Lawmakers grill top intelligence officials on threats posed by Russia, China, and North Korea
- The leaders of six top US intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday for its annual "Worldwide Threats" hearing.
- Topics ranged from cybersecurity to terrorism to nuclear threats.
- The three big subjects were Russia, China, and North Korea.
The Senate Intelligence Committee grilled a panel of top-ranking intelligence officials about a series of rising global and cyber threats the United States faces on Tuesday.
Lawmakers and intel officials focused on the threats posed by China, Russia, and North Korea in particular. The hearing was elevated amid multiple congressional and FBI investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that Kremlin influence operations would continue for the foreseeable future, and that Russia's next target is the 2018 midterm elections.
In addition to Coats, witnesses included CIA director Mike Pompeo, FBI director Christopher Wray, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers, and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency director Robert Cardillo.
Coats said addressing cybersecurity threats was his "greatest concern" and "top priority," placing it ahead of threats like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
"Frankly, the United States is under attack," Coats said, "by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place" within the country.
He went on to outline major cyber threats posed by Russia, North Korea, and China, adding that Russia is likely to pursue "even more aggressive cyber attacks" than what it has previously undertaken "with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances."
The intelligence chiefs unanimously agreed, when asked, that they had seen no decrease in Russia's influence operations and that the Kremlin would continue targeting US elections, beginning with the 2018 midterms.
Officials also said that their assessment of Russia's threat had not changed since the intelligence community released a declassified report on Russia's election meddling in January 2017.
Weaponizing social media to spread fake news
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member, told the panel that the US was "caught off guard" by the way Russia weaponized social media during the 2016 election to push pro-Trump propaganda and sow discord within the country.
In addition to using Twitter and Facebook to spread fake news, Russia-linked Facebook accounts also bought ads focused on exploiting American divisions over issues like race and immigration.
The accounts' activity did not stop at posting controversial memes and hashtags - many even organized events, rallies and protests, some of which galvanized dozens of people.
The US intelligence community concluded in January 2017 that the social media operation was part of a larger influence campaign by Russia - and that assessment, according to former intelligence chief James Clapper, "did serve to cast doubt on the legitimacy" of the election outcome.
In response to Warner's concerns about continued Russian social media use, Coats said the intelligence community's priority was to address the issue "as quickly as possible."
He added they were working in conjunction with the private sector, which Coats said was beginning to recognize the problems their platforms have raised. "We cannot, as a federal government, direct them what to do, but we are expending every effort to work with them," he said.
Following Warner's claim that the US was ill-prepared to handle Russia's disinformation campaign, Republican Sen. Jim Risch disagreed and said the "American people are ready for this. Now they're going to look askance a lot more at the information that is attempted to be passed out through social media."
"The American people are smart people, they realize people are attempting to manipulate them, both domestic and foreign," Risch continued. "I agree with everybody on the panel that this is going on. This is the way the Russians have done business. This is no surprise to us ... so I think the American people are much more prepared than before."
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