A top U.S. intelligence official has predicted that Russia plans to interfere in the upcoming U.S. congressional elections, but says officials are unsure exactly how and when.
The comments on March 6 by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, before a U.S. Senate committee, were the latest in a series of statements by U.S. officials warning of Russian efforts to interfere in elections in the United States and other Western countries.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, told a White House news conference that he was not worried about the possibility of Russian interference, and vowed to respond accordingly.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any past or current effort to interfere in the U.S. political system. In the latest such statement, President Vladimir Putin told NBC News in an interview last week that Moscow had asked Washington for hard evidence of such meddling.
But since the U.S. intelligence community concluded in January 2017 that Russia engaged in a wide-ranging hacking-and-propaganda campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election, there has been mounting evidence pointing to an organized effort.
Last month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced indictments of 13 Russians, along with three companies, who allegedly used social media and other tools to sway U.S. voters, in violation of U.S. election legislation and other laws.
U.S. officials have warned with increasing frequency that there will be more efforts to influence the November elections, which will, among other things, determine which party controls Congress.
"It's highly likely that they will be doing something. We just don't know how much and when and where," Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We have not seen evidence of a robust effort yet on the part of Russia, but we know their malign activities continue to exist," he said.
The question of Russian interference has overshadowed Trump's administration. Three congressional committees are probing the issue, and Mueller has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 19 people and three companies.
But the Trump White House has downplayed both the intelligence findings, and questioned the need to push back against Moscow.
U.S. lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have expressed mounting concern, accusing the Trump administration of not doing enough to thwart any potential hacking of the election. During the hearing, senators pressed Coats on how the White House was responding.
"The White House is actively engaged. This is a high priority for them," Coats said.
Trump Plays Down Impact
At a news conference later alongside the visiting Swedish prime minister, Trump repeated his assertion that the alleged Russian meddling in 2016 had not affected the election's outcome.
"The Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever, but certainly there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals," he said.
Asked what the administration was doing in response to warning about the upcoming election, he said: "We're doing a very, very deep study and we're coming with some ... very strong suggestions."
"We'll counteract whatever they do, we'll counteract it very strongly," he added.
At the Senate hearing, lawmakers also pressed Coats and the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, about new weaponry under development by both Russia and China.
Last week, Putin unveiled a series of new weapons that appeared aimed largely at the United States.
Ashley said both countries were aggressively developing new state-of-the-art systems, including so-called hypersonic vehicles that travel 20 times faster than the speed of sound.
"Developments in hypersonic propulsion will revolutionize warfare by providing the ability to strike targets more quickly, at greater distances, and with greater firepower," Ashley said.