Intel chiefs warn Congress Russia intent on interfering with 2018 midterms

PHOTO: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies on worldwide threats during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2018. PlaySaul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Intel chiefs warn Congress Russia intent on interfering with 2018 midterms

The head of U.S. intelligence told Congress Tuesday that Russia, just as it did in the 2016 presidential election, is determined to meddle in the 2018 midterms in order “to undermine democracy, sow discord and undermine our values.”

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Officials tell ABC News that the Russians plan not only to use social media to sow discord through “fake news” but are probing state election systems to see if they can be infiltrated.

"We’ve seen some activity (directed) at state elected officials that were attempts to electronically to search those individuals," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told ABC News. "So we assume that there’s still the intent and we certainly know there’s the capability."

Intelligence agencies are already seeing hard evidence that the Russians will perhaps act more aggressively than in 2016.

“Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Throughout the entire community we have not seen any evidence of any significant change from last year.”

PHOTO: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies on worldwide threats during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2018. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies on worldwide threats during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2018.

Coats was joined by the heads of the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Asked by committee vice chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., whether they agreed that Russian activity is undiminished, all agreed with Coats. “This is not going to change or stop,” said NSA director Admiral Mike Rogers.

Democrats expressed concern that President Donald Trump’s anger over the investigation into whether his campaign concluded with the Russians in 2016 will undercut the government’s ability to respond forcefully to continued Russian interference.

PHOTO: Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, and Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., second from left, speak together following a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington.Andrew Harnik/AP
Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, and Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., second from left, speak together following a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington.

The president, said Warner, “continues to deny the threat posed by Russia. He didn't increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so. He hasn't even tweeted a single concern. This threat, I believe, demands a whole-of-government response, and that response needs to start with leadership at the top.”

“All morning we've heard the story of Russia influencing our campaigns and indeed in the current campaigns for the midterms,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, before asking FBI director Chris Wray: “Has the president directed you and your agency to take specific actions to confront and blunt Russian influence activities that are ongoing?

“We're taking a lot of specific efforts to blunt…” responded Wray.

“Directed by the president?” Reed interrupted.

“Not as specifically directed,” said Wray.

None of the other agency heads could say that the president had directed them to counter Russian meddling, and while senators probed for a detailed plan on how to counter Russian active measures, the witnesses made clear that there is no comprehensive plan in place or being developed.

“The president has made very clear we have an obligation from our perspective from the foreign intelligence perspective to do everything we can the make sure there is a deep and thorough understanding of every threat including threats from Russia,” said CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Beyond Russian election interference, the hearing detailed a series of serious threats to the United States, including North Korea’s continued drive to develop a nuclear arsenal capable of annihilating the U.S. and the possibility that Pyongyang may conduct an atmospheric nuclear detonation over the Pacific after the Olympics, and the potential threat from Chinese technology embedded in U.S. products.

“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” said Coats, “under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the United States. From U.S. businesses, to the federal government, to state and local governments, the United States is threatened by cyber attacks every day.”

As for the Intelligence committee's own investigation into Russia’s 2016 activities, committee chairman Richard Burr, R.-N.C. said he hopes to wrap up before the next round of elections begins.

“Before the primaries begin we intend to have an overview of our findings that will be public,” Burr said. “It is the committee’s intent to make recommendations that will enhance the likelihood that security processes for our elections will be in place.”

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