Spy Boss Coats Warns That Russia, Others Plot New Interference Techniques For 2020

Updated at 4:03 p.m. ET

Russia and other foreign actors will try new techniques to interfere in the 2020 elections, building off the tactics they used in the 2016 and 2018 campaigns, America’s top intelligence official warned Tuesday.

“We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate intelligence committee. “We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences and efforts.”

Intelligence officials have warned consistently throughout the last several years that Russia has sought to disrupt American elections and divide the electorate against itself.

That will continue, Coats said.

But he also named other nations he felt were growing threats in this area, arguing that China could use cyberattacks against the United States to censor or suppress viewpoints it sees as “politically sensitive.”

Iran, he added, has already used social media campaigns to target U.S. audiences and will continue to do so.

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, said that the intelligence community has adapted to these perils since the 2016 campaign, although the threat continues.

“While we did see Russia continue to try to divide Americans on social media and we saw cyberactivity by unknown actors targeting our election infrastructure in 2018, the good news is that the [intelligence community] did not see successful efforts to disrupt the vote or the kind of ‘hack and leak’ operations we saw in 2016 against the DNC and [Hillary] Clinton campaign,” Warner said.

But Warner also said that the core problem started within the United States itself — something the intelligence community can’t address.

“Let us remember that while Russia can amplify our divisions, it cannot invent them,” he said at Tuesday’s hearing. “When a divisive issue like the ‘take a knee’ NFL controversy or a migrant caravan dominates the national dialogue, these are issues that can be — and are — taken advantage of by Russian trolls. Let’s not make their work easier.”

Coats also addressed a range of other worldwide threats: China seeks to overtake the United States, he warned. Iran seeks to continue to develop its ballistic missile capabilities. Terrorism remains a danger.

And although North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has signaled an openness to negotiating with President Trump about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, Coats says the intelligence community does not believe that Kim ultimately would give up his strategic weapons.

Kim views the nuclear program as essential to his survival, Coats said. That’s an awkward message from the nation’s top intelligence officer as the White House prepares for a second summit with Kim and Trump somewhere in Asia next month.

That is not the only issue on which the Trump administration’s senior intelligence officials appeared to diverge from the president.

In contrast to Trump’s claim that ISIS had been defeated, Coats said in an assessment to the committee that “ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries.”

At a time of headlines about Russian interference and Chinese spying, Coats also warned that the two nations are increasingly converging in their interests.

Both aim to “compete more intensely” with the United States, and the two “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” Coats said.

On Monday the Justice Department charged Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker alleged that the company had been trying to steal American telecommunications technology.

The other members of the intelligence community who were present at the Senate hearing spoke about how complex the threat from Chinese espionage is.

“China writ large is the most significant counterintelligence threat we face,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “We have economic espionage investigations … in virtually every one of our 56 field offices. And the number of those have doubled over the past three or four years, and almost all of them … lead back to China.”

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