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story.lead_photo.caption FBI Director Christopher Wray (left) and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats arrive Tuesday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wray said the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter Russian meddling but was “not specifically directed by the president.”

WASHINGTON -- The nation's top intelligence chiefs were united Tuesday in declaring that Russia is continuing efforts to disrupt the U.S. political system and is targeting the 2018 midterm election, after its successful operation to sow discord in the most recent presidential campaign.

The assessment stands in contrast to President Donald Trump, who has mocked the very notion of Russian interference in the 2016 election and lashed out at those who have suggested otherwise. He also has said that he believes denials of Russian interference issued by President Vladimir Putin.

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, Democrats demanded to know what the intelligence community is doing to counter Russia's actions and whether Trump has given explicit directions to them to do so.

"We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, without a whole-of-government response when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

The disconnect between Trump and his senior-most intelligence advisers has raised concerns that the U.S. government will not be able to mount an effective plan to beat back Russian influence operations in the midterm election. And Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said there is "no single agency in charge" of blocking Russian meddling, an admission that drew the ire of Democrats.

"The fact that we don't have clarity about who's in charge means, I believe, we don't have a full plan," said Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the committee, which is conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Russian hackers are already scanning U.S. electoral systems, intelligence officials have said, and using bot armies to promote partisan causes on social media. Russia also appears eager to spread information -- real and fake -- that deepens political divisions, including purported evidence that ties Trump to Russia, and its efforts to influence the 2016 election.

"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," Coats said.

Coats also said that social media companies have been "slow to recognize the threat" and that "they've still got more work to do."

His assessment was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly that he had "every expectation" that Russia will try to influence the coming election.

'ALL KINDS OF STEPS'

The intelligence community's consensus on Russia's intentions led Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to press officials on whether Trump has directed them to take "specific actions to confront and to blunt" Russian interference activities.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau is undertaking "a lot of specific activities" to counter Russian meddling but was "not specifically directed by the president." Pompeo said that Trump "has made very clear we have an obligation" to make sure policymakers have a deep understanding of the Russia threat.

Coats also said the intelligence agencies "pass onto the policymakers, including the president," relevant intelligence.

Reed pressed on his question: "Passing on relevant intelligence is not actively disrupting the operations of an opponent. Do you agree?"

Coats said, "We take all kinds of steps to disrupt Russian activities."

Pompeo added: "Sen. Reed, we have a significant effort. I'm happy to talk about it in closed session."

Reed responded: "The simple question I've posed is, has the president directed the intelligence community in a coordinated effort, not merely to report but to actively stop this activity, and the answer seems to be that ... the reporting is going on, as reporting [goes on] about every threat going into the United States."

Earlier in the hearing, Pompeo said the intelligence community has offensive "capabilities" to "raise the costs to adversaries" seeking to hack into election systems to disrupt voting. He took issue with King's suggestion that the U.S. government has not taken actions to deter adversaries in cyberspace.

"Your statement that we have done nothing does not reflect the responses that, frankly, some of us at this table have engaged in -- that the U.S. government has engaged in -- both during and before this administration," Pompeo said.

King, citing the nuclear doomsday movie Dr. Strangelove, said "deterrence doesn't work unless the other side knows" about the weapon.

"It's true -- it's important that the adversary knows," Pompeo said. "It's not a requirement that the world know it."

Asked whether the adversary knows about U.S. actions, he said, "I'd prefer to leave that for another forum."

Pompeo also responded to reporting last week by The New York Times and the Intercept about an intelligence operation to retrieve classified National Security Agency information believed to have been stolen by Russia. The Times reported that U.S. spies had been bilked out of $100,000, paid to a shadowy Russian who claimed to be able to deliver the secrets as well as compromising information about Trump.

Pompeo categorically denied that the intelligence agency had paid any such money, directly or indirectly. He claimed that the newspaper had been duped by the same person trying to sell the U.S. government information that turned out to be bogus.

At the end of the hearing, Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the panel hoped to release publicly the findings of its Russia investigation "before the primaries begin" in March. Their probe includes a review of the intelligence community's January 2017 assessment on Russian interference, he said. That assessment concluded that the Russians wanted to help get Trump elected.

STATES PLAN

Virtually every state is taking steps to harden voter databases and election equipment against outside attacks and to strengthen postelection audits. When the National Association of Secretaries of State holds its winter meeting this weekend in Washington, half of the sessions will be devoted wholly or in part to election security.

New standards for voting equipment were approved last fall that will effectively require manufacturers to include several security improvements in new devices.

States are moving to scrap voting machines that do not generate an auditable paper ballot as well as an electronic one; Virginia has decertified most of its devices, Pennsylvania has declared that all new devices will produce paper ballots, and Georgia -- a state whose outdated equipment produces only electronic voting records -- has set up a pilot program to move to paper.

But a host of problems remains. Roughly one-fifth of the country lacks paper ballots, and replacing digital-only machines costs millions of dollars. Federal legislation that would allot funds to speed up the conversion to paper is crawling through Congress.

Many experts, meanwhile, believe that Russian meddling in the presidential race was but a foretaste of what is to come -- not just from the Kremlin, but also from other hostile states and private actors.

The testimony on Tuesday also covered the slew of other threats that U.S. intelligence agencies see facing the country, including North Korea's nuclear program, Islamist militants in the Middle East and even illicit drug trafficking, especially the smuggling of cheaply made fentanyl, a powerful opioid responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

But as has been the case for years, the intelligence leaders presented cyberactivities of rival nations and rogue groups as the foremost threat facing the United States. They warned that such risks were likely to only grow, citing Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, along with militant groups and criminal networks, as the main agitators.

A number of senators expressed concerns that China was seeking to use private companies with ties to its government to obtain sensitive U.S. technology.

The efforts of Chinese companies to carve out a larger presence in the United States and sell more phones and other devices to ordinary Americans represents "counterintelligence and information security risks that come prepackaged with the goods and services," said Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee.

He singled out two Chinese companies, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. and ZTE Corp., as examples of what he considered a troubling trend. Both are "widely understood to have extraordinary ties to the Chinese government," Burr said.

The companies have repeatedly denied that the Chinese government is using them to spy on the United States.

Two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, introduced legislation last week to ban the U.S. government from buying or leasing telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE. They said there were concerns the Chinese companies would use their access to spy on U.S. officials, and U.S. intelligence chiefs appeared to agree on Tuesday.

Information for this article was contributed by Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris of The Washington Post; by Matthew Rosenberg, Charlie Savage and Michael Wines of The New York Times; and by Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press.

Photo by AP/ANDREW HARNIK
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (left) and Chairman Richard Burr confer Tuesday after a hearing on worldwide threats, including Russia’s election tampering.

A Section on 02/14/2018

Print Headline: Midterm vote Russia's prey, senators told

Comments

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  • RBear
    February 14, 2018 at 6:41 a.m.

    As the article states, the 2016 presidential election was just a warm-up to what we can expect in 2018. In many cases, these state-actors were exploring the systems to see what is in place and the layers of security standing in their way. While states may have put in place measures to secure the vote, almost all elections are managed at the county level where technology investment will be lower.
    ...
    Granted, hacking an election in Newton County doesn't create the waves of hacking the results at the state level, but play with the voter registration rolls such as deleting voters or altering precincts and you have enough mischief to put an election in the chaos and in the courts.
    ...
    Add to that the social media amplification of bots in key races and you have a bad situation facing us in 2018. In many cases, no one will really know the impact of the bots until it's too late. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are working to reduce their impact, but much of it comes from individuals amplifying those messages on their own. We are our own worst enemies. We LOVE to share.

  • BOLTAR
    February 14, 2018 at 7:37 a.m.

    Why would Agent Orange not seek to demonstrate his innocence of collusion allegations and his love for country by vigorously pursuing all appropriate measures to protect the integrity of our elections, the very bedrock of governmental legitimacy? I struggle to find an answer to this that does not point to a number of very serious issues with him personally.

  • skeptic1
    February 14, 2018 at 8:10 a.m.

    Russia, Russia, Russia, too bad these stellar reporters were not paying attention because they testified that China and Iran were just as big a threat as Russia as they have and will attempt to influence our elections. And...where is this evidence Trump "colluded?"

  • Packman
    February 14, 2018 at 9:41 a.m.

    Wait! What's this? This can't be true. Libs have been telling us for months the Russians only meddled to help elect Donald Trump. Trump's not on the ballot in 2016 so, based on what the libs have been screaming for the past few months, this simply cannot be true.
    .
    As to disrupting the American political system, can anyone think of a better way to do so that to have a recently elected POTUS investigated by a special counsel over bogus charges of Russian collusion? Charges, btw, born of collusion between the Hillary campaign, the Obama administration, FBI, DOJ, and Russia.

  • hah406
    February 14, 2018 at 10:12 a.m.

    Yes Packman, it is all one giant conspiracy between tens of thousands of federal employees in multiple agencies, the Obama WH, of course Hillary, just to get Trump or keep him from getting elected. Especially that collusion by Comey to reopen the HRC investigation just days before the election. That was obviously done to help her get elected. Very believable. Why don't we wait instead on Muller getting to the truth. The Trump WH proved six times again yesterday that you can't believe anything they say. As for the Russians, we will never be able to measure the degree to which their propaganda interference campaign changed voters minds and votes. Nevertheless, Trump is our president, and he and his staff need to start dealing in the truth and not in alternate facts.

  • Dontsufferfools
    February 14, 2018 at 10:17 a.m.

    russkypack and putin keep declaring their innocence. So does Trump. Psychologists say the innocent don't constantly squawk about how innocent they are. But the guilty do.

  • Packman
    February 14, 2018 at 10:32 a.m.

    Hey hah - Why didn't you answer my question? Putin couldn't give a sh*t less who the President is but only about disrupting American governance. Can you think of a better way to undermine, delegitimize, obstruct, and DISRUPT the results of a bona fide presidential election than to have a special counsel investigate dubious allegations of misconduct against the newly elected POTUS?
    .
    James Comey (a tall, skinny version of J. Edgar Hoover) admitted he leaked a memo he authored for the specific purpose of instigating the special counsel investigation. Comey also oversaw the use of the fictional Steele Dossier and the overall effort to tip the scales to Hillary and assure Trump wasn't elected. The facts are clear. The intent is obvious. Keeping your head in the sand changes nothing, although it does explain why there's sand in your eyes.

  • mrcharles
    February 14, 2018 at 10:40 a.m.

    Where is the evidence their is a trinity who cares about you? Cant be-- as the entire universe was just made for me.

    sea bass , again posting from beyound the Ural mountains, or is from Art Bell somewhere beyond the rainbow.

    At least the great RR was suffering from beginning stages of dementia when he indicated his administration surely did not have anything to do with our sworn enemy, Iran. Whereas this group of republican ilks with malice forethought, and with ignorance and the sean hammity tactic of , Well all allegations are all lies, but , but but , ok dont they have the right to hand us a great big cluster firetruck ........look, look car wreck/squirell.

    So septic tank, there is a trinity of hackers? guess that lets those white russians off the hook?

  • BOLTAR
    February 14, 2018 at 10:41 a.m.

    Imagine the ability to know the mind of Putin better than our own intelligence agencies do. Imagine basing arguments on that assertion and then expecting that claim to serve as a basis for meaningful conversation. Imagine a ring of unicorns orbiting Uranus.

  • hah406
    February 14, 2018 at 11:14 a.m.

    Parts of the dossier have proven to be true, so lets stop calling it fictional. I agree with you that the overall goal of Putin and Russia is to disrupt our governance, but I disagree that he didn't care who would be president. He in fact knows that Trump is so malleable and shallow that he can easily be manipulated. He found a willing, unwitting accomplice in Trump; one that he would not have had with Clinton. There is overwhelming evidence that Putin did not care for Clinton at all.
    .
    If you care going to make the Hoover - Comey comparison, remember Hoover was the most feared and deadly person in DC for forty years. If he is as good as Hoover, Trump is toast. In the end, we just disagree on intent with the Russians, not the effect.

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by The Associated Press
by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports
by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports
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