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Cyberthreats alarm spy agencies' chief

Pre-attack warnings on level of 9/11, director of national intelligence contends

By Julian E. Barnes The New York Times

This article was published July 14, 2018 at 3:39 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The nation's top intelligence officer said Friday that the persistent danger of Russian cyberattacks today was akin to the warnings the United States had of stepped-up terror threats before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That note of alarm sounded by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, came on the same day that 12 Russian agents were indicted on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Coats said those indictments illustrated Moscow's continuing strategy to undermine the United States' democracy and erode its institutions.

"The warning lights are blinking red again," Coats said as he cautioned of cyberthreats. "Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack."

The government's national security agencies, particularly the intelligence agencies, have been concerned about Russia's 2016 interference campaign -- and efforts still underway.

Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, has helped the intelligence agencies push for more aggressive actions to halt cyberattacks by Russia and other nations. In a speech last month in France, he outlined the recent history of Russian cyberattacks on elections and on candidates critical of Moscow.

In his remarks on Friday, Coats did not directly address President Donald Trump's coming meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. But Coats did say that if he was meeting the Russian president, he would deliver a sharp message that the United States knows what the Russians are doing and that Putin's government is responsible for the cyberattacks.

Coats also expressed frustration with cyberspace strategies that emphasize only defense, and not offense as well. Evoking President Ronald Reagan's Cold War approach to the Soviet Union, Coats suggested that if Russia continued to try to take on the United States, then the administration should "throw everything we have got into it."

Seth Jones, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Reagan pushed the United States to begin offensive information operations against the Soviet Union. Invoking Reagan, Jones said, was hardly accidental and was symbolically important because he remains revered by Republicans.

Coats has previously warned about continuing Russian attempts to influence future elections, including the midterm elections in the fall.

At a Senate hearing this year, Coats said that Russia viewed the midterm elections as a potential target, and he said Moscow's activities were designed "to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States."

Coats said Friday that the intelligence community was working with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to support states' efforts to secure their elections.

The federal effort has been hampered by the fact that elections are controlled at the state and local levels. States have had different levels of cooperation with the federal authorities. While Coats did not directly address that issue, he mentioned that a problem in one state could throw the midterms or the next presidential election into doubt.

Speaking Friday at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, Coats said Russian and other actors were exploring vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure and trying to infiltrate energy, water, nuclear and manufacturing sectors.

"These actions are persistent, they are pervasive and they are meant to undermine America's democracy," Coats said.

A Section on 07/14/2018

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