Intelligence agencies expect Russia to target midterms

Deb Riechmann
Associated Press

Washington – The Trump administration predicts Russia will meddle in U.S. elections this year as it pursues bolder cyber operations and false information campaigns against America and its allies, U.S. intelligence agencies said Tuesday.

In this year’s global threats assessment, they also described the risk of conflict, especially with North Korea, as higher today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. So, too, is a rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is destabilizing the Middle East. The danger posed by weapons of mass destruction also is rising.

“In the next year, Russian intelligence and security services will continue to probe U.S. and allied critical infrastructures, as well as target the United States, NATO, and allies for insights into U.S. policy,” the report said.

“The 2018 U.S. midterm elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations.”

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats was even stronger.

“Russians stepped up their game with cyber, in particular, in 2016,” Coats said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

His expectation: Russian interference in the midterm or in state elections.

“We think it’s very likely because we don’t see a let up in efforts to do this,” Coats told the AP.

U.S. intelligence concluded Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election, which has led to the current FBI investigation into possible Trump campaign connections. Russia denies the allegations and President Donald Trump has called the FBI probe as a witch hunt.

Tuesday’s report predicted Russian intelligence agencies will disseminate more false information over Russian state-controlled media and through fake online personas to spread anti-American views and exacerbate social and political divides in the United States.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo also has said he expects Russia will insert itself in the November midterms, in which Republicans and Democrats will vie for control of the House and Senate. “We will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great,” Pompeo recently told the BBC.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chimed in, telling Fox News the U.S. is seeing “certain behaviors” of Russian meddling in elections in the Northern Hemisphere, including “in the U.S.” this year.

Coats and other top intelligence officials were appearing at a Senate intelligence committee hearing Tuesday to discuss their annual assessment of global threats facing the United States.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States, Russian and Chinese aggression, the standoff between Iranian and Saudi Arabia-backed proxies and the threat of cyberattacks are all detailed in the 28-page paper.

“Cyber has been a game-changer in many, many ways,” Coats said. “The United States is under attack – now.”

Cyber threats are coming from governments, terror groups, criminal organizations, students sitting in dorm rooms and individuals working in basements with the technical ability to breach U.S. agencies, intelligence bodies or the military, he said.

Coats said the U.S. must craft responses to minimize attacks. The report singled out Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as posing the greatest cyber threats to the U.S.

Coats said if those trying to hack America’s critical infrastructure, undermine the government or hit financial institutions aren’t penalized, they’ll keep doing it. “We are behind the curve in coming to a policy,” he acknowledged.

The wide-ranging intelligence report also says:

– North Korea will likely conduct more missile tests this year and not negotiate away its nuclear capabilities.

– The conflict in Syria has shifted in favor of President Bashar Assad, enabling Russia and Iran to further entrench themselves in the country. The Syrian opposition’s seven-year insurgency isn’t capable of overthrowing him.

– Terror groups and criminal networks will exploit weak governments in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Homegrown violent extremists will be a most pressing but a difficult-to-detect threat in the United States, despite a drop in attacks in 2017.

– Russian and Chinese weapons to attack enemy satellites in space will likely reach initial operational capability in the next few years.

– Shiite militants will attack American targets in Iraq because they believe the U.S. security presence is no longer needed and support Iran’s aim to reduce U.S. influence in Iraq.