing that voting system itself, it would seem to me that we need to be acting quickly."

For its part, the Department of Homeland Security is helping state officials scan their systems for vulnerabilities and sharing information on threats to guard against potential attacks on voter databases and other election infrastructure.

The intelligence officials also signaled Tuesday that they are working to understand and blunt the threat.

"We have a significant effort. I am happy to talk about it in closed session," Pompeo said.

"It is not just our effort, it is a certainly all of [intelligence community] effort - there may be others participating as well - to do our best to push back against this threat," the CIA chief said. "It's not just the Russian threat, it's Iranians, Chinese - it's a big, broad effort."

Still, the testimony is sure to raise concerns among lawmakers that the new administration and Congress have not done enough to deter the threat.

"The message that came out loud and clear from every leader in the intelligence community: This is a problem that didn't go away in 2016," Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters following the hearing.

"It is ongoing modus operandi that Russia uses throughout Western democracies, and it is remarkable that you got all the leaders in the intelligence community yet you still do not have the president of the United States acknowledging the level of this threat," he said.

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he believes Trump is taking the threat seriously enough.

"I'm not sure that there's anything that we could do in addition to what we are currently doing to assure election security because the majority of that needs to be done at the state level," Burr said.

Burr did note that the federal government needs to better communicate with state officials on the threat landscape.

"Clearly, I think that the federal government needs to communicate better with the states of what actors like Russia's intent is so that if states aren't taking it seriously enough, it raises their level of commitment to election security," Burr said.

Olivia Beavers contributed.

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