WASHINGTON • The United States government has accused Russia of carrying out a "pervasive" campaign to influence public opinion and elections, in a warning just months before crucial legislative polls.
"We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign from Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States," said Mr Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, in a briefing at the White House on Thursday.
Mr Coats was among five top national security leaders - including National Security Adviser John Bolton, FBI director Christopher Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and National Security Agency director Paul Nakasone - who blasted Russian efforts to interfere in US elections.
"Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs," Ms Nielsen said in an unusually stark warning.
"This is not just an election-cycle threat," Mr Wray said.
"Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis, whether it's election season or not.
"This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus," he said.
We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.
DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DAN COATS
Mr Coats echoed that assessment, saying that "Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values".
The comments came in jarring contrast to the positions of President Donald Trump, but Mr Coats and Mr Wray dismissed suggestions that the President - who has repeatedly denied that Russia moved to tilt the 2016 presidential election in his favour - is not taking the issue seriously.
They said Mr Trump had directed them in a National Security Council meeting last week to aggressively confront the threats. But their message was undercut just hours later when Mr Trump, at a rally in Pennsylvania, again called the idea of Russian interference "a hoax".
"In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything... We got along really well. By the way, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we are being hindered by the Russian hoax - it is a hoax, okay?" said Mr Trump.
TAKE THREAT SERIOUSLY
This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus.
FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY
He provoked an uproar at a summit last month with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki by casting doubt on US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
After the meeting, Mr Trump said he had not meant to endorse Mr Putin's denial of election meddling, but insisted the culprit behind the intrusion "could be other people".
"I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Mr Trump said after talks with Mr Putin in Helsinki on July 16.
Mr Coats said Russian efforts to interfere in the upcoming US mid-term elections have yet to reach the intensity of the Kremlin's campaign to disrupt the 2016 presidential vote, but added that they are only "a keyboard click away" from a more serious attack. "We have not seen that kind of robust campaign from them so far," he said.
"Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence... through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire, through proxies," he said, adding that Russia was not the only country working to undermine American elections.
Separately, US Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters that the Pentagon was assisting in efforts to safeguard US elections.
IT IS A HOAX
In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything ...
We got along really well. By the way, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we are being hindered by the Russian hoax - it is a hoax, okay?
U.S. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, at a rally, hours after his top intelligence officers warned of Russian meddling in US elections.
He said the Department of Defence was "taking active measures to protect election security, including monitoring our adversaries".
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, mocked the briefing the White House arranged with the five officials.
"Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security - even if it's only a press conference," he said in a tweet. "Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia."
Controversy over Mr Trump's messages on Russian election interference has renewed calls for additional sanctions on the Putin government. A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation on Thursday to impose new sanctions on Russia.
HOW U.S. IS FIGHTING RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE
Senior Trump administration officials have warned that Russia is trying to interfere in November's mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential election.
Here is what you need to know about the US efforts to prevent it.
1. HOW IS RUSSIA INTERFERING WITH AMERICAN ELECTIONS?
Russia is trying to spread propaganda on hot-button issues using social media, Mr Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, has said, highlighting what he called persistent and pervasive efforts.
Meanwhile, FBI director Christopher Wray said there were attempts to manipulate news stories, spread disinformation and escalate divisive issues. He said intelligence and law enforcement officials are also looking out for voter suppression efforts, illegal campaign financing, and hacks targeting elected officials and voting infrastructure.
2. WHICH THREATS ARE MOST PERVASIVE?
The target of most Russian activity, intelligence officials say, is social media and other digital avenues for spreading disinformation.
Facebook said this week it had shut down 32 pages and accounts suspected of having ties to Russia.
As for computer security, experts see political campaigns as vulnerable, particularly in state and local elections, where campaigns frequently lack the money and expertise to forestall attacks.
Microsoft detected spear-phishing attacks, apparently by Russian intelligence, targeting computers of two 2018 election candidates, a senior company official said last month.
3. HOW ARE BALLOTS BEING SECURED?
Voting machines, often described as old, insecure and lacking a paper trail, are more secure than widely understood. Four in five Americans vote on machines that incorporate paper ballots or back-ups.
Many state voter-registration databases also have been hardened against outside attack since 2016.
While it is possible to hack voting devices to rig an election, experts say, intruding into enough of them to change the outcome would be extremely difficult.
Election officials and the Department of Homeland Security have set up a council to coordinate the response to threats, and the department offers security scans, equipment and other services to election officials nationwide.
Top state election officials are gaining security clearances to see and assess threats, and in February, all 50 states and more than 1,000 localities opened a centre to exchange data.
Virtually every state has taken steps to lock down its election processes. A public-private committee has also approved a new standard for voting equipment that will significantly improve security.
More voting machines than ever have verifiable paper back-ups, and nearly all should have them by 2020. States are also adopting more advanced auditing techniques for vote counts.
4. WHAT ARE INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES DOING?
The most important work the intelligence community has done, according to current and former officials, is to penetrate foreign networks and spy on Russian groups conducting the attacks.
The agencies have also monitored networks in the US to try to detect information campaigns as they begin.
Intelligence agencies are working more closely with technology companies, though some firms have said too little intelligence has been shared, hampering Silicon Valley's efforts to detect threats and warn Americans.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG