FBI director wants to ‘up our game’ on election interference

Other countries have been eyeing Russia’s efforts in 2016 and the ‘threat just keeps escalating,’ Wray tells senators

FBI Director Christopher Wray, left, arrives for a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Tuesday with Chairman Jerry Moran. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

FBI Director Christopher Wray told senators Tuesday that “there are still more messages to be sent” to Russia when it comes to interference in American elections, as the bureau prepares to combat foreign meddling efforts during the 2020 elections.

Other countries have been eyeing Russia’s efforts in 2016 and “entertaining whether or not to take a page out of that book,” Wray said, fueling many of the questions from Senate appropriators as they pondered what resources the FBI needs in fiscal 2020.

[Schumer uses Kushner’s downplaying of Russian election interference to pitch sanctions]

“Make no mistake: The threat just keeps escalating and we’re going to have to up our game to stay ahead of it,” Wray told the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI budget.

The FBI requested a total of $9.31 billion, which includes increases of $70.5 million to enhance cyber investigative capabilities and $18.3 million to mitigate threats from foreign intelligence services, Wray told the panel.

He said the FBI coordinates with other national security agencies, adding that the bureau’s focus needs to be coordination with the tech sector and social media companies to help blunt influence campaigns, as well as coordination with states and localities to secure election hardware.

[Mueller report: Russia hacked state databases and voting machine companies]

“I think that part of it is where we need to keep upping our game as we anticipate in 2020 the threat being even more challenging than it has been,” Wray testified.

He said the FBI has given classified briefings to top social media and technology companies several times in the past year so they can better monitor their own platforms.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio asked Wray whether the FBI is working to find a way to tell state and local officials about an intrusion on their voting systems.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election had a brief but significant mention that at least one Florida county had an intrusion into its election system. But the government hasn’t informed that county because it needs to protect the source of how it discovered that.

Wray called it a “particularly vexing problem” and the FBI has put in protocols for deciding when to tell victims of cyberattacks, including in the context of elections. Sometimes, however, the information is from a foreign partner and is not the FBI’s to share.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who this month reintroduced with Rubio a bill to put economic penalties on the Russian economy if the country was caught meddling with the 2020 elections, pressed Wray on whether that legislation would help.

“I think the best part of a defense against a foreign intelligence threat, like malign foreign influence, includes an offensive capability,” Wray said. “Certainly, sanctions are a very important tool in the tool box that can, and should be, and has been, in some instances, applied in this particular space we’re talking about right now.”

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