Top U.S. national security and intelligence officials on Thursday unambiguously warned that Russia has undertaken "pervasive" efforts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond, and offered a sketch of how the government plans to combat such meddling.
At a White House press briefing, the five — National Security Adviser John Bolton; Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen; FBI Director Chris Wray; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats; and Gen. Paul Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency and the commander of U.S. Cyber Command — also took turns expressing concern over ongoing efforts by Moscow to interfere in U.S. elections, with Nielsen sounding the alarm that "our democracy itself is in the cross hairs."
Wray added that “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
Coats, meanwhile, told reporters that U.S. intelligence and national security officials “continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States," but that the White House had made it a “top priority” to combat such interference.
“The intelligence community continues to be concerned about the threats of upcoming elections. Both the midterms and the presidential elections of 2020,” Coats said, before noting that Russia was "not the only country" that would attempt to interfere in the U.S. political system.
“We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we're doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in,” Coats said.
The statements marked a stark contrast from what President Donald Trump has said publicly about Russian election interference. Last month, at a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a private meeting between the two leaders, Trump contradicted the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help him win and even suggested that Putin was more credible than his own intelligence officials.
Coats admitted Thursday he still did not know what Trump and Putin discussed in their private meeting.
“I'm not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told NBC News that Trump had instructed the top national security and intelligence officials to speak at Thursday's news conference.
“Obviously there is a great deal of interest in the topic and the president and his administration are doing a lot to address it, and he asked them to tell the American people all we are doing to protect our elections," she said.
Pressed for when the president asked them, Sanders did not respond.
At the briefing, the five officials gave an outline of a multi-pronged strategy to combat the interference that included a broad plan to provide cybersecurity assistance to state and local election authorities; to coordinate more closely with tech and social media companies; and to better share information and intelligence across various federal agencies as well as with local election partners and tech companies.
Wray, for his part, said the FBI was focused on a three-pillar approach that involved sensitive “investigations and operations,” “information and intelligence gathering” and “strong relationships with the private sector.”
With regard to the private sector, Wray said his agency had begun providing “actionable intelligence” to social media and tech companies to “better enable them to address abuse of their platforms by foreign actors.”
“We've given them classified briefings. We've shared specific threat indicators and account information and a variety of other pieces of information so they can better monitor their own platforms,” he said.
Wray said the agencies hadn’t yet seen “the same kind of efforts” in 2018 as they saw during the 2016 race, but warned “the dial can be turned up” any time.
Nakasone, during his turn at podium, suggested that the U.S. was now prepared to conduct secret operations against foreign actors seeking to interfere in U.S. politics — an apparent strategic shift.
“U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency are tracking a wide range of foreign-cyber adversaries and are prepared against those actors attempting to undermine our nation’s midterm elections,” Nakasone said. “These are sensitive and require confidentiality for success.”
In April, NSA operations chief Natalie Laing said, "I don't think that we yet have the political fortitude to say exactly how we are going to strike back.”
“We have not hit them where it hurts,” she said.