WASHINGTON — Intelligence community leaders told the Senate Intelligence Committee today that Russia’s campaign influence operation has not abated heading into midterm elections, while FBI Director Christopher Wray said President Trump has not directed the IC to take steps to stop the election meddling.
“Russian trolls and bots continue to push divisive content, both in the United States, and against all our allies in Europe — not only the UK, but, as we’ve talked before, France, Germany, Netherlands. And we’ve also heard recent indications of Russian activities in Mexico,” Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said at the broad hearing on worldwide threats. “The IC needs to stay on top of this issue, and I’m worried that we don’t have a clear line of assignment.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — who, in the wake of the House Intelligence Committee GOP staff memo alleging FISA abuses, began by thanking lawmakers for renewing Section 702 surveillance authorities that the IC considers the “most important collection issue against foreign terrorists and threats to America” — said that Russia continues to deploy their influence efforts “because it’s relatively cheap, it’s low-risk, it offers what they perceive as plausible deniability and it’s proven to be effective at sowing division.”
“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence, to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Coats added. “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful, and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
Warner asked the leaders at the witness table whether they agreed with the assessment that Russia will “try to continue to intervene in our elections in 2018 and 2020.”
“This is not going to change or stop,” replied National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers.
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley agreed: “It is not going to change, nor is it going to stop.”
Coats noted that “throughout the entire community, we have not seen any evidence of any significant change from last year.”
Asked who is in charge of addressing the threat posed by operations of foreign nations on social media, Coats said that responsibility is spread among “several agencies throughout the federal government that have equities in this, and we are working together to try to integrate that process.”
“It clearly is something that needs to be addressed, and addressed as quickly as possible… we are keen on moving forward in terms of not only identification, but relative response and things that we can do to prevent this from happening,” the DNI added. “We are gaining more, I think, support — I guess is the right word — from the private sector, who are beginning to recognize ever more the issues that are faced with the material that comes through their processes. We cannot, as a government, direct them what to do. But we certainly are spending every effort we can to work with them to provide some answers to this question.”
Coats said the nations of NATO are also concerned about Russian campaign influence ops.
“I returned, not that long ago, from a meeting in Brussels with the intelligence arm of NATO. All 29 nations — the topic was addressed, primarily on Russian meddling in elections and trying to undermine democratic values,” he told senators. “At the end of that, the new director of that organization asked for a show of hands of or any verbal response from any representatives of the 29 nations, if they thought that Russia had not interfered with their processes and particularly their elections, or had the potential to do so. Not one person raised their hand.”
“I think that sends a very strong signal that any elections that are coming up need to be — we need to assume that there might be interference with that, particularly from the Russians, and maybe from some other malign actors,” Coats warned. “And steps should need to be taken to work with state and local officials, because many of these elections in off-year will be state and local, governorships, even members of certain houses of representation within the states themselves. So it clearly is an issue that is whole-of-government.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked CIA Director Mike Pompeo if he has “seen Russian activity in the lead-up to the 2018 election cycle.”
“Yes, we have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here,” Pompeo replied.
Coats agreed. Rogers added, “Yes, and I think this would be a good topic to get into greater detail [in closed session].”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) noted that voting begins next month, and “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.”
“I think a great part of the strength of the system is the diversity of the system — different not only from state to state, but from election jurisdictions within those states,” he added.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) declared he was “sick and tired of going to these hearings, which I’ve been going to for five years, where everybody talks about cyber attacks, and our country still does not have a policy or a doctrine or a strategy for dealing with them.”
King said that was not specifically a criticism of the current administration, as the previous one dropped the ball as well.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), an ex-officio member of the committee, asked the IC leaders, “Has the president directed you and your agency to take specific actions to confront and blunt Russian influence activities that are ongoing?”
“Not as specifically directed by the president, no,” Wray replied.
Pompeo said he thought President Trump has been “very clear that he want — has asked our agency to cooperate with each of the investigations that’s ongoing and do everything we can to ensure that we thoroughly understand this potential threat.”
“For us, I can’t say that I’ve been explicitly directed to ‘blunt’ or actively stop [Russia],” Rogers said. “On the other hand, it’s very clear — generate knowledge and insight, help us understand this so we can generate better policy. That clearly — that direction has been very explicit, in fairness.”
Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) wrapped up the hearing with an update on his panel’s investigation into 2016 Russian campaign interference ops. The Senate investigation has remained bipartisan while comity has broken down in the once-bipartisan House Intelligence Committee.
“We intend to have an overview of our findings that will be public,” Burr said. “We intend to have an open hearing on election security. And it’s the committee’s intent to make recommendations that will enhance the likelihood that the security of our election process is in place.”
In what may have been an allusion to the staff who prepared House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ (R-Calif.) memo, Burr added, “The remarks of every individual who has come in before us — has commented on their professionalism and the fact that, at the end of eight hours, they couldn’t tell who was a Democrat who was a Republican. So the effort to be bipartisan has not just been public; it is private, as well, and permeates all the way down through our staff.”
Coats told senators that the intelligence community “obviously” knows measures need to be take to protect this election cycle.
“But we need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to happen, and the resilience needed for us 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,” the director of national intelligence added. “And I think there needs to be a national cry for that.”