WASHINGTON – The nation’s top intelligence officer said Friday that the persistent danger of Russian cyberattacks today was akin to the warnings the U.S. had of stepped-up terror threats before the Sept. 11 attacks.
That note of alarm sounded by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, came on the same day that 12 Russian agents were indicted on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Coats said those indictments illustrated Moscow’s continuing strategy to undermine the United States’ democracy and erode its institutions.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said as he cautioned of cyberthreats. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Coming just days before President Donald Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Coats’ comments demonstrate the persistent divisions within the administration on Russia.
Trump has said he would raise the issue of Russian election interference with Putin during their meeting in Helsinki. And Trump regularly cites some strong actions his administration has taken to punish Moscow, such as expelling 60 Russians accused of intelligence activities. But Trump and the White House also routinely minimize information about the impact of Moscow’s cyberattacks and intrusion efforts on the 2016 election.
The government’s national security agencies, particularly the intelligence agencies, have been far more concerned about Russia’s 2016 interference campaign — and efforts still underway.
Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, has helped position the intelligence agencies in the more hard-line camp, pushing for more aggressive actions to halt cyberattacks by Russia and other nations.
In his remarks on Friday, Coats did not directly address Trump’s coming meeting with Putin. But Coats did say that if he was meeting the Russian president, he would deliver a sharp message that the United States knows what the Russians are doing and that Putin’s government is responsible for the cyberattacks.
Coats said Russian and other actors were exploring vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure and trying to infiltrate energy, water, nuclear and manufacturing sectors. “These actions are persistent, they are pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy,” Coats said.