Top intel official insists White House ‘engaged’ on Russian threat to midterms

Top intel official insists White House ‘engaged’ on Russian threat to midterms
© Greg Nash

Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFormer US intel official says Trump would often push back in briefings Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Intelligence agencies have stopped collecting cellphone data without warrants: letter MORE on Tuesday insisted that the White House is aware of and engaged on the issue of Russian threats to this year's midterm elections, amid fierce questioning from Democrats about what the Trump administration is doing to respond to potential threats.

“There is obviously concern about this ongoing effort by Russia to interfere in our elections,” Coats said in response to Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Biden reveals four women he could pick as his running mate MORE (D-N.H.). “The White House is well aware of that, as we all are. Agencies have been tasked to address this.” 

At the same time, he acknowledged the administration has yet to put in place a “coherent strategy” to address Russian interference.

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Coats’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee came one week after Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: FCC moves against Huawei, ZTE | Dem groups ask Google to reconsider ads policy | Bill introduced to increase data access during probes House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues The Hill's Campaign Report: Red-state governors races pose test for Trump MORE, head of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency (NSA), told the panel that he had not heard specific orders from Trump to disrupt Russian cyberattacks targeting upcoming elections.

“I haven’t been granted any additional authorities,” Rogers said last Tuesday, though he pushed back on criticism that the administration has done nothing to address the threat of Russian election interference.

Coats similarly pushed back during his testimony on Democrats’ assertions that there has been no action by the administration on the issue, referencing ongoing work by the Department of Homeland Security to secure election infrastructure.

“The White House has been engaged on this,” Coats said. He would not go into any detail about potential options being discussed to counter Russian interference threats, telling the lawmakers, “Much of what is being done or is being examined to be done would fall in a classified area.” 

Coats referenced ongoing discussions between the NSA, Homeland Security and the State Department on the issue. 

Earlier, Coats also insisted that cyber threats are a “top concern” at the White House, when asked by Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedRepublicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Top Armed Services Democrat scolds military leaders on Trump's intervention in war crimes cases MORE (D-R.I.) about what the administration is doing to address Russian cyber threats to U.S. elections.

He said he had discussed cyber threats “personally with the president” and said Trump had indicated he would give Coats any additional authorities he needed to do his job to counter the threat.

Later, Coats clarified that he was referring to cyber threats in general, not Russia’s election targeting.

“I did not understand it to be said in the context of the Russian influence on the elections,” Coats told Shaheen when asked to expand on his earlier statements. 

Coats, Rogers and other top U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia will likely look to interfere in the upcoming midterms.

Last week, Rogers acknowledged that Russia had not faced enough penalties to change its behavior. Coats agreed with that assessment on Tuesday.