Intel Officials Tell Senate Russia Is Targeting Midterms

(CN) – Three of the nation’s top intelligence officials told senators Tuesday that they’ve already seen Russian activity aimed at meddling in the upcoming midterm elections and combating these and future efforts is a top priority of the Trump administration.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, all said they’ve seen evidence that suggests Russia wants to play a role in the next election cycle, but declined to get into details.

They told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they would provide more details in a classified session later in the day.

The intelligence officials said the information will be shared with state and local governments and state election officials.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine,  pressed the intelligence officials for “help” with President Donald Trump.

“All of you have agreed there are continuing threats to this country,” King said. “If only the president would say that. I understand the president’s sensitivity around [questions of] whether or not his campaign has any connection with the Russians. That [alleged collusion] is a separate question [from the threat of Russian interference in elections.]”

NSA director Admiral Michael Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency director General Robert Ashley and Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, also agreed increased cyber security defense was a priority.

“The problem is I have people in Maine telling me it’s a witch hunt ‘because the president told me,’” King said. “Can you help the president separate these two issues? The collusion issue and this threat [of meddling] in elections? It’s a serious threat, especially when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists.”

The hearing is an annual event between leaders of the intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee but King struck a somber note Tuesday, saying the lack of action against cyber threats filled him with both “sorrow and anger.”

“I’m sick and tired of going to these hearings for five years where everyone talks about it and our country still does not have a policy or doctrine or a strategy to deal [with foreign hackers.] This is not an attack on the current administration only, the prior administration didn’t do it either,” King said.

Admiral Rogers agreed, saying the U.S. was “on the wrong end of the course to collision” and was “trying to fight a global battle with our hands tied behind our backs.”

Without a “doctrine of deterrents” in place, King then asked Coats how the U.S. could “ever get on top” of hackers if “all we ever do is patch our software and try to defend ourselves?”

“Everyone in our agency of government understands the threat we have here and the impact being made through these cyber threats. Our role in the intelligence community is to provide all of the information we possibly can so our policymakers can take that and shape the policy for how we’ll respond to this [threat,]” Coats said.

“It just never seems to happen,” King responded.

Another issue brought into focus by the committee revolved around the resignation of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter.

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the agency twice provided the White House with information on former Trump aid Rob Porter, who was forced to resign last week after domestic violence allegations from two ex-wives became public.

Wray also said the bureau closed its background investigation on Rob Porter in January, weeks before the allegations were published.

That timeline called into question assertions by White House spokesman Raj Shah, who told reporters that Porter’s “background investigation was ongoing” when he resigned his position as staff secretary after both of his ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennie Willoughby, came forward with domestic abuse allegations.

The White House also maintained that the public reports of the allegations were the first the White House learned of them.

Porter had been serving with an interim security clearance while his background check was pending, the White House said.

Porter steadfastly denies the allegations against him.

In addition to clashes over classification involving Porter, lawmakers also tried to glean insight from Wray about the ongoing memo battle between Congress and the White House.

President Trump’s decision to withhold a full release of a memo drafted by Democrats countering the content released in the GOP memo crafted by Republican Devin Nunes, was met with much criticism by Democratic lawmakers.

When asked if he felt Republicans cherry-picked information about the FBI and the Justice Department’s investigation of Carter Page as well as its use of information from British spy Christopher Steele in obtaining a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor him, Wray repeated an earlier stance.

“We had grave concerns about that memo’s release,” he said.

Pompeo had serious concerns of his own regarding a report by the New York Times last week which suggested U.S. intelligence officials paid $100,000 to a Russian source for compromising information, or kompromat, about the president. There was also an alleged offer for certain surveillance tools stolen from the National Security Agency.

The CIA denied the allegations.

Pompeo told Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the reporting was “atrocious and totally inaccurate.”

“The idea that the CIA was swindled is false. The only people who were swindled were the authors of those pieces, [the Intercept’s] James Risen and [the New York Times] Matt Rosenberg,” Pompeo said. “The same two people proffering phony information to the U.S. government offered that same phony information to these two reporters. The CIA provided no money or resources to those individuals who offered the U.S. government information directly or indirectly at any time.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also gave Wray a chance to speak on accusations by the White House that the FBI is “in tatters” and is peopled by agents who are biased against Trump.

“In my experience, in my now six months with the FBI, it has validated all of my prior experiences with the FBI. It is the finest group of professionals and public servants I could hope to work for, and every day, many times a day, I’m confronted with unbelievable examples of integrity, professionalism and grit,” Wray said.

Of the 37,000 employees at the FBI, he said, you would never know the extent of work done by the agency, if you only considered what was published in newspapers or broadcast, he said.

“You’d never know it from watching the news, but we have more than two investigations going on and most do a lot to keep Americans safe,” he said.

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