Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats raised the alarm on growing cyberattack threats against the United States, saying the situation is at a “critical point” and coming out forcefully against Russia.
“The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point,” Coats said, addressing the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, on Friday.
“Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack,” he said.
Coats compared the “warning signs” to those the United States faced ahead of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, the system is blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said.
Coats said the “worst offenders” are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea – with Russia the “most aggressive foreign actor, no question. And they continue their efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Every day, those countries “are penetrating our digital infrastructure and conducting a range of cyber intrusions and attacks against targets in the United States,” he said.
Some of their targets include the federal government, the US military, state and local governments, and US businesses, he said.
Coats’ comments came the same day that the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents, accusing them of engaging in a “sustained effort” to hack Democrats’ emails and computer networks during the 2016 election.
Coats referred to the indictments and alluded to upcoming election threats, but said “focusing on the potential impact of these actions, on our midterm election, misses the more important point: These actions are persistent, they’re pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not. Russia actors and others are exploring vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure as well.”
Coats added, “What’s serious about the Russians is their intent. They have capabilities, but it’s their intent to undermine our basic values, undermine democracy, create wedges between us and our allies.”
John Podesta, the former chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, reacted to the warning on Saturday, telling CNN’s Ana Cabrera, “as the director of national intelligence said, the red lights are blinking, but I think the White House is essentially asleep at the switch.”
In his remarks, Coats pointed to the indictment as showing “exactly what they’re trying to do or what they’ve done through their military intelligence relative to elections.”
So far, he said, the United States is “not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states and in voter databases that we experienced in 2016” by the Kremlin.
“However, we fully realize that we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself,” he warned.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, like other officials in her department, made a similar assessment that Russia has not yet targeted the 2018 midterm elections with a “scale or scope” of their influence campaign in the 2016 presidential election. But Nielsen noted on Saturday during a conference in Philadelphia that the intelligence community has observed “persistent Russian efforts using social media.”
Coats said Friday that intelligence officials have seen “aggressive attempts to manipulate social media and to spread propaganda focused on hot-button issues that are intended to exacerbate social, political divisions.”
Trump is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin one-on-one in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday. Trump said he intends to raise the 2016 election meddling during his discussion with Putin.
While Coats will not be sitting down with Putin, he was asked Friday what his message to Putin would be if he was given the chance to speak with the Russian leader.
“My message would be: We know what you’re doing, and we know you know what you’re doing and what we’re doing. If your goal is to strengthen Russia in the proper way, we can cooperate with you,” he said, later adding, “But if you want to stay in this tit-for-tat, we’re going to beat you.”
CNN’s Clare Foran Steve Brusk, Adil Trehan and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.