A phalanx of U.S. intelligence leaders confirmed this week ongoing Russian cyber and malign operations, attacks against U.S. midterm elections, and plans to counter the threat.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, National Security Agency head Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats joined forces on Thursday to show a united front against Russian cyber and malign influence operations.
“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats said. DNI Coats added:
“We also know the Russians tried to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike. We are aware that Russia is not the only country that has an interest in trying to influence our domestic political environment. We know there are others who have the capability and may be considering influence activities. As such, we will continue to monitor and warn of any such efforts.”
Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Kirstjen Nielsen, having the greatest responsibility for defending the country’s voting infrastructure, added:
“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek, as the DNI just said, to sow discord and undermine our way of life. I fully share the intelligence community and the ODNI’s assessments of past efforts and those today to interfere with our election and of the current threat. Our adversaries have shown they have the willingness and capability to interfere in our elections.”
Secretary Nielsen added, “The progress we have made is real, and the nation’s elections are more resilient today because of the work we are all doing. But we must continue to ensure that our democracy is protected.”
Secretary Nielsen highlighted that DHS is partnering with states to protect voter rolls and voting machines, and to build the capacity to confirm votes even in the case of a cyber attack. The other leaders on the stage confirmed that DHS would have access to their resources to secure U.S. elections.
FBI Director Wray stated, “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day. This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus.”
Director Wray included details of the threat:
“So just a few examples of some of the things we’ve seen over the past: targeting U.S. officials and other U.S. persons through traditional intelligence tradecraft; criminal efforts to suppress voting and provide illegal campaign financing; cyberattacks against voting infrastructure, along with computer intrusions targeting elected officials and others; and a whole slew of other kinds of influence, like both overtly and covertly manipulating news stories, spreading disinformation, leveraging economic resources, and escalating divisive issues.”
General Nakasone stated that the NSA is “providing intelligence and information leads to the Federal Bureau of Investigation on foreign adversaries who are attempting to sow discord and division within the American public.” Gen. Nakasone added, “This information is shared with appropriate entities to alert them to malicious cyber actors.”
Upon opening the floor up to questions, a reporter asked DNI Coats, “the President [in Helsinki] seemed to indicate that he may believe Vladimir Putin, when he says he … didn’t have any influence in the 2016 election. What is your belief about the Russian government involvement in meddling in 2016?” The reporter added, “And if, as you say, Russia continues to try to influence our electoral process, does that mean that nothing much came of the meeting with Putin? Or is it other-than-government actors who are involved here?”
DNI Coats responded, in part:
“Well, in relationship to the 2016 election — of course, none of us were in office at that particular time — but both the President, the Vice President, and I think everyone on this stage has acknowledged the fact that the ICA [Intelligence Community Assessment] was a correct assessment of what happened in 2016. We have subsequently made the determination to make this a top priority, that it doesn’t happen again. And we’re throwing everything at it. And we will have and will be discussing that here today.”
As to his discussions with President Trump, Coats stated “I do not go public with that. I don’t think that’s the right — the proper thing to do. So our focus here today is simply to tell the American people: We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.”
Coats added, “In addition to that, it goes beyond the elections. It goes to Russia’s intent to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies, and do a number of other nefarious things. And we are looking at that also.”
A follow up question asked, “Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted more than 20 Russian officials based on work by the FBI for meddling in the 2016 elections. Now the President has tweeted that that investigation by the Special Counsel is a hoax and should be shut down. I know you’ve said that you don’t believe it is a hoax. But why would the American people believe what you’re saying about the FBI when the President says that the investigation by the Special Counsel is a hoax, and when the Press Secretary, yesterday, said that there was a lot of corruption within the FBI? Do you have any response to those statements coming from the White House?”
Director Wray responded, “Well, I can assure the American people that the men and women of the FBI, starting from the Director all the way on down, are going to follow our oaths and do our jobs.”
Pertaining to administration statements made prior to Helsinki that President Trump would raise the issue of malign activity with President Putin, and that the President has directed that the issue of election meddling be made a priority, a reporter asked, “How do you explain the disconnect between what you are saying — his advisors — and what the President has said about this issue?”
Ambassador Bolton responded. “The issue was discussed. And, in fact, President Putin said — I thought at the press conference, but certainly in the expanded bilateral meeting when the two leaders got together with their senior advisors — President Putin said the first issue that President Trump raised was election meddling.”
When pressed further that President Trump did not highlight any Russian malign activities at the press conference following Helsinki, and so, “should Americans believe that he is listening to your advice, or that he is going his own way when he’s having meetings like he did with the President of Russia?”, Bolton responded in the affirmative. “I think the President has made it abundantly clear to everybody who has responsibility in this area that he cares deeply about it and that he expects them to do their jobs to their fullest ability and that he supports them fully.”
At the press conference White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated, “The President has made it clear that his administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state or other dangerous actor.”
Ambassador John Bolton further explained, “The President has made it very clear, I think, what his priority is … And I think it’s important that we address the question of the President’s involvement in this, his leadership, his determination to prevent Russian and other foreign influence in elections. We meet on this constantly, the senior staff here at the White House. We meet with the heads of the different agencies involved and we discuss it quite regularly.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee responded to the press conference.
Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security – even if it’s only a press conference. Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia. https://t.co/NhKnhxgZ4p
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) August 2, 2018
Later that day, President Trump spoke at a rally in Pennsylvania.
“In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin,” Trump said in reference to a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin held in Helsinki, Finland. “We discussed everything … We got along really well. By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax — it’s a hoax, OK?”
Since taking office, President Trump has made several decisions detrimental to Russian interests, such as: reversing the Obama era policy on preventing the sale of heavy weapons to Ukraine in their fight against Russian backed proxies, approved strikes against Russian troops in Syria and Syrian air bases, and expelling record numbers of Russian diplomats in response to Putin’s alleged poisoning of his political enemies.
This week’s press conference came the day after the legislative branch of government voted against the very concerns raised by the intelligence leaders. Senate Republicans, with the single exception of Senator Bob Corker, voted down an appropriations bill which would have provided $250 million to the states to secure voter rolls and voting machines. However, Congress appropriated $380 million for these purposes in April.
Republicans said they wouldn’t appropriate more money for this issue until they saw how the states would choose to spend the previous $380 million. There were also concerns that the legislation “would just be another step maybe towards convincing the states that somebody besides them is going to be responsible for elections in their state,” said Republican Senator Roy Blunt.
The constitution delegates executive authority over conducting elections to the states, and laws which specify new programs to enhance election security are being blocked from the legislative agenda by Republican Senate and House leadership.
Congressional advancing of funding to address Russian meddling is being done through the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an entity set up in 2002. Ironically, the Help America Vote Act which set up the EAC is largely responsible for taking voting away from paper ballots and toward digital voting in response to the controversy surrounding “hanging chads” during the 2000 presidential election in Florida.
In the words of Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, “Russia cannot hack a piece of paper.”
Congressional investigations have concluded that Russia attempted to hack 21 state electoral systems, and successfully gained access to Illinois’ voter registration system.
Going on the Offensive
Gen. Nakasone used the occasion of the press conference to announce that the Department of Defense would be deploying offensive operations against the Russians, but did not go into specifics.
The following morning a bipartisan group of Senators announced legislation which would implement “crushing” sanctions, along with an array of other punitive measures targeting Russia. The Senators, Republicans Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Cory Gardner, and Democrats Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin, and Jeanne Shaheen, said that the legislation was necessary because the Russians were continuing to launch cyber attacks on the upcoming midterm elections in the U.S., in spite of the sanctions which have already been brought into force.
“Our goal is to change the status quo and impose crushing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the US electoral process, halts cyber-attacks on US infrastructure, removes Russia from Ukraine, and ceases efforts to create chaos in Syria,” Graham said in a statement.
The sanctions would specifically target investments in Russian state-owned energy infrastructure, the ability of the Russian state to issue new public debt, specific Russian oligarchs, politicians, and intelligence operatives (along with their families).
Not all bad news for Russia
Reporting by the Guardian on Friday revealed that a suspected Russian spy had been working at the U.S. embassy in Moscow for over a decade. The Russian national was hired by the U.S. Secret Service, and had access to the agency’s internet and email systems, which would have given her access to confidential material, such as the daily schedules of the president and vice-president.
“The US Congress is focusing on Russian hackers when it is possible that all of the information they needed to get into the system came from the internal breach in the Secret Service,” the Guardian’s anonymous “intelligence source” said. Their source says that the extent of the damage from this potential breach has yet to be determined.
The US Department of State’s Regional Security Office found that she had been holding regular unauthorized meetings with the Russian Federal Security Service, Russia’s primary intelligence agency. The State Department informed the Secret Service in January 2017. The Guardian reported that the Secret Service did not launch a full inquiry, instead opting to quietly fire the woman several months later.
[Title Photo: Mark Wilson][From left: National security adviser John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and chief of U.S. Cyber Command Gen. Paul M. Nakasone attending the press briefing on election security at the White House on Thursday]
LIMA CHARLIE NEWS
[Anthony A. LoPresti and Diego Lynch contributed to this article]
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