Intel chief warns Russia will target 2020 elections

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the intelligence community successfully protected the US election infrastructure in the 2018 elections, but warned the 2020 election will be another target for Russia and other foreign countries that are likely to use new tactics to target US elections.

“We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests. We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences and efforts in previous elections,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

Coats and other US intelligence chiefs testified Tuesday at the committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing, where one of the major themes was the threat posed by Russia and other countries to US elections through direct attacks as well as social media influence operations.

In his written testimony, Coats said that “unidentified actors as recently as 2018” targeted US election infrastructure, but the US intelligence community does not have any intelligence indicating that election infrastructure was compromised to prevent votes or change vote counts.

Coats also said in the written statement that Russia, would continue with social media efforts “to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians.”

“Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits — such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data — in a more targeted fashion to influence US policy, actions, and elections,” Coats said.

While Coats and the other US intelligence chiefs have said unanimously that Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections, President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed and denied that Russia was behind the election hacking.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, asked FBI Director Chris Wray whether US adversaries will continue to try to weaponize disinformation through social media platforms.

Wray responded that Russia did just that during the 2018 election — and other countries are watching with interest.

“Not only have the Russians continued to do it in 2018, but we’ve seen an indication that they’re continuing to adapt their model, and that other countries are taking a very interested eye in that approach,” Wray said.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat, has been critical of social media companies for being slow to react in 2016 to the threat posed from Russia on their platforms. Asked what progress has been made, Wray said that the FBI is working more cooperatively with social media companies than it was in 2016, nothing that much of the work countering foreign countries on social media has to come from the private companies themselves.

“There were a number of success stories, only some of which we can ever really share, where the social media companies, based on tips we provided, were able to take action much more effectively, much more quickly to block and prevent some of the information warfare that the Russians were engaged in,” Wray said. “And I think we’re going to need to see more and more of that.”

Coats said he was “encouraged with the openness and willingness” the companies have shown to work with the intelligence community, noting that he has personally met with several social media leaders on this issue.