Top U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia is laying the online groundwork to meddle in this year’s midterm elections, and they warned that both Russia and China are barreling toward weapons designed to take out American satellites in space.
Russia in particular will continue targeting the U.S. with cyberattacks, disinformation and leaks aimed at creating “wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic process,” according to the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” which Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the heads of the five other civilian and military intelligence services delivered to Congress. The document offered details on a wide range of threats facing the United States, including al Qaeda, Islamic State, North Korea, Iran and China.
The intelligence chiefs unanimously agreed that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and was gearing up to do it again this year.
“We have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told the Senate panel that he harbored deep misgivings over the content and release of a memo by Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that was critical of the way the bureau handled an anti-Trump dossier in the investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with Russians to sway the 2016 vote. He said the memo was marred by unspecified omissions.
The Republican memo, which President Trump agreed to make public, said the FBI relied in part on the partisan, unverified dossier to justify spying on a Trump campaign aide.
Mr. Wray declined to comment on whether it represented a conflict of interest for Mr. Trump to have authorized the Republican memo’s declassification against the wishes of the bureau, while a competing memo compiled by House intelligence committee Democrats remains sealed. Mr. Wray, did say it was fully within Mr. Trump’s purview to release the Republican memo.
On a separate front, the FBI director told lawmakers that he has no intention of discussing any of the federal probes into Russian meddling with Mr. Trump, much less provide the president with information on the status of the investigations.
The U.S. intelligence officials in their report said they expect Moscow to “continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, noted that the U.S. government still has no plan to battle foreign interference in elections more than a year after the presidential vote. He criticized Mr. Trump for not taking more aggressive action against the Kremlin.
“He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern,” Mr. Warner said.
Broad slate of dangers
The annual threat assessment focused broadly on the slate of dangers facing the U.S. around the world. Mr. Coats told lawmakers that the global risk of a war breaking out between international powers is higher today “than any time since the end of the Cold War.”
The rapidly evolving world of cyberhacking, theft and manipulation by state and nonstate actors has shot to the top of the list of threats facing U.S. intelligence, Mr. Coats said.
“Frankly, the United States is under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the United States, from U.S. businesses to the federal government to state and local governments,” he said. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, he added, “pose the greatest cyberthreats.”
While the assessment reported that China also is using cyberespionage and seeking to bolster cyberattack capabilities, U.S. intelligence analysts say the volume of Chinese cyberactivity targeting the United States has significantly decreased since September 2015, when Washington and Beijing signed an agreement to deter an all-out cyberwar between the two.
Chinese cyberoperations against U.S. private industry are “focused on cleared defense contractors or IT and communications firms whose products and services support government and private sector networks worldwide,” the report said.
Mr. Coats told lawmakers that both China and Russia are scrambling to develop “anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and perceptions of U.S. military advantage in space.” Moscow and Beijing are expected to have “ASAT” weapons operational in the next few years, and there is particular concern about launches of experimental satellites by both nations, which “conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities.”
“Some technologies with peaceful applications — such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair — can also be used against adversary spacecraft,” said the document.
Other conclusions from Tuesday’s report and testimony said:
⦁ Despite its propaganda push at the Winter Olympics, North Korea will press ahead with intercontinental ballistic missile tests this year, with a possible “atmospheric nuclear test” soon over the Pacific.
⦁ China will increasingly seek to expand its regional influence and take a firm stand on its territorial claims to the East and South China seas.
⦁ Islamic State, despite being sharply reduced in strength and territory, will remain a threat and will attempt to regroup in Syria and Iraq while retaining a capability to plot international attacks in the name of its “caliphate.” Al Qaeda will also remain a major threat, focusing on attacking the U.S. mainland and U.S. interests abroad.
⦁ Gang violence, soaring homicide rates and a lack of economic opportunities will continue the flood of people fleeing from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Worldwide production of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is at record levels, and Mexican criminal groups will continue to supply much of those drugs crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, while China-based suppliers ship fentanyl to Mexico, Canada and U.S.-based distributors or sell directly via the internet.
⦁ Iran remains the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism, providing aid and weapons to militant groups across the Middle East, including Lebanese Hezbollah, which has a capability to attack U.S., Israeli and Saudi Arabian interests.