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U.S. intel agencies expect Russia to escalate election meddling efforts

NBC News logo NBC News 2/13/2018 Ken Dilanian
Image: The U.S. Capitol dome at sunrise after an early morning House vote to halt the government shutdown in Washington, DC, Feb. 9, 2018.U.S. elections are in Moscow's crosshairs, according to a new intel report. © Provided by NBCU News Group, a division of NBCUniversal Media LLC Image: The U.S. Capitol dome at sunrise after an early morning House vote to halt the government shutdown in Washington, DC, Feb. 9, 2018.U.S. elections are in Moscow's crosshairs, according to a new intel report.

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies expect Russia to ramp up its efforts to meddle in the U.S. political system through hacking and social media manipulation, according to a worldwide threat assessment released Tuesday morning.

"Foreign elections are critical inflection points that offer opportunities for Russia to advance its interests both overtly and covertly," says the assessment. "The 2018 U.S. midterm elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations."

The nation's intelligence chiefs are presenting their view of the top threats confronting the nation before the Senate intelligence committee, where they are likely to face tough questioning about whether the Trump administration is responding adequately to the Russian efforts.

U.S. intelligence analysts believe that Russia will conduct "bolder and more disruptive cyber operations during the next year," targeting Ukraine, NATO and the United States, the assessment says.

"We assess that the Russian intelligence services will continue their efforts to disseminate false information via Russian state-controlled media and covert online personas about U.S. activities to encourage anti-U.S. political views," the statement says.

"Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions."

The assessment says that Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom President Donald Trump has repeatedly praised, "is likely to increase his use of repression and intimidation to contend with domestic discontent over corruption, poor social services, and a sluggish economy with structural deficiencies"

It adds that Putin will "continue to manipulate the media, distribute perks to maintain elite support, and elevate younger officials to convey an image of renewal. He is also likely to expand the government's legal basis for repression and to enhance his capacity to intimidate and monitor political threats, perhaps using the threat of 'extremism' or the 2018 World Cup to justify his actions."

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, said in prepared remarks that "the president inconceivably continues to deny the threat posed by Russia."

"He didn't increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so." Warner said of Trump. "He hasn't even tweeted a single concern. This threat demands a whole-of-government response, and that needs to start with leadership at the top."

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