WASHINGTON • Leaders of US intelligence agencies warned that Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 US mid-term elections by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports, much as it did in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a congressional committee on Tuesday that Russia and other foreign entities were likely to attack American and European elections this year and beyond, adding that Moscow believes similar efforts successfully undermined US democracy two years ago.
Mr Coats, a former senator appointed by President Donald Trump as Washington's top intelligence official, said he had seen evidence that Russia was targeting US elections in November, when Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, plus a host of positions in state governments.
"Frankly, the United States is under attack," Mr Coats said at the Senate Intelligence Committee's annual hearing on worldwide threats.
Mr Coats' assessment runs counter to statements from Mr Trump, who has cast doubt on the notion of Russian meddling and denied any collusion by his associates with Russia ahead of his surprise November 2016 defeat of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
US spy agencies concluded more than a year ago that Russia used hacking and propaganda to try to tilt that election in favour of the Republican. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied this, and Mr Trump has said he believes him.
"There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US mid-term elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations," Mr Coats said. He added that "persistent and disruptive cyber operations" would continue "using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy" in the US and its European allies.
HOW RUSSIA MIGHT ACT
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.
MR DAN COATS, US Director of National Intelligence, on the ways in which Russia may try to influence elections this year.
Mr Coats described a range of ways in which Russia might try to influence this year's vote.
"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," he said.
The charge of Russian meddling spawned a federal probe and congressional investigations into whether Mr Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow, throwing a shadow over the first year of Mr Trump's presidency.
Senators asked the intelligence chiefs during the hearing whether there was a plan in place to combat more hacking.
Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo and Federal Bureau of Investigation director Chris Wray, who were also Trump appointees, said there were significant, specific efforts under way, but did not elaborate.
Government countermeasures likely include going public with concerns that Russian hackers will seek to influence the 2018 elections, said Mr John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis with cyber-security firm FireEye.
"If we discuss this openly, then the public - who are really the targets of these operations - will be prepared and less susceptible to any influence if and when it does happen," Mr Hultquist said.
Executives from social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have testified in Congress about Russia's purported disinformation drive aimed at US voters. Facebook reported that 126 million Americans may have seen Russian-backed political content on its platform over a two-year period.