Coats was joined by several other heads of the intelligence community: CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo.
The panel discussed worldwide threats to the US, ranging from cybersecurity dangers by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran to international crises involving North Korea and terrorism.
"I understand that many people tuned in today are hopeful we'll focus solely on the Russian investigation of their involvement in our elections. Let me disappoint everybody up front," Chair Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) said in his opening statement. "While the committee certainly views Russian intervention in our elections as a significant threat, the purpose of today's hearing is to review and highlight to the extent possible the ranges of threats that we face as a nation."
Despite Burr’s intentions, much of the focus, especially from Democrats, was dominated by discussions of alleged Russian cyber penetration into the US and French presidential elections, as well as the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. McCabe took the place of former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired on Tuesday.
Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-Virginia) immediately began focusing on Russia, Comey’s firing and the FBI probe. He asked if the intel community’s late January assessment accurately characterized Russian interference in the 2016 election, to which the entire panel answered yes.
He also asked about the alleged Russian hacking in the French presidential election. On Tuesday, Rogers informed a different Senate committee that the US notified French officials that it had found evidence of Russian hacking. Warner wanted to know what the US is doing to prevent future Russian interference.
In his written testimony, Coats discussed how Russian interference has advanced.
"Moscow has a highly advanced offensive cyber program, and in recent years, the Kremlin has assumed a more aggressive cyber posture,” which “was evident in Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 US election,” and that “only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized the... data thefts and disclosures," he wrote.
It has also spread elsewhere, including Montenegro and Ukraine, Coats told the senators, especially with its manipulation of social media. Russia is a "great threat to democratic process," he said, accusing Moscow of seeking to "maintain control over Kiev and frustrating European integration" in 2017.
Pompeo also cited the importance of social media as a tool for Russian cyber interference, saying it presents a continuing threat.
“There’s nothing new, only the cost has been lowered,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly denied meddling in other countries’ elections and internal politics. Several members of the intelligence community have admitted that the alleged Russian interference in the US would have been about changing minds, but didn't change physical votes.
Other cyber threats
Echoing Rogers’ testimony on cybersecurity in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the panel discussed other countries ‒ specifically China, Iran and North Korea ‒ that are involved in cyber warfare and hacking.
“Our adversaries are becoming bolder, more capable and more adept at using cyberspace to threaten our interests and shape real-world outcomes," said Coats. "And the number of adversaries grows as nation states, terrorist groups, criminal organizations and others continue to develop cyber capabilities."
China is targeting both the US government and American companies, Coats said, but noted that the attacks have decreased since Washington and Beijing reached a “common understanding”on cyber spying in 2015. Tehran is making use of its high-tech capabilities, Coats said, outlining a 2013 Iranian hacking incident and a 2014 data-deletion attack. North Korea “previously conducted cyber-attacks against US commercial entities,” he said in his written testimony, citing the 2014 Sony hack, and “remains capable of launching disruptive or destructive cyber attacks to support its political objectives” against both the US and its allies.
Although Rogers noted on Monday that US Cyber Command, which he also heads, is “still trying to find a way forward” on creating a cybersecurity plan, Pompeo praised the Trump administration’s headway in the area.
“This administration has reentered the battlespace in places the previous administration was absent,” the CIA director said.
Coats, however, sided with Rogers, telling Senator John Lankford (R-Oklahoma): “All of us would agree we need a cyber doctrine.”
Amid rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, Coats described North Korea as a “very significant, potentially existential" threat to the US, while Pompeo told Sen. Angus King (I-Maine): “We haven’t seen anything that would make any of us feel any better about this threat.”
However, the CIA director told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), "the Chinese have made efforts they have not made before" using trade, including restricting coal, but noted that Beijing can do more to pressure Pyongyang on its nuclear program. Coats agreed with that assessment, telling Feinstein that “interaction with the Chinese of late, we think, can play a significant role in terms of how we deal with this.”
On the reclusive country’s increased testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, Stewart of the DIA warned that, although North Korea hasn’t yet carried out a complete test of ICBM with a nuclear device, “they’re going to put those two together at some point.”
The panel declined to answer many of the senators’ questions on North Korea, preferring instead to reserve their responses for a second, closed hearing on Thursday afternoon.
War on Terror
Afghanistan, where the US “war on terrorism” began shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, is a major concern, Stewart told Burr. “Unless we change something, such as inserting US forces or NATO forces, that changes the balance of forces on the ground… the situation will continue to deteriorate” and all the gains of the past several years will be lost.
Referencing Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Coats said the terrorist group "will continue to be a threat to the US," as it "maintains the intent and capability to direct, enable, assist, and inspire transnational attacks."
“This threat will persist with many attacks happening with little or no warning," he said.