Top US intelligence official Dan Coats issues ominous warning on Russian influence

  • Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday that Russia has come "out of hibernation" and poses a stark threat — cyber and otherwise — to the US and its allies.
  • "Thanks to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, we've gotten a wake-up call," Coats said.
  • Coats joined other intelligence chiefs in assessing that despite Russia's aggression, the White House and the US government have not responded adequately and that, as a result, Russia will continue its activities and target the 2018 midterm elections.

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The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, painted a stark picture Tuesday of the imminent cyber threat Russia poses to the US.

Russia "is likely to continue to pursue even more aggressive attacks, with the intent of degrading our Democratic values and weakening our alliances," Coats said during a "Worldwide Threats" hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The US intelligence community concluded last year that, in perhaps its most overt act of cyber aggression against the West, Russia mounted an elaborate and multi-faceted campaign to interfere in the 2016 US election to tilt the race in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

In addition to establishing contact with several Trump campaign aides, Russia-linked actors also hacked into the Democratic National Committee and disseminated stolen materials to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton; carried out a social media influence campaign to sow discord and spread disinformation; and breached critical election infrastructure in at least seven US states while targeting as many as 39.

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This graphic of Jesus and Hillary Clinton is an actual post shared by the Russian page “Army of Jesus,” released du… https://t.co/08ObFsWnkG
this Russian-bought ad presented without comment (except to say it's a Russian-bought ad) https://t.co/X4Atha4fil
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Russia is continuing its military and cyber aggression toward countries like neighboring Ukraine, which it has been using as a cyberweapon "testing ground" since at least 2015. Russia is also thought to be behind the massive "NotPetya" cyberattack that crippled countries and organizations across the globe last June, the hack of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and the attempted infiltration of elections across Europe in recent years.

"Thanks to Vladimir Putin, we've gotten a wake-up call," Coats said Tuesday. "The Russian bear came out of hibernation and was hungry ... so NATO's now back in business."

Coats added that although it was "disappointing" that Germany, "the country most capable of providing strength and resources to NATO," was not contributing as much as the US would like, other member states have stepped up to combat Russia and provide "significant coordination and integration to intelligence that NATO hadn't had before."

The Trump administration has so far been slow to publicly address Russia's ongoing aggression.

After repeatedly casting doubt on the assessment that Russia interfered in the election, Trump has acknowledged its meddling, but denied that it had done so in an effort to help his campaign.

Meanwhile, FBI director Christopher Wray said in January that Trump has not "specifically directed" him or the bureau to counter Russia's activities. Last week, National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers told Congress that Trump had not granted him the authority to combat Russia's election hacking efforts at the source.

Rogers added that the US has "not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors we are seeing" with respect to Russia, and that the US's response "has not changed the calculus or the behavior on behalf of the Russians."

"President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there's little price to pay and that therefore 'I can continue this activity,'" Rogers said. "Clearly what we have done hasn't been enough."

Coats said Tuesday that he agreed with Rogers' assessment.

White House efforts to combat Russian cyber efforts remain unclear

The intelligence chiefs' comments signify a broadening difference between the US intelligence community and the White House when it comes to assessing the urgency of Russia's threats.

Last month, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the Department of Homeland Security was collaborating with state and local election officials to guard against future cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. She also added that that Trump has been focused on penalizing Russia on a number of other fronts, including approving lethal arms sales to Ukraine and shoring up the defense budget.

But the specifics of what the White House is doing to combat Russian meddling remain unclear. The New York Times reported last week, for instance, that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson squandered away more than $60 million the State Department was offered to counter Russian aggression.

In January, the Trump administration declined to enforce new sanctions on Russia that were designed to punish the Kremlin for its election interference.

Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said the law had already deterred Russian defense sales.

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US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaders Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet at the G-20 in Hamburg. 

(Image: Reuters video)

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaders Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet at the G-20 in Hamburg. 

(Image: Reuters video)

HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 7, 2017: Melania Trump (L), First Lady of the United States, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of a G20 summit. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07: In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office (BPA), Donald Trump, President of the USA (C) meets Vladimir Putin, President of Russia and President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (L) during the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The G20 group of nations are meeting July 7-8 and major topics will include climate change and migration. (Photo by BPA via Getty Images)
HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07: In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office (BPA) Donald Trump, President of the USA (left), meets Vladimir Putin, President of Russia (right), at the opening of the G20 summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The G20 group of nations are meeting July 7-8 and major topics will include climate change and migration. (Photo by Steffen Kugler /BPA via Getty Images)
HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07: International leaders attend the group photo on the first day of the G20 economic summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The G20 group of nations are meeting July 7-8 and major topics will include climate change and migration. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to the US first lady Melania Trump (R) as they attend a state banquet in the Elbphilarmonie concert Hall on the first day of the G20 economic summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The G20 group of nations are meeting July 7-8 and major topics will include climate change and migration. . (Photo by Felipe Trueba - Pool / Getty Images)
HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07: World leaders pose for a family photo during the G20 summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. Leaders of the G20 group of nations are meeting for the July 7-8 summit. Topics high on the agenda for the summit include climate policy and development programs for African economies. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to U.S. President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes part in a family photo along with French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S.President Donald Trump, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, South African President Jacob Zuma, Argentina's President Mauricio Macri, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazilian President Michel Temer, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, U.N. Secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Senegal's President Macky Sall, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Saudi Arabia Minister of State Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf, Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) Secretary Jose Angel Gurria, World Trade Organization (WTO) Director Roberto Azevedo, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, International Labour Organization (ILO) Director Guy Ryder, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Financial Stability Board (FSB) President Mark Carney and other leaders at the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald Trump, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, South African President Jacob Zuma, Argentina's President Mauricio Macri, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and other leaders pose for a family photo at the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to Melania Trump during the official dinner at the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall during the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kay Nietfeld,Pool
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C-R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C-L) hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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"From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent," Nauert said.

Coats said Tuesday that he has "daily and weekly interactions" with the White House to brief the administration and national-security officials on Russia's cyber aggression and the impending threat to the 2018 midterm elections.

"Do you believe it's impossible to change someone's behavior, particularly someone like Vladmir Putin, without imposing some sort of cost on their actions?" Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Coats.

"I believe that," he responded.

When Heinrich asked whether imposing sanctions on Russia would be an appropriate response, Coats said that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is in the process of "bringing out a list of sanctions" against the 13 Russian nationals whom special counsel Robert Mueller charged last month with mounting a social media influence operation to interfere in the 2016 race.

Coats added that the sanctions will go further than just the 13 defendants, and that intelligence officials have been consulting with the Treasury Department on the matter.

Heinrich then asked Coats whether he had been specifically directed to provide analysis to the Treasury Department's decision about sanctions.

"I don't know that there was a direction on that," Coats replied. "All I do know is that we have been engaged on providing intelligence on this subject continuously."

SEE ALSO: Rex Tillerson reportedly squandered over $60 million that he was offered to counter Russian election meddling

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