WASHINGTON (CN) - Though he called it likely that Russia will interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, America’s director of national intelligence refused Tuesday to tell Congress whether President Trump has ordered him to stop such activity.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss worldwide threats, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats would not offer details about whether he has spoken to the president about the Russian cyber-operations specifically.
Coats did say, however, that he has talked to the president about cyberthreats generally.
"I have discussed it personally with the president of the United States,” Coats testified. “He has said 'I assume you're doing your job, all of you who head up these agencies relative to cyber. But if you need for me to say - direct you to do it - do it.'"
Coats added that the White House is engaged on cybersecurity issues, and that discussions are underway concerning how to defend against and respond to cyberthreats.
Last week Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, told the Armed Services Committee that President Trump had not given him any new authorities to counter Russia's cyber-operations.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost then-Republican candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Affirming that assessment last month, 13 Russian individuals and three Russian organizations were indicted last month for illegally plotting to sow political discord and sway the election in Trump’s favor.
Moscow has denied interfering in the election and President Trump has consistently denied that his campaign colluded with Russia. While the controversy has embroiled the president and many of his close associates in several congressional probes and the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, questions have lingered about whether the Trump administration is doing enough to punish Moscow and counter Russia’s cyber operations.
Democratic senators on the Armed Services Committee focused many of their questions for Coats this morning on whether President Trump has given him any direction about how to respond to Russia's election interference.
When pressed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to clarify the instructions the president gave him to "do it," Coats said his comments were made in the context of the cyber-issue, not Russian election meddling.
“No, I wouldn't put it in that context," Coats said. "There obviously is concern about this ongoing effort of Russians to interfere with our elections. The White House is well aware of that, as we all are. And agencies have been tasked to address this."
Shaheen pressed Coats further to say what, if anything, is being done to respond to Russia's election interference.
"Much of what is being done, or examined to be done, is classified," Coats said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-N.Y., continued the line of inquiry, pushing Coats again to say whether President Trump had instructed him to retaliate against or deter Russia.
"There's some issues that we could discuss in classified session, but I can't do that here," Coats repeated.
When pressed again by Blumenthal to assure the American people that the president has instructed him to take action on Russian cyber-operations, Coats held firm: "The president told me to do my job."
In his opening statement to the committee, Coats assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin will cooperate with the United States when it fits with Russia’s interests, while also seeking to weaken the United States.
"Moscow will use a range of relatively low-cost tools to advance its foreign policy objectives, including influence campaigns, economic coercion, cyber operations, multilateral forums, and measured military force," the director’s 28-page written testimony states.
Coats noted that the 2018 midterm elections will be a potential target for more Russian influence campaigns.
"At a minimum, we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," his testimony states.
Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified alongside Coats during Tuesday's 2.5-hour hearing.
Ashley responded to concerns raised by Shaheen about additions to Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal, which Putin bragged about in a March 1 state of the nation address as capable of rendering U.S. missile defense systems obsolete.
Ashley said the comments were meant for a domestic audience within the context of an upcoming presidential election in Russia, and that he is aware of the weapons systems Putin spoke about.
"They are in a research-and-development phase," Ashley said, noting that any further details would need to be provided in a classified setting.