President Donald Trump’s intelligence chiefs on Thursday sounded the alarm, en masse, about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, warning that Moscow is seeking to “weaken” the U.S. and stir chaos and division ahead of the critical November contests.
“In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said alongside his fellow intelligence officials. “The Russians try to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike.”
As a result, Coats said, he is leading a whole-of-government approach to “provide the best threat assessments to federal, state and local officials, as well as to the public and private sector when necessary.” FBI Director Christopher Wray said the federal government has started to provide classified briefings and “actionable intelligence” to technology and social-media companies in order to “better enable them to address abuse of their platforms.”
The show of unity came less than a few weeks after Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence chiefs on the topic of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and his refusal to condemn Russia’s malign activities including its incursions into eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned. “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries who seek… to sow discord and undermine our way of life.”
Wray said foreign governments are continuously targeting U.S. officials with “intelligence tradecraft” in order to interfere with the political process. Last week, The Daily Beast first reported that Russian intelligence officers targeted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and tried, unsuccessfully, to hack into her Senate office’s computer network.
With the midterm elections less than 100 days away, Coats said Russia’s efforts to interfere in those contests are, so far, “not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election,” during which Democratic party apparatus was targeted in an effort to prop up Trump’s candidacy, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.
The intelligence officials, who made an unannounced appearance at the daily White House press briefing, also suggested that the Trump administration was willing to employ new methods to counter election interference.
Gen. Paul Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said his agencies are “prepared to conduct cyber operations against… actors attempting to undermine [the] nation’s midterm elections.” Earlier this year, Nakasone’s predecessor, Adm. Mike Rogers, said he had not yet been authorized to conduct such operations.
“Our forces are well-trained, ready, and very capable,” Nakasone said.
On Capitol Hill, that prospect is gaining steam. After the Senate declined on Wednesday to set aside more money for election security, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) suggested to The Daily Beast that the sanctions regime currently in place to weaken Russia is not working.
“We’re reluctant to fight fire with fire. We don’t play by the same rules the Russians do. And that’s because we’re not the Russians. We’re different, and we should stay different,” Murphy said. “But at some point, we need to think about offensive capabilities... to counter their persistent attacks on us.”
Wray also stressed that the interference was not occurring only during election years. He mentioned the “broader threat of influence operations” on social media “designed to manipulate and influence our voters and opinions.” This week, Facebook suspended 32 accounts that it believed were engaging in coordinated political influence campaigns. One spent $11,000 on advertisements and gathered support from genuine activists.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, insisted that the president was taking “decisive action” against foreign interference as the midterm elections approach. He told reporters that senior White House staffers “meet on this consistently… [In] less than two months, we’ve already had two full national security council meetings chaired by the president.”
While Coats said that Russia may not be the only actor interested in interfering in American elections, he suggested that many of its capabilities remain unknown to U.S. intelligence officials.
“Russia has used numerous ways to influence through social media, bots, actors they hire—all of the above and potentially more,” he said.