The Trump administration’s top intelligence officials said during a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday that Russia is intent on disrupting elections in the United States and elsewhere.
President Donald Trump is facing sharp criticism for failing to act decisively to head off potential attempts by Russia to interfere in the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
“At a minimum, we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in his opening statement at the hearing.
Here are other key moments from the hearing with Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and others:
— Intelligence indicates Russia is specifically targeting the 2018 elections, Pompeo said.
“We have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle,” Pompeo said. Coats backed up the statement.
— Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) skewered Trump for not addressing the threat Russian hackers pose to future U.S. elections.
“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks. But we still do not have a plan,” the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said in his opening statement.
— Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) disputed Warner’s assessment that the U.S. was no better prepared now than in 2016 for Russian election meddling.
“I would respectfully disagree,” Risch said. “I think the American people are ready for this. I think they’re going to look askance a lot more at the information that’s attempted to be passed in social media … The American people are smart people. They realize there are people trying to manipulate them.”
— “There’s no single agency, quote, in charge” of addressing the problem, Coats said.
“Several agencies throughout the federal government have equities in this,” he said. “It’s clearly something that needs to be addressed, and addressed as quickly as possible.”
Coats said the government’s ability to force changes at social media companies, which have come under scrutiny over the spread of false information, is limited. “We cannot as a government direct them what to do,” he said.
— Coats also took a swipe at Trump and Congress over the national debt.
“The failure to address our long-term fiscal situation has increased the national debt to over $20 trillion and growing,” said Coats, a former GOP senator. “This situation is unsustainable, as I think we all know, and represents a dire threat to our economic and national security.”
— Coats said North Korean nuclear weapons are an “existential” threat to the U.S.
“This is an existential threat potentially to the United States but also to North Korea,” Coats said. “Kim Jong Un views any kind of kinetic attack or effort to force him to give up his nuclear weapons, is an existential threat to his nation and to his leadership in particular.”
— Pompeo seemed to confirm that his organization tried to recover powerful hacking tools but disputed media reports about the effort.
Late last week, The New York Times and the Intercept reported that the Trump administration entered into negotiations with a hacker and a Russian intermediary and spent $100,000 to try to retrieve cyber tools stolen by hackers from both the NSA and CIA.
Pompeo conceded that some effort was undertaken to reacquire the pilfered material. But he took issue with a media report that said the $100,000 spent by the administration ultimately failed to acquire the stolen hacking tools.
“The suggestion the CIA was swindled is false,” he said.
— Wray appeared to break with the White House timeline of events regarding former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned after allegations that he abused two ex-wives became public.
Wray said the bureau submitted a partial report to the White House in March on Porter and completed its scrub of the ex-aide’s background in late July. He said the FBI completed a follow-up in November after one was requested.
The FBI received more information in February and passed it along, Wray said.
But White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters last week that a background investigation into Porter was ongoing until the point that he announced his resignation on Wednesday. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday that the clearance process was “handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community.”
— Wray also said the FBI has “grave concerns” about the release of a GOP memo alleging some officials in the Russia probe inappropriately spied on a Trump campaign aide.
“I would just say, as we said publicly, that we had grave concerns about that memo’s release,” he said.
Democrats on the panel are working to release a rebuttal to the GOP memo, but they ran into resistance from the president and Justice Department officials who said it included sensitive national security information.
Martin Matishak, Ashley Gold and Ayanna Alexander contributed to this report.