‘The Russian bear came out of hibernation’: The US’s top intelligence official issues an ominous warning to Congress

  • Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday that Russia has come “out of hibernation” and poses a stark threat – cyber and otherwise – to the US and its allies.
  • “Thanks to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, we’ve gotten a wake-up call,” Coats said.
  • Coats joined other intelligence chiefs in assessing that despite Russia’s aggression, the White House and the US government have not responded adequately and that, as a result, Russia will continue its activities and target the 2018 midterm elections.

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The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, painted a stark picture Tuesday of the imminent cyber threat Russia poses to the US.

Russia “is likely to continue to pursue even more aggressive attacks, with the intent of degrading our Democratic values and weakening our alliances,” Coats said during a “Worldwide Threats” hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The US intelligence community concluded last year that, in perhaps its most overt act of cyber aggression against the West, Russia mounted an elaborate and multi-faceted campaign to interfere in the 2016 US election to tilt the race in favour of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

In addition to establishing contact with several Trump campaign aides, Russia-linked actors also hacked into the Democratic National Committee and disseminated stolen materials to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton; carried out a social media influence campaign to sow discord and spread disinformation; and breached critical election infrastructure in at least seven US states while targeting as many as 39.

Russia is continuing its military and cyber aggression toward countries like neighbouring Ukraine, which it has been using as a cyberweapon “testing ground” since at least 2015. Russia is also thought to be behind the massive “NotPetya” cyberattack that crippled countries and organisations across the globe last June, the hack of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and the attempted infiltration of elections across Europe in recent years.

“Thanks to Vladimir Putin, we’ve gotten a wake-up call,” Coats said Tuesday. “The Russian bear came out of hibernation and was hungry … so NATO’s now back in business.”

Coats added that although it was “disappointing” that Germany, “the country most capable of providing strength and resources to NATO,” was not contributing as much as the US would like, other member states have stepped up to combat Russia and provide “significant coordination and integration to intelligence that NATO hadn’t had before.”

The Trump administration has so far been slow to publicly address Russia’s ongoing aggression.

After repeatedly casting doubt on the assessment that Russia interfered in the election, Trump has acknowledged its meddling, but denied that it had done so in an effort to help his campaign.

Meanwhile, FBI director Christopher Wray said in January that Trump has not “specifically directed” him or the bureau to counter Russia’s activities. Last week, National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers told Congress that Trump had not granted him the authority to combat Russia’s election hacking efforts at the source.

Rogers added that the US has “not opted to engage in some of the same behaviours we are seeing” with respect to Russia, and that the US’s response “has not changed the calculus or the behaviour on behalf of the Russians.”

“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity,'” Rogers said. “Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

Coats said Tuesday that he agreed with Rogers’ assessment.

White House efforts to combat Russian cyber efforts remain unclear

The intelligence chiefs’ comments signify a broadening difference between the US intelligence community and the White House when it comes to assessing the urgency of Russia’s threats.

Last month, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the Department of Homeland Security was collaborating with state and local election officials to guard against future cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. She also added that that Trump has been focused on penalising Russia on a number of other fronts, including approving lethal arms sales to Ukraine and shoring up the defence budget.

But the specifics of what the White House is doing to combat Russian meddling remain unclear. The New York Times reported last week, for instance, that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson squandered away more than $US60 million the State Department was offered to counter Russian aggression.

In January, the Trump administration declined to enforce new sanctions on Russia that were designed to punish the Kremlin for its election interference.

Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said the law had already deterred Russian defence sales.

“From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” Nauert said.

Coats said Tuesday that he has “daily and weekly interactions” with the White House to brief the administration and national-security officials on Russia’s cyber aggression and the impending threat to the 2018 midterm elections.

“Do you believe it’s impossible to change someone’s behaviour, particularly someone like Vladmir Putin, without imposing some sort of cost on their actions?” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Coats.

“I believe that,” he responded.

When Heinrich asked whether imposing sanctions on Russia would be an appropriate response, Coats said that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is in the process of “bringing out a list of sanctions” against the 13 Russian nationals whom special counsel Robert Mueller charged last month with mounting a social media influence operation to interfere in the 2016 race.

Coats added that the sanctions will go further than just the 13 defendants, and that intelligence officials have been consulting with the Treasury Department on the matter.

Heinrich then asked Coats whether he had been specifically directed to provide analysis to the Treasury Department’s decision about sanctions.

“I don’t know that there was a direction on that,” Coats replied. “All I do know is that we have been engaged on providing intelligence on this subject continuously.”