The Kremlin-led influence operations targeting the U.S. electorate will continue into the 2018 midterms, U.S. intelligence community heads testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. But lawmakers and intelligence heads can’t seem to agree on what to do about the attack they all see coming.
Russia’s election meddling occupied a key spot in the intelligence community’s annual list of worldwide threats facing the United States. “We assess that the Russian intelligence services will continue their efforts to disseminate false information via Russian state-controlled media and covert online personas about US activities to encourage anti-US political views” reads the report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “The 2018 US midterm elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
CIA Director Mark Pompeo for months has acknowledged Russian meddling, and with some visible reluctance, Tuesday again agreed with the report’s assessment when pressed by Sen. Martin Heinrich, Democrat from New Mexico. “We have seen Russian activity and intentions to impact the 2018 election cycle,” he said.
Adm. Michael Rogers, the outgoing head of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, agreed. “This will not stop,” he said of Russian interference activities in response to a question about the midterm elections. The issue “would be a good topic to get into” in a classified setting taking place later, he said.
Is the United States sufficiently prepared to counter the activity? Here, the intelligence leaders seemed all over the map in their responses. Coats said, “We need to inform the American public that this is real…we are not going to allow some Russian to tell us how we’re going to vote. There needs to be a national cry for that.”
But when Sen. Angus King, D-Me., asked Coats specifically what the intelligence community could do to retaliate against Russian influence operations (and hacking operations against the United States in general) Coats replied: “Our role is to provide all the information that we can..so our policymakers can take that” and use it to create policy.
When King pointed out that the Trump administration had elected not to enforce additional sanctions against the Russian government for the Kremlin’s election-related hacking activity in 2016, Pompeo said that the community was trying to do something to deter Russian hacking, in general. “I can’t say much in this setting,” he said. “But to say we are doing nothing does not reflect our responses.”
When King asked Pompeo if it was important that Russia understand, specifically, that the United States was going to respond to malicious cyber activity, Pompeo was coy with his answer. “It’s important that the adversary know it, not that the whole world know it.” He then said that the difference between an act of war and malicious meddling was “a complicated problem.”
President Donald Trump has waffled in his endorsement of the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling. When one senator asked Pompeo if the president had asked him specifically to try and stop the Russian meddling in the midterm elections, Pompeo dodged, feigning an inability to understand the question. “I’m not sure how specific,” he said. It was his job to talk to the president about all threats, he said. And that was that.
Rogers agreed. “I can’t say that I’ve been specifically directed,” to stop Russian influence hacks aimed at the midterms. But he, like other intelligence leaders, had been tasked with reporting on what he had seen.
In his own prepared remarks, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s vice chairman and ranking Democrat, expressed frustration at the disconnect between warning and defending. “Despite all of this, the president inconceivably continues to deny the threat posed by Russia. He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so. He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern. This threat demands a whole-of-government response, and that needs to start with leadership at the top.”