Russian efforts to interfere in upcoming U.S. midterm elections have yet to reach the intensity of the Kremlin’s campaign to disrupt the 2016 presidential vote, but they’re only “a keyboard click away” from a more serious attack, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said.
“We have not seen that kind of robust campaign from them so far,” Coats said in a briefing at the White House on Thursday.
Coats was among five top national security leaders — including National Security Adviser John Bolton, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and General Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency — who blasted Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.
The White House is looking to tamp down criticism that PresidentDonald Trump has appeared reluctant to hold Russia accountable for election tampering. He provoked an uproar at the July summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki by casting doubt on U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
U.S. intelligence agencies have found that Russia in 2016 launched an effort to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Trump win. This month, special counsel Robert Mueller obtained indictments of 12 Russian officials in the GRU military intelligence agency for allegedly orchestrating the hacks of Democratic party organizations and Democratic officials. Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt.”
Coats said the Russians “are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party” to disrupt U.S. elections.
Wray added that Russian and other foreign actors are trying to suppress voting, provide illegal campaign funding and carry out cyberattacks.
“This is not just an election cycle threat,” Wray said. “Our adversaries are attempting to undermine our country” on a persistent basis.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, mocked the briefing the White House arranged with the five officials.
“Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security – even if it’s only a press conference,” he said in atweet. “Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia.”
Controversy over Trump’s messages on Russian election interference has renewed calls for additional sanctions on the Putin government.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Thursday to impose new sanctions on Russia, including penalties affecting sovereign debt and energy projects, and requiring a report on Putin’s assets and net worth.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement that the senators’ goal is to "impose crushing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the U.S. electoral process," stops cyberattacks and removes Russia from Ukraine.
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