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Top Intelligence Official Dan Coats Warns Russia May Target Upcoming 2018 Elections

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
KRISTINA WONG

The nation’s top intelligence official told members of Congress that the intelligence community expects Russia to continue influence operations targeting the United States.

“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,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday .

In addition, he said, Russia views the upcoming elections in November as a potential target.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that — its past efforts has — as successful, and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” he said.

Coats said all 29 member nations of the NATO alliance believe Russia has tried to meddle in their processes and particularly their elections, in its bid to undermine the alliance and democratic values it views as a threat.

“With respect to Russian influence efforts, let me be clear: The Russians utilize this tool 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,” Coats said.

Coats called for steps to be taken to work with state and local officials, and for Americans and other nations’ citizens to be warned.

“We need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to be — happen, and the — 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. And I think there needs to be a national cry for that,” he said.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said most of the things Russia has done to date have been focused more on information warfare rather than hacking into voting machines.

But FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the FBI has also been working with the Department of Homeland Security and state officials to secure voting systems.

“We, together, at the — at the FBI, together with DHS, recently, for example, scheduled meetings with various election — state election officials,” he said.

“So there’s — there are ways, if people are a little bit creative and forward-leaning, to educate the state election officials, which is, of course, you know, where elections are — are run in this country,” he said.

The intelligence community (IC) has blamed Russian actors for meddling in the 2016 presidential election by stealing and publishing emails from the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton aide John Podesta, as well as using Facebook and Twitter to sow discord among Americans. The IC has also said Russia probed voting systems, but did not change any vote counts.

There is little disagreement among Republicans and Democrats that Russia meddled in the election, but Democrats and Trump critics have accused the Trump campaign of colluding with Russia to win the election.

Clinton campaign officials first suggested in the summer of 2016 that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia. They did not reveal they had hired Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on Trump and his ties to Russia, which later became known as the Steele dossier, after its author, ex-British spy Christopher Steele. Many of the sources of Steele’s dossier are Russians, raising the prospect that it was part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

Steele would forward his work on to the FBI, which later opened an investigation into the Trump campaign. Democrats argue the investigation was not affected by the Steele dossier, but Republicans have shown that the FBI used the dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant against a Trump campaign member that swept up conversations with other Trump campaign members.

During the hearing, Democratic senators criticized the Trump administration for not talking more about the cyber threat from Russia.

Sen. Angus King (I-ME) sympathized with the president, but said he should make it clear there is a threat from Russia.

“I understand the president’s sensitivity about whether his campaign was in connection with the Russians, and that’s a — that’s a separate question.

“But there is no question — we’ve got before us the entire intelligence community — that the Russians interfered in the election in 2016, they’re continuing to do it and they’re a real, imminent threat to our elections in a matter of eight or nine months,” he said.

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