The top intelligence chiefs of the United States were united on Tuesday in declaring that Russia is continuing efforts to disrupt the US political system and is targeting the 2018 midterm election, following its ''successful'' operation to sow discord in the last presidential campaign.
US intelligence officials are convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin meddled in the 2016 US election, and now, with critical elections coming up in November and control of Congress at stake, they say Putin is at it again.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee alongside the heads of agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said Russia is already working to disrupt the midterm elections.
"We need to inform the American public that this is real," he said. "That this is going to happen, and the resilience needed for us to stand up and say, 'We're not going to allow some Russian to tell us how to vote, how we ought to run our country.' And I think there needs to be a national cry for that."
President Trump had said in November, "I believe that he (Putin) feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I am with our agencies."
But he has sent mixed messages about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats demanded to know what the intelligence community is doing to counter Russia's actions and whether Trump has given explicit directions to them to do so.
"Has the president directed you and your agency to take specific action to confront and blunt Russian influence activities that are ongoing?" Sen Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, asked FBI Director Christopher Wray.
"We're taking a lot of specific efforts to blunt Russian efforts," Wray responded.
When Reed pressed the question, Wray said, "Not as specifically directed by the president."
"We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, without a whole-of-government response when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists," said Sen Angus King, I-Maine.
The disconnect between Trump and his seniormost intelligence advisers has raised concerns that the US government will not be able to mount an effective plan to beat back Russian influence operations in the upcoming midterm election. And Director of National Intelligence Coats said there is "no single agency in charge" of blocking Russian meddling, an admission that drew the ire of Democrats.
Coats said that Russia will continue using propaganda, false personas and social media to undermine the upcoming election.
"There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts" to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign "as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations," said Coats, the leader of the US government's 17 intelligence agencies.
His assessment was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly that he had "every expectation" that Russia will try to influence the coming election.
"The fact that we don't have clarity about who's in charge means, I believe, we don't have a full plan," said Mark Warner, D-Va, the vice chairman of the committee, which is conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
He also said social media companies, whose platforms have been fertile turf for Russian bots seeking to stoke divisions among Americans, have been "slow to recognize the threat" and that "they've still got more work to do".
Coats also said the intelligence agencies "pass onto the policymakers, including the president," relevant intelligence.
Reed pressed on his question: "Passing on relevant intelligence is not actively disrupting the operations of an opponent. Do you agree?"
Coats said, "We take all kinds of steps to disrupt Russian activities."
Pompeo added, "Senator Reed, we have a significant effort. I'm happy to talk about it in closed session."
A visibly frustrated Reed responded, "The simple question I've posed is, has the president directed the intelligence community in a coordinated effort, not merely to report but to actively stop this activity, and the answer seems to be that … the reporting is going on, as reporting [goes on] about every threat going into the United States."
Earlier in the hearing, Pompeo said that the intelligence community has offensive "capabilities" to "raise the costs to adversaries" seeking to hack into election systems to disrupt voting.
Asked whether the adversary knows about US actions, he said, "I'd prefer to leave that for another forum."
In a hearing that ranged over several subjects, the intelligence chiefs also said that North Korea's presence at the Olympics in South Korea, which saw a historic visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister, had not changed the intelligence community's assessment that the regime is trying to build nuclear weapons to threaten its neighbours and the United States.
"The decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond" Coats said in rfesponse to North Korea's weapons development.
Pompeo said his agency has completed an analysis of how North Korea would respond to a US military strike, as well as what it would take to bring the regime to the negotiating table. He offered to describe that analysis only in a closed, classified session.