By Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris
WASHINGTON - The U.S. government’s top intelligence official said on Tuesday he expects Russia to continue using propaganda, false personas and other tactics to undermine the upcoming elections.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts” to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign “as a success,” and it “views the 2018 midterm elections” as another opportunity to conduct an attack, said Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats.
Coats also called on lawmakers to take actions to shrink the size of the national debt, which he said “represents a dire threat to our economic and national security.” Coats said he was concerned by a “fractious” partisan environment on Capitol Hill that “is threatening our ability to properly defend our nation.”
His remarks came at the beginning of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual hearing on worldwide threats to national security. His assessment was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly he had “every expectation” that Russia will try to influence the coming elections.
The committee’s Democratic vice chairman faulted the Trump administration for not preparing for potential Russian interference in the 2018 elections.
“Make no mistake: This threat did not begin in 2016, and it certainly didn’t end with the election,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. “What we are seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions, and they are going to keep coming at us.”
“Despite all of this, the President inconceivably continues to deny the threat posed by Russia,” Warner continued. “He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so. He hasn’t even Tweeted a single concern. This threat demands a whole-of-government response, and that needs to start with leadership at the top.”
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray also is appearing Tuesday morning at the hearing, where he is expected to field questions on security clearances for White House personnel and whether he remains confident in the independence of his agents.
Wray is one of six top intelligence agency heads testifying at the annual worldwide threats hearing, which comes as the White House is seeking to deflect criticism over its handling of a security clearance for a senior aide accused of spousal abuse by saying it relies on law enforcement and intelligence agencies to run the process.
The bureau is under fire from President Trump and his GOP allies for its handling of investigations related to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Though the Russia probe is now led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, he is using FBI agents and federal prosecutors to conduct the investigation, which began under Wray’s predecessor in July 2016.
Democrats are expected to ask whether Wray, who in December defended his agency’s independence and integrity before the House Judiciary Committee, is still confident that his agents are acting in an impartial manner in the Russia probe. House Republicans have said in a recently released memo that political bias at the FBI led to the use of Democratic Party-funded material in an application for a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign adviser; the release of a rebuttal memo by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee has so far been blocked by the White House, citing the need to remove classified information from it.
Mueller is examining, among other things, whether Trump or his associates coordinated with Russian officials to undermine Clinton’s White House bid and whether the president sought to obstruct the investigation.
For National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, who will be retiring this spring, this will be his final threat hearing.
Also testifying will be the CIA Director Mike Pompeo Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley Jr. and the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Robert Cardillo.
The House Intelligence Committee has canceled its annual hearing this year, an intelligence official said.