Russian influence operations in the United States will continue through this year’s midterm elections and beyond, the nation’s top spies warned Congress on Tuesday.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate intelligence committee that Moscow viewed its attack on the 2016 election as decidedly worthwhile given the chaos it has sown compared with its relatively low cost.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations,” Coats said.
The top intelligence officials in America were on Capitol Hill Tuesday because the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence convened its annual hearing on “worldwide threats.”
The hearing takes place every year, but this year’s installment convened amid an ongoing Department of Justice and FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether President Trump’s campaign might have conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election.
More broadly, the world itself is also getting more dangerous, as senators heard.
“The risk of inter-state conflict is higher than any time since the Cold War,” Coats told senators in his opening statement.
Along with Coats, also answering questions from lawmakers were CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers, as well as the heads of the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley and Robert Cardillo, respectively.
The intelligence bosses were asked to restate their support for the 2017 report that concluded Russia had waged a campaign of what spies call “active measures” against the 2016 election. All of them did.
President Trump goes back and forth about whether he accepts there was such an attack or whether it was a “hoax” waged by sore-loser Democrats.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he was frustrated at trying to warn his constituents about the threat from foreign interference when voters were able to point to Trump’s comments and question whether it was actually happening.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as the intelligence officials, spoke to the importance of at least speaking clearly about the Russian threat, even as the issue of whether the president’s campaign colluded with the Russians remains an open question under investigation by DOJ special counsel Robert Mueller.
“We need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to be happening, 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,” Coats said, in response to questions from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “I think there needs to be a national cry for that.”
Members of the Senate committee differed on how well they thought the United States is preparing for continued influence operations against the democratic process.
Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said he was frustrated by what he called a lack of action and a lack of coordination inside the intelligence agencies.
“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 further attacks,” Warner said. “But I believe we still don’t have a comprehensive plan.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, on the other hand, said extensive discussions in Congress and in the press since 2016 meant that Americans now know better what to expect.
“I think the American people are ready for this,” Risch said. “I think they’re going to look askance a lot more at the information attempting to be passed out through social media.”
Facebook and Twitter and other online platforms have become key conduits for disinformation that originates in Russia and attempts to amplify political division between Americans.