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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 Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security New federal cybersecurity lead says 'rumor control' site will remain up through January 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 ShaheenBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 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 RogersOvernight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results 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 ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee 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.