Top U.S. intel official: ‘highly likely’ Russia will seek to influence 2018 U.S. vote

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. intelligence official said on Tuesday President Donald Trump’s administration is “actively engaged” in efforts to prevent Russian efforts to influence the November midterm elections, even as he warned of Moscow’s continuing “malign activities.”

“The White House is actively engaged,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a U.S. Senate hearing. “This is a high priority for them,” he said.

Coats and other U.S. intelligence officials have warned repeatedly that Russia is already trying to interfere in the 2018 elections by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports, much as it did during the 2016 campaign.

“We have not seen evidence of a robust effort yet on the part of Russia, but we know their malign activities continue to exist,” Coats told a Senate Armed Services hearing on “Worldwide Threats.”

“It’s highly likely that they will be doing something. We just don’t know how much and when and where,” Coats said.

U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia sought to influence the 2016 presidential election to boost then-Republican candidate, President Donald Trump. The finding has shadowed Trump’s first 14 months in the White House amid multiple congressional investigations and a probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Moscow denies seeking to meddle in the U.S. vote. Trump has denied collusion between his associates and Russia.

Lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have accused the Trump administration of doing too little to combat hacking of this year’s election, when control of the U.S. Congress is up for grabs.

Coats told the hearing the Treasury Department could announce sanctions on Russia as soon as next week.

Some committee members pressed Coats on who was responsible for countering Russian propaganda online, noting administration officials refer to the need for a “whole of government approach.”

Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich said, “I fear a ‘whole of government approach’ has been a catch-all for ‘It’s someone else’s job.'”

Trump’s nominee to lead the National Security Agency, Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, told Senate Armed Services he did not think Russia expected much of a U.S. response to cyber attacks. Admiral Mike Rogers, the current NSA director, told the panel Trump had not granted him authority to disrupt Russian hacking.

Coats said intelligence agencies have been providing intelligence on the matter continuously to the administration.

“We see this continuing influence by the Russians and we want to be not only defensively ready. We’re working with states and local election officials,” he said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle Additional reporting by Eric Walsh Editing by Franklin Paul and James Dalgleish)

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