The top US spy said “there’s no single agency in charge” of blocking potential Russian meddling in this year’s midterm elections during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, as the panel’s top Democrat tore into the Trump administration for inaction.
“It clearly is something that needs to be addressed and addressed as quickly as possible,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the committee during a hearing on Tuesday on global threats to the US.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner said “the fact that we don’t have clarity about who’s in charge means that we don’t have a full plan.”
“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter further attacks,” Warner said. “But I believe, unfortunately, we still don’t have a comprehensive plan.”
Testimony by Coats that this year’s elections are a “potential target” for Russian interference underscores the continued unanimity among American intelligence agencies that Russia conducted an extensive campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump has dismissed the continuing investigation into Russian interference as a “witch hunt,” especially the suggestion that anyone close to him colluded in the effort.
Trump “hasn’t even tweeted a single concern” about Russian interference, Warner said.
Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told the intelligence officials: “We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one” when “the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray said that his agency and the Department of Homeland Security have scheduled meetings with state election officials to brief them on cyber threats.
In a hearing devoted to the intelligence community’s annual assessment of global threats, Coats appeared alongside Wray and Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo.
Coats said that while Russia would aim to cooperate with the US in areas that advance its interests, intelligence officials expect Moscow – “at a minimum” – to continue using propaganda, social media, “false-flag personas,” sympathetic spokesmen and other venues to “try to exacerbate social and political fissures” in the US.
From missiles to cyberattacks, the intelligence assessment paints a world where China and Russia seek to upend US influence as allies uncertain of American commitment may turn away from Washington.
“China and Russia will seek spheres of influence and to check US appeal and influence in their regions,” Coats said in his prepared testimony. Without directly criticising Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, Coats said, “US allies’ and partners’ uncertainty about the willingness and capability of the United States to maintain its international commitments may drive them to consider reorienting their policies, particularly regarding trade, away from Washington.”
Among the global hazards Coats discussed in his presentation include North Korea.
The intelligence community believes that the government of Kim Jong-un is likely to press ahead with more missile tests this year. Its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and deploy long-range missiles suggest “that the regime does not intend to negotiate them away.”
Pyongyang also will use cyber operations to raise funds and gather intelligence or launch attacks on South Korea and the US. Coats’ prepared remarks attribute last year’s WannaCry ransomware attack to North Korean hackers, as well as the cyber theft of US$81 million from the Bank of Bangladesh in 2016.
Even as North Korea develops its nuclear arsenal, Kim “continues to expand the regime’s conventional strike options with more realistic training, artillery upgrades, and close-range ballistic missiles that improve North Korea’s ability to strike regional U.S. and allied targets with little warning.”
As for Iran, he said the nuclear agreement with world powers has extended the time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year. The accord has “enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities.” At the same time, “Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field” an intercontinental ballistic missile, according to Coats.
In Syria, Iran is trying to establish permanent military bases and maintaining a network of Shiite foreign fighters in the country, the intelligence officials say.
The Syrian opposition probably has enough resources to sustain the conflict for at least a year but is “probably no longer capable of overthrowing” President Bashar al-Assad, or “overcoming a growing military disadvantage.” Assad’s ally Russia probably can’t force him to agree to a political settlement that he believes “significantly weakens him.”
From Islamic State to al-Qaeda, “Sunni violent extremists” are still bent on attacking the US and American interests overseas, “but their attacks will be most frequent in or near conflict zones or against enemies that are more easily accessible.”
Pakistan continues to develop new types of nuclear weapons, including short-range tactical weapons, sea-based cruise missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and longer-range ballistic missiles, and “these new types of nuclear weapons will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the As As for space weapons, Russian and Chinese anti-satellite “weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years,” Coats said in the prepared remarks. China’s military has formed “units and begun initial operational training with counter-space capabilities that it has been developing” and Moscow is probably developing a similar system.