Top U.S. national security and intelligence officials said Thursday that President Trump is leading a comprehensive, governmentwide effort to stop Russia and others from interfering in the midterm elections, as the White House sought to counter accusations that Mr. Trump is downplaying the threat.
The White House called together the heads of the FBI, National Security Council, Homeland Security Department, National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to outline for the public the administration’s strategy to protect the nation from a repeat of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said. “The president has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and security of our election process a top priority. We have done that. We are throwing everything at it.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the stealthy cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns from foreign actors have proved to her that “our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”
Responding to criticism from Congress that the administration lacks a plan to protect the country during the midterm elections, White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton told Senate Democrats in a letter that “President Trump has not and will not tolerate interference in America’s system of representative government.”
Democrats in Congress were unmoved by the display of high-ranking administration officials.
“Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security — even if it’s only a press conference,” tweeted Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat and co-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia.”
A group of Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, responded to Mr. Bolton’s letter by saying it didn’t address any of their concerns, such as full implementation of sanctions on Russia approved by Congress or the pursuit of extradition of 12 Russian intelligence officials indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller.
They said Mr. Bolton also “failed to urge Republicans in the Senate to reconsider their position blocking critical funding requested by 21 states to bolster election security ahead of the midterms.”
“We implore the administration to take this very real and imminent threat to our elections and our democracy more seriously,” they said in a joint statement.
The Senate is working on a bipartisan package that would boost federal assistance to state and local election officials with cybersecurity guidelines and other measures. It is expected to receive a vote in September, but lawmakers in both parties have criticized the administration’s efforts overall as disjointed.
Mr. Bolton told reporters that many of Washington’s efforts are “necessarily sensitive and highly classified.”
“We do not wish to make the efforts of our adversaries any easier through injudicious public disclosures,” he said.
Administration officials did describe some of the government’s actions, such as the Homeland Security Department’s work with state and local election officials to help identify weaknesses in their systems.
“Whether it’s offering no-cost, voluntary technical assistance or sharing best practices for securing online voter registration databases, or providing technical advice on ransomware and destructive malware, our department stands ready to provide tailored support based on each jurisdiction’s unique needs,” Ms. Nielsen said.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said his agency has established a foreign influence task force to root out and counter cyber, criminal and terrorist threats.
He said the FBI has uncovered “criminal efforts to suppress voting and provide illegal campaign financing, cyberattacks against voting infrastructure along with computer intrusions targeting elected officials and others.”
The task force is working with all 56 FBI field offices on open investigations of foreign influence.
“So make no mistake: The scope of this foreign influence threat is both broad and deep,” Mr. Wray said. “This is not just an election-cycle threat. Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis, whether it’s election season or not.”
Mr. Trump was criticized after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month in Finland for not confronting Mr. Putin publicly over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The president first said he didn’t see any reason why Russia would interfere. He later said he misspoke and that he accepts U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian meddling.
At a rally in Pennsylvania on Thursday night, Mr. Trump said the media’s expectations for his summit were unreasonable.
“They wanted me to walk up and have a boxing match,” Mr. Trump said. “I said, ‘Whatever happened to diplomacy?’ They thought I was soft. I was the one who [expelled] 60 [Russian] diplomats.”
Ms. Nielsen, Mr. Wray and Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the NSA director, met in New York City this week with leaders in the banking, energy and telecommunications industries to encourage a collaborative approach to security. Ms. Nielsen said the cyberthreat now is a bigger danger to the U.S. than a physical attack by a terrorist group.
But Mr. Wray said cyberattacks aimed at U.S. election systems this year don’t appear to be as broad as they were in 2016.
“We are not yet seeing the same kind of efforts to specifically target election infrastructure” such as voter registration databases, he said. Federal investigators are uncovering “a whole slew of other kinds of influence by both overtly and covertly manipulating news stories, spreading disinformation, leveraging economic resources and escalating divisive issues,” Mr. Wray said.
“We have to make sure we’re pushing back on it, which is what we’re doing,” he said.
Facebook said this week that it removed 32 pages and accounts that showed “inauthentic behavior” similar to the Russian propaganda operation running during the 2016 election season.
Last week, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said Russians unsuccessfully attempted to hack her Senate computer network.
“Russians try to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike,” Mr. Coats said. “Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence, through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire, through proxies — all of the above and potentially more. I can’t go into any deep, deep details of what is classified, but it is pervasive, it is ongoing with the intent to achieve their intent, and that is, drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president asked his top officials to join ranks at the White House to reassure Americans that the government is doing everything it can to prevent more election interference by foreign agents.
“The president has made it clear that his administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state or other dangerous actor,” she said.
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