US intel chiefs say Russia meddling threatens 2018 vote

Washington (AFP) - US intelligence chiefs said Tuesday that Russian attempts to meddle in US politics are continuing unabated -- and pose a threat to mid-term Congressional elections in November.

The heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA and three other spy agencies were unanimous in saying that Moscow's efforts to disrupt US politics are as strong as they were in 2016.

"Throughout the entire community, we have not seen any evidence of any significant change" in Russian behavior, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

America's leading intelligence agencies concluded at the end of 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin had directed a broad intelligence effort to influence the presidential election that year to undermine the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton and boost Donald Trump's chances.

That effort included hacking and releasing emails and documents from the Clinton campaign, filling social media with posts and "news" items aimed at discrediting her, as well as targeting voter-registration operations and election databases.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo warned late last month that Russian interference has not stopped and can be expected to continue heading into the 2018 midterm elections -- a view unanimously endorsed by his fellow intelligence chiefs at Tuesday's congressional hearings.

"This is not going to change or stop," warned National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.

"With respect to Russian influence efforts, let me be clear, the Russians utilize this tool because it is relatively cheap, it is low risk, it offers what they perceive as plausible deniability, and it has proven to be effective at sowing division," Coats said.

"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen, and other means to influence to try to build on its wide range of operations, and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," he added.

"There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."

Several congressional investigations have been set up to probe the extent of Russian meddling, while the former FBI chief Robert Mueller has been appointed as special prosecutor to lead a Justice Department investigation into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to tilt the election.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the idea that Moscow helped him -- and all allegations of collusion -- as "fake news."