By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. intelligence official insisted on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s administration is “actively engaged” in countering Russian efforts to influence the November elections, even as he warned of Moscow’s continuing “malign activities.”
“The White House is actively engaged,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a Senate hearing, where lawmakers pressed for answers on election security. “This is a high priority for them,” he said.
Coats and other intelligence officials have warned repeatedly that Russia is already trying to interfere in the 2018 mid-term elections by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports, much as it did during the 2016 presidential race.
“We have not seen evidence of a robust effort yet on the part of Russia, but we know their malign activities continue to exist,” Coats told a Senate Armed Services hearing on “Worldwide Threats.”
“It’s highly likely that they will be doing something. We just don’t know how much and when and where,” Coats said.
U.S. intelligence determined that Russia sought to influence the 2016 presidential election to boost Trump, the Republican candidate. The finding has shadowed his 14 months in the White House amid multiple congressional investigations and a probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Moscow denies meddling. Trump has denied collusion between his associates and Russia.
He told a news conference on Tuesday the United States was studying how to protect elections and would counteract any meddling very strongly.
Lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have accused the Trump administration of doing too little to combat hacking. Control of the U.S. Congress is up for grabs in November.
They especially fault the administration for failing to impose sanctions on Russia that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year. Coats told the hearing the Treasury Department would announce sanctions on Russia as soon as next week.
Some lawmakers pressed Coats on who was responsible for countering Russian propaganda online, noting administration officials refer to the need for a “whole of government approach.”
Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich said, “I fear a ‘whole of government approach’ has been a catch-all for ‘It’s someone else’s job.'”
Trump’s nominee to lead the National Security Agency, Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, told Senate Armed Services he did not think Russia expected much of a U.S. response to cyber attacks. Admiral Mike Rogers, the current NSA director, told the panel Trump had not granted him authority to disrupt Russian hacking.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle Additional reporting by Eric Walsh Editing by Franklin Paul and James Dalgleish)