The nation’s five intelligence heads, all Trump appointees, were on the Hill yesterday testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee. All five testified that Russia interfered in our presidential election in 2016, and is already interfering in our 2018 midterm elections, and that President Trump has not issued them any express directives to stop the Russian interference. The nation’s top spies said Russia is continuing to target the U.S. political system:
The nation’s top intelligence chiefs were united Tuesday in declaring that Russia is continuing efforts to disrupt the U.S. political system and is targeting the 2018 midterm elections, following its successful operation to sow discord in the most recent presidential campaign.
Their assessment stands in contrast to President Trump, who has repeatedly voiced skepticism of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
In fact, CNN reports, Trump still unconvinced Russia meddled in 2016 election: President Donald Trump still isn’t buying that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, even as his intelligence chiefs unanimously told a Senate panel Tuesday that Russia meddled in 2016 and is planning to do so again in 2018, three sources familiar with the President’s thinking say he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered in the presidential election.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, Democrats demanded to know what the intelligence community is doing to counter Russia’s actions and whether Trump has given explicit directions to do so.
“We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, without a whole-of-government response when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
The disconnect between Trump and his senior-most intelligence advisers has raised concerns that the U.S. government will not be able to mount an effective plan to beat back Russian influence operations in the upcoming midterm elections. And Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said there is “no single agency in charge” of blocking Russian meddling, an admission that drew the ire of Democrats.
“The fact that we don’t have clarity about who’s in charge means, I believe, we don’t have a full plan,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the committee, which is conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
He also said that social media companies, whose platforms have been fertile turf for Russian bots seeking to stoke divisions among Americans, have been “slow to recognize the threat” and that “they’ve still got more work to do.”
Coats said that Russia will continue using propaganda, false personas and social media to undermine the upcoming election.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts” to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign “as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” said Coats, the leader of the U.S. government’s 17 intelligence agencies.
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 that he had “every expectation” that Russia will try to influence the coming election.
The intelligence community’s consensus on Russia’s intentions led Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to press officials on whether Trump has directed them to take “specific actions to confront and to blunt” Russian interference activities.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the bureau is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter Russian meddling but was “not specifically directed by the president.” And Pompeo added that Trump “has made very clear we have an obligation” to make sure policymakers have a deep understanding of the Russia threat.
Coats also said the intelligence agencies “pass onto the policymakers, including the president,” relevant intelligence.
Reed pressed on his question: “Passing on relevant intelligence is not actively disrupting the operations of an opponent. Do you agree?”
Coats said, “We take all kinds of steps to disrupt Russian activities.”
Pompeo added: “Senator Reed, we have a significant effort. I’m happy to talk about it in closed session.”
A visibly frustrated Reed responded: “The simple question I’ve posed is, has the president directed the intelligence community in a coordinated effort, not merely to report but to actively stop this activity, and the answer seems to be that . . . the reporting is going on, as reporting [goes on] about every threat going into the United States.”
Earlier in the hearing, Pompeo said that the intelligence community has offensive “capabilities” to “raise the costs to adversaries” seeking to hack into election systems to disrupt voting.
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King, citing the nuclear doomsday movie “Dr. Strangelove,” said “deterrence doesn’t work unless the other side knows” about the weapon.
“It’s true — it’s important that the adversary knows,” Pompeo said. “It’s not a requirement that the world know it.”
Asked whether the adversary knows about U.S. actions, he said, “I’d prefer to leave that for another forum.”
This bit of news also came out of the hearing:
At the end of the hearing, Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said that the panel hoped to release publicly the findings of its Russia investigation “before the primaries begin” in March. Their probe includes a review of the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment on Russian interference, he said. That assessment concluded that the Russians wanted to help get Trump elected.
The primary in Texas is March 6, and the primary in Illinois is March 20. So we are only a few weeks from the Senate Intelligence Committee releasing a report which will necessarily be incomplete and inconclusive regarding Russian collusion with the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post writes, We’re defenseless against Russian sabotage in the midterm elections. And Trump’s not helping.
President Trump, unwilling to acknowledge the degree of Russian meddling in the 2016 election (and thereby tainting his “victory” as a result, in part, of a hostile foreign power’s interference), has brushed aside numerous admonitions from Congress, outside experts and even his own advisers to harden our defenses against future interference.
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Trump’s refusal to defend our elections — a blatant instance of disregarding his oath of office — comes in the face of multiple calls to secure our election machinery. Max Bergmann, the head the Moscow Project for the Center for American Progress, told me “our democracy was attacked in 2016, and the intelligence community just unanimously told us that the Russians plan to do it again in the 2018 elections. Yet the response from Trump and the Republican Congress is a collective shrug.” Bergmann added: “There have been no Cabinet meetings on Russian interference, no agency has been charged with leading a response, and no election security legislation. Worse, the administration amazingly turned lemonade into lemons with the new Russia sanctions legislation by not sanctioning anyone.” He concluded, “this is a deliberate policy of appeasement that is practically inviting future attacks on our democracy.”
Other reports have documented the extent of the challenge, and have made a raft of recommendations.
“The Republic at Risk,” a joint project from Stand Up Ideas and Protect Democracy, warned that “guaranteeing the integrity of our elections, and ensuring that the American people have confidence in our electoral system, are paramount to repairing our political system.” The report recommended that the administration work to both prevent cyberattacks and provide “technical assistance for campaigns and parties, to harden security to prevent hacking.” Protect Democracy’s executive director Ian Bassin tells me, “Americans of all political backgrounds need to start asking why Trump believes Vladimir Putin but not Trump’s own hand-picked intelligence chief when it comes to what the Russians did and continue to do to wage war on our democracy. He adds, “As Director Coats makes clear with respect to the mid-terms, the time to act is now – we have no time to waste.”
Likewise, the progressive Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report, which said: “Election officials across the country say they are heading into the 2018 midterms with outdated voting machines and computer systems, and many of them do not have the resources to replace them. In response to a nationwide survey distributed by the Brennan Center for Justice at [New York University] Law, 229 officials in 33 states reported they need to replace their voting machines by 2020. Most of these officials do not currently have enough funds for those replacements. The Brennan Center says these old machines are more vulnerable to breakdown, malfunction, and hacking.” A number of bipartisan measures in Congress to provide grants for election security, to fund voting equipment with paper back-ups and designate voting systems remain dormant in Congress, lacking and a sense of urgency from either the executive branch or congressional leadership.
The Republicans’ culpability in failing to move swiftly to protect our democratic machinery is stunning. At some point, their 2018 opponents will start asking: Why aren’t Republicans protecting American democracy against Russian aggression? The answer is that Trump’s ego seems to take precedence over the country’s defense — and congressional Republicans are too timid to force action.