Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday "there should be no doubt" that Russia sees the 2018 US elections as a target.
Coats and the other top national security officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they still view Moscow as a threat to the 2018 elections, a stance that appears at odds with President Donald Trump's repeated dismissals of Russian election meddling.
"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 said at a hearing on worldwide threats. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."
Tuesday's hearing touched on a wide array of threats, from North Korea to China to weapons of mass destruction. But Russia's interference into US and other elections loomed large amid the committee's investigation into Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russian officials.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's top Democrat, warned that the US was not prepared to handle the Russian threat to US elections heading into the midterms.
"We've had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks. But we still do not have a plan," Warner said.
Warner questioned Coats and the other officials testifying - CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Chris Wray, NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo - about how the government was addressing the threat to both the US election systems and through social media. He asked all six of the US officials testifying to reaffirm the intelligence community's findings last year that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and that the Kremlin will continue to intervene in future elections. All said yes.
Democrats pointed to that unanimous assessment to criticize Trump for maintaining a contrasting view to his own intelligence community.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, urged the intelligence chiefs to persuade the President to accept their findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
"My problem is, I talk to people in Maine who say the whole thing is a witch hunt and a hoax 'because the President told me,'" King said. "There's no doubt, as you all have testified today, we cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, with a whole of government response when the leader of the government continues to that deny it exists."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, asked whether the efforts to counter Russia's election activities in 2018 had been directed by Trump.
"Not as specifically directed by the President," Wray responded.
Pompeo told the committee that the CIA had already "seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here."
He also raised the prospect that the US could respond to election meddling with offensive cybercapabilities. "We do have some capability offensively to raise the cost for those who would dare challenge the United States' elections," Pompeo said.
Warner also questioned the government's response to the Russian social media influence efforts. Warner has been critical of the response of companies like Facebook and Twitter to the Russian activity on their social networks.
Coats responded that multiple government agencies are working on the social media effort, and they are trying to work with companies to help them address the threat. "We cannot as a government direct them what to do, but we are certainly spending every effort we can to work with them to provide some answers to this question," Coats said.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, however, took issue with Warner's assertion that the US was not prepared for Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2018 elections on social media.
Risch said that the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the intelligence community were not surprised at Russia's efforts in 2016. And he argued that the public has become more educated too.
"With all due respect to my friend from Virginia, I think the American people are ready for this," Risch said. "The American people are smart people, they realize there are people attempting to manipulate them, both domestically and foreign. And I agree with everyone on the panel this is going to go on. This is the way the Russians have done business, this is no surprise to us."
Another issue related to Russia's election interference is the US voting systems themselves. The Department of Homeland Security has said there were Russian efforts to try to hack into the voting systems in 21 states, and several lawmakers have raised concerns states and localities are unprepared for the 2018 election cycle.
"Voting begins in March, that's next month," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. "If we're going to have any impact on securing that voting system itself, it would seem to me, we need to be acting quickly."
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