Intel chiefs testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “World Wide Threats” on Capitol Hill on February 13, 2018.Thomson Reuters

  • 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.
  • China and North Korea were big topics of discussion, but lawmakers and officials focused most on Russia’s election interference and ongoing influence operations.

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, North Korea, and Russia in particular. The hearing was elevated amid multiple congressional and FBI investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

In addition to the cyber and nuclear threats posed by North Korea and China, officials also addressed recent controversies related to the Russia investigation, including the release of the so-called Nunes memo; the issue of White House security clearances; recent reports that US intelligence officials paid a shady Russian $100,000 in an effort to recover stolen cyberweapons; and President Donald Trump’s escalating attacks on the FBI and intelligence community. 

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.

The FBI informed the White House last year about the Rob Porter allegations

rob porterWhite House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Wray told the committee that the FBI made the White House aware of its investigation into former staff secretary Rob Porter last year.

Porter and David Sorensen, the former speechwriter, both left the White House this week after their ex-wives accused them of physical and verbal abuse while they were married.

Colbie Holderness, who was married to Porter from 2003 to 2008, has provided photos to the FBI and news outlets of a black eye she says he gave her. Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s wife from 2009 to 2013, provided a copy of a 2010 protective order she filed against him.

The White House was roped into the controversy when it emerged that multiple senior staffers, including chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn, were aware of the allegations against Porter last year and failed to investigate them. 

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked Wray on Tuesday whether the FBI was aware of the Porter allegations and whether the bureau informed the White House that the claims could affect Porter’s security clearance. 

When Wray said that the FBI had “followed the established protocols” while investigating Porter, Wyden again pressed the FBI director on whether the agency had looped the White House in on its inquiry.

“What I can tell you is that the FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March, and then a completed background investigation in late July,” Wray said. “Soon thereafer, we received requests for follow-up inquiry, and we did the follow-up and provided that information in November.” He added that the FBI closed its investigation in January, but received additional information earlier this month, which it passed on to the White House as well.

Wray defends the FBI amid Trump’s attacks

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, meanwhile, pointed to Trump’s recent attacks on the credibility of the FBI and the US intelligence community as a whole and asked Wray to respond to them.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of the intelligence community and has accused multiple current and former senior officials of bias and corruption. His criticisms often focus on the FBI’s Russia investigation, which he characterizes as a “witch hunt” aimed at undermining his presidency. 

Wray said in response to Collins’ inquiry that the FBI is “the finest group of professionals and public servants that I could hope to work for,” adding that he was confronted with “many examples of integrity and professionalism and grit” on a daily basis. 

“We actually have more than two investigations,” Wray said, in a reference to the intense media focus on the Russia investigation and the inquiry into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct government business. “And most of them do a lot to keep Americans safe.” 

Christopher WrayChristopher Wray.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Wray whether he believed the FBI’s reputation was “in tatters,” as Trump called it in a December tweet, and whether he was confident in the bureau’s ability to independently carry out its work. 

“My experience has been that every office I go, every division I go to, has patriots, people who could do anything else with their careers but have chosen to work for the FBI because they believe in serving others,” Wray said.

He also said he believes the FBI “speaks through its work, through its cases, through the victims it protects.”

“I encourage our folks not to get too hung up on what I consider to be the noise on TV and social media,” Wray added. 

Collins later pivoted to Coats, telling the intelligence chief it was “frustrating” that Congress has not yet passed legislation to help states combat Russian cyber attacks on critical election infrastructure. She then asked the DNI about NATO’s assessment of Russia’s influence operations.

Coats responded that not only was the US concerned, but all 29 NATO member states are as well. He added that he had recently returned from a meeting in Brussels with NATO’s intelligence arm, and that all 29 member states believed Russia had meddled in their election processes to some extent.

At the end of the NATO meeting, Coats said, “the new director … asked for a show of hands or any verbal response of any representatives of the 29 nations if they thought that Russia had not interfered with their processes … or had the potential to do so. Not one person raised their hand.”

Coats added that the group was unanimous in assessing Russia’s aims to “undermine our elections” and the US’s cooperation with European allies. 

The Nunes memo and the Russian oligarchs list

Wyden also touched upon two recent bombshell developments in the Russia investigation. The first was the so-called Nunes memo, a document alleging surveillance abuse by the FBI and Department of Justice that was authored by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes. President Donald Trump signed off on the memo’s declassification — without redactions — against strong warnings from Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein against doing so. 

The second was a report the Treasury Secretary released, in response to a congressional inquiry, about Russian oligarchs, their relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and whether they had engaged in any misconduct or corruption. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was widely criticized when it emerged that the list he released appeared to have been taken from Forbes and other media sources. 

Wyden said that both reports were “arbitrary and inconsistent decisiont that affect the politicizing of the classification system,” and asked whether any of the intelligence chiefs had communicated with the White House about either matter. 

While most officials said they had not, NSA director Adm. Mike Rogers said he “raised concerns on this issue” with Coats. Wray said that he had not discussed the Russian oligarchs list with the White House but did “have interactions” about the Nunes memo. 

When asked whether he could elaborate on the latter interaction in an open setting, Wray said, “As we said publicly … we had grave concerns about that memo’s release.”

Asked to elaborate on that assessment later, Wray said the bureau had concerns because the Nunes memo contained significant omissions that failed to present the entirety of evidence that was submitted to the FISA court to support an application for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

“We provided thousands of documents that were very sensitive, and lots and lots of briefings, and it’s very hard for anybody to distill all that down to three and a half pages,” Wray said.

Mike PompeoJoe Raedle / Getty Images

Pompeo: Reports that intel officials paid a Russian $100,000 to recover stolen NSA cyberweapons are ‘ridiculous’ and ‘atrocious’

Collins also touched on reports last week which claimed that intelligence officials paid a shadowy Russian $100,000 to buy back NSA cyberweapons, but that the Russian instead only offered dubious and unverified “kompromat,” or compromising material, on Trump. 

“Is it accurate that the CIA has categorically denied the assertions in this story?” Collins asked Pompeo. “If so, what would be the motivations of a Russian who peddled this story to the New York Times and other Western media outlets? Is this part of the Russian campaign to undermine faith in western democracies?”

Pompeo pushed back forcefully on the Times and Intercept stories about the alleged incident and said reporting on the matter had been “atrocious,” “ridiculous,” and “totally inaccurate.”

He added that the stories were false and echoed the CIA’s official statement on the matter, saying that the “people who were swindled” were the authors of the two pieces. 

“It’s our view that the same two people were proferred phony information to the US government proferred that same information to these two reporters. The CIA did not provide any resources of money to the people who offered the information at any time.”

The reports in question said last week that the Russian offering to sell the stolen cyberweapons back to the US first got in touch with American officials in early 2017 as they were trying to make a deal with a separate hacker to re-acquire the tools. When that deal fell through, the Russian offered to step in and manage the transaction. He reportedly had ties to Russian intelligence, had a past history of money-laundering, and also used an almost-defunct company as his cover business. 

While he initially demanded a $10 million payment, the price was later whittled down to $1 million, to be paid in separate installments. The first payment of $100,000, the report said, was sent in late September 2017. 

But throughout the course of negotiations, officials said, the Russian appeared to be more interested in pitching them documents which he claimed proved Trump’s extensive ties to Russia and Russia-linked individuals. Among those materials, per the report, was a tape that purportedly showed Trump engaging in sexual activity with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013.

US officials made it clear to the Russian intermediary that they were not interested in the kompromat he was offering on Trump. Moreover, the report said, upon closer examination of the materials the Russian provided, counterintelligence officials found that they did not bear the hallmarks of a Russian intelligence product.

Rather, they appeared to have been pulled from public news reports. US officials therefore feared they were part of a disinformation campaign aimed at stoking tensions over the Steele dossier, which the FBI is using as a “roadmap” while it investigates Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Former FBI and CIA counterintelligence agents largely agreed with that assessment, telling Business Insider last week that the interaction had all the signs of a classic Russian intelligence operation. 

One former agent emphasized that the Russians’ modus operandi was to offer adversaries “what they want and then give them what you really want them to have. If you can sow discord between the intelligence agencies and whatever administration is in power, then you’ve done your job.” 

Weaponizing social media to spread fake news

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray; Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo; and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wray, Pompeo, and Coats testify on February 13, 2018.Thomson Reuters

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.”

But Coats said the Russians “upped their game” in 2016 and that the Kremlin’s actions sent “a strong signal” that future US elections — particularly the midterms — were at risk and that states needed to take appropriate measures to combat that risk. 

This story is developing. Refresh for updates.

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