Intel chiefs warn of Russia threat to 2018 midterms

Top U.S. intelligence officials warned a Senate panel on Tuesday that they expect Russia to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceived its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsDespite clarification, Trump's Russia remarks put intel chiefs in tough spot Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Putin’s ‘incredible offer’ is a ploy to learn what we know and how we know it MORE told lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The testimony from Coats, CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Pence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE, FBI Director Christopher Wray and other intelligence officials affirmed heightening fears across the country that Moscow’s influence in this fall’s elections could rival its meddling in 2016.

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Just more than a year ago, the U.S. intelligence community released an unclassified assessment publicly blaming the Russian government for waging an influence operation designed to undermine American democracy, harm Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE and help Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE.

Russia’s efforts included directing cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC), leveraging social media to spread false information and trying to probe voting infrastructure in 21 states. Illinois confirmed a breach of the state registration database in which hackers accessed information on 200,000 voters.

The political fallout from Russia’s actions has hung over Trump’s presidency, with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE probing whether there were any links between Moscow and the Republican’s campaign. 

Trump himself has at times cast doubt on the intelligence committee’s report, saying in November he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials. He later affirmed that he was in agreement with the intelligence agencies, after criticizing their former leaders as “political hacks.”

On Tuesday, federal officials affirmed their confidence in the January 2017 report’s conclusions, but also focused on the risks going forward.

“This is not going to change or stop,” said NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers.

Pompeo said intelligence has “seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here,” something he described as “information warfare.”

While officials did not detail the extent of the activity, they signaled a willingness to discuss it with lawmakers later, during a classified session.

“Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies, using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy, sow discord and undermine our values,” said Coats.

Congress sought to levy penalties on Moscow last year, passing legislation with a veto-proof majority that imposed new sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election and other destabilizing activity. Trump begrudgingly signed the bill, which also limited his ability to unilaterally ease economic sanctions on Russia.

There have also been bipartisan legislative pushes to deter future foreign interference efforts and to help state officials shore up the security of their voting infrastructure before future elections.

With weeks before the midterm primaries begin, those efforts appear to have stalled, yielding frustrations on Capitol Hill. 

“This is an election year in our country, and it’s frankly frustrating to me that we haven’t passed legislation to help states strengthen the security of their voting systems,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (R-Maine) said during the hearing.

The Senate panel is preparing to soon release a slate of recommendations on election security.

“Voting begins in March. That's next month,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntOvernight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Hillicon Valley: DOJ appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | FBI agent testifies in heated hearing | Uproar after FCC changes rules on consumer complaints | Broadcom makes bid for another US company | Facebook under fire over conspiracy sites Hillicon Valley: Justice Department appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | New report on election security | FBI agent testifies in marathon hearing MORE (R-Mo.). “If we're going to have any impact on securing that voting system itself, it would seem to me that we need to be acting quickly.”

For its part, the Department of Homeland Security is helping state officials scan their systems for vulnerabilities and sharing information on threats to guard against potential attacks on voter databases and other election infrastructure.

The intelligence officials also signaled Tuesday that they are working to understand and blunt the threat.

“We have a significant effort. I am happy to talk about it in closed session,” Pompeo said.

“It is not just our effort, it is a certainly all of [intelligence community] effort — there may be others participating as well — to do our best to push back against this threat,” the CIA chief said. “It’s not just the Russian threat, it’s Iranians, Chinese — it’s a big, broad effort.”

Still, the testimony is sure to raise concerns among lawmakers that the new administration and Congress have not done enough to deter the threat.

“The message that came out loud and clear from every leader in the intelligence community: This is a problem that didn’t go away in 2016,” Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Overnight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback MORE (D-Va.) told reporters following the hearing.

“It is ongoing modus operandi that Russia uses throughout Western democracies, and it is remarkable that you got all the leaders in the intelligence community yet you still do not have the president of the United States acknowledging the level of this threat,” he said.

Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrChristine Todd Whitman: Trump should step down over Putin press conference GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki GOP Intel chairman: Trump should recognize Putin lies MORE (R-N.C.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he believes Trump is taking the threat seriously enough. 

“I’m not sure that there’s anything that we could do in addition to what we are currently doing to assure election security because the majority of that needs to be done at the state level,” Burr said. 

Burr did note that the federal government needs to better communicate with state officials on the threat landscape.

“Clearly, I think that the federal government needs to communicate better with the states of what actors like Russia’s intent is so that if states aren’t taking it seriously enough, it raises their level of commitment to election security,” Burr said.

Olivia Beavers contributed.