Russia Sees US Midterms as 'Potential Target,' Spy Chief Says
This year’s midterm elections are a “potential target” for Russian influence operations, with Moscow likely to exploit social media and other platforms to fuel divisions, according to the top U.S. spy.
Russia is probably the most capable and aggressive of all the countries capable of such operations, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in prepared remarks for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. In a review of the intelligence community’s annual assessment of global threats, he was to appear alongside officials, including Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
“Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes,” Coats said. “We assess that the Russian intelligence services will continue their efforts to disseminate false information via Russian state-controlled media and covert online personas about U.S. activities to encourage anti-U.S. political views.”
The testimony underscores continued unanimity among American intelligence agencies that Russia conducted an extensive campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential campaign. President Donald Trump has dismissed the continuing investigation into Russian interference as a “witch hunt,” especially the suggestion that anyone close to him colluded in the effort.
Senator Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said in his opening statement that “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.”
Trump “hasn’t even tweeted a single concern,” he said.
Coats said that while Russia would aim to cooperate with the U.S. in areas that advance its interests, intelligence officials expect Moscow — “at a minimum” — to continue using propaganda, social media, “false-flag personas,” sympathetic spokesmen and other venues to “try to exacerbate social and political fissures” in the U.S.
From missiles to cyberattacks, the intelligence assessment paints a world where China and Russia seek to upend U.S. influence as allies uncertain of American commitment may turn away from Washington.
“The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” Coats said in the prepared testimony. “The most immediate threats of regional interstate conflict in the next year come from North Korea and from Saudi-Iranian use of proxies in their rivalry. At the same time, the threat of state and non-state use of weapons of mass destruction will continue to grow.”
Among the global hazards Coats discussed in his presentation:
The intelligence community believes that the government of Kim Jong Un is likely to press ahead with more missile tests this year. Its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and deploy long-range missiles suggest “that the regime does not intend to negotiate them away.”
Pyongyang also will use cyber operations to raise funds and gather intelligence or launch attacks on South Korea and the U.S. Coats’s prepared remarks attribute last year’s WannaCry ransomware attack to North Korean hackers, as well as the cyber theft of $81 million from the Bank of Bangladesh in 2016.
Even as North Korea develops its nuclear arsenal, Kim “continues to expand the regime’s conventional strike options with more realistic training, artillery upgrades, and close-range ballistic missiles that improve North Korea’s ability to strike regional U.S. and allied targets with little warning.”
The nuclear agreement with world powers has extended the time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year. The accord has “enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities.” At the same time, “Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field” an intercontinental ballistic missile, according to Coats.
The Syria Conflict:
In Syria, Iran is trying to establish permanent military bases and maintaining a network of Shiite foreign fighters in the country, the intelligence officials say.
The Syrian opposition probably has enough resources to sustain the conflict for at least a year but is “probably no longer capable of overthrowing” President Bashar al-Assad, or “overcoming a growing military disadvantage.” Assad’s ally Russia probably can’t force him to agree to a political settlement that he believes “significantly weakens him.”
From Islamic State to al-Qaeda, “Sunni violent extremists” are still bent on attacking the U.S. and American interests overseas, “but their attacks will be most frequent in or near conflict zones or against enemies that are more easily accessible.”
Pakistan continues to develop new types of nuclear weapons, including short-range tactical weapons, sea-based cruise missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and longer-range ballistic missiles, and “these new types of nuclear weapons will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the region.”
Russian and Chinese anti-satellite “weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years,” Coats said in the prepared remarks. China’s military has formed “units and begun initial operational training with counterspace capabilities that it has been developing” and Moscow is probably developing a similar system.
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