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US intelligence chiefs say Russia meddling threatens 2018 vote
[WASHINGTON] US intelligence chiefs said on Tuesday that Russian attempts to meddle in US politics are continuing unabated - and pose a threat to mid-term congressional elections in November.
They also said North Korea's nuclear programme poses a potential "existential threat" to the United States, and that the time is nearing for Washington to respond to that danger.
In a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the most urgent threats facing the country, Mr Coats and the heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA and two other spy agencies were unanimous in saying that Moscow's efforts to disrupt US politics are as intense now as they were in the 2016 presidential election.
"Throughout the entire community, we have not seen any evidence of any significant change" in Russian behaviour, said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
"There should be no doubt that Russia perceived its past efforts as successful and sees the 2018 US midterms elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations," he said.
"We have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here," Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said.
"This is not going to change or stop," added National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.
America's leading intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russian President Vladimir Putin had directed a broad intelligence effort to influence the 2016 presidential election 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.
Mr Trump has repeatedly dismissed the idea that Moscow helped him - and all allegations of collusion - as "fake news," and criticised the intelligence agencies for repeating it.
But a large volume of information has surfaced on Russian use of social media to influence public opinion in US public policy debates.
"The Russians utilise this tool because it's relatively cheap, it's low risk, it offers what they perceive as plausible deniability, and it is proven to be effective at sowing division," Mr Coats told the Senate panel.
"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen, and other means of influence to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," he said.
On North Korea, Mr Coats said its leader Kim Jong Un continues to demonstrate a "provocative nature" and "instability" that makes Pyongyang's nuclear capability more threatening.
"This is an existential threat, potentially to the United States, but also to North Korea," Mr Coats said.
"Kim Jong Un views this as - any kind of a kinetic attack or effort to force him to give up his nuclear weapons - is an existential threat to his nation and to his leadership in particular," he said.
"Our goal is a peaceful settlement," he added. "We're using maximum pressure on North Korea in various ways."
On another issue, Mr Coats stressed that the US government's repeated failure to craft a full-year's budget, and the large fiscal deficits, constitute another important security threat.
"I'm concerned that our increasing fractious political process, particularly with respect to federal spending, is threatening our ability to properly defend our nation both in the short term and especially in the long term," he said.
The mounting US debt, now over US$20 trillion, is "unsustainable and represents a dire threat to our economic and national security."