Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe said during a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today that James Comey's removal as FBI director by President Donald Trump will have no impact on that agency's investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election, which he labeled as having the highest priority within the agency.
McCabe said this during a previously scheduled Intelligence Committee hearing set to discuss worldwide threats to America, one that was essentially hijacked, with the vast majority of questions instead focusing on the impact Comey's departure will have on the investigation. Meanwhile, the other intelligence agency leaders who were present faced many fewer questions concerning the nation's ability to defend itself from a cyberattack.
McCabe, who filled in on short notice due to Comey's removal earlier this week, became the focal point for both Republicans and Democrats on the the committee, who asked dozens of questions regarding whether or not the FBI investigation into Russian activity surrounding the election will be hampered in any way by Comey's firing.
McCabe told the committee the investigation will continue forward, that his agency does not require additional funding or personnel to complete its work, and that no agents on the case have been removed. Nor will he or his investigators give the White House updates on the course of the investigation.
“We continue to focus on our mission and get the job done,” McCabe told the committee.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, noted that similar Russian interference in the U.S. and other nations' electoral processes has been taking place for a long time, but the use of a cyber component makes such actions much easier and less expensive for Russia to conduct.
Discussing threats to the U.S., cybersecurity concerns topped Coats' list. In a prepared report, Coats tagged Russia as the top cyberthreat, saying that the nation has an advanced offensive cyber program and has become much more aggressive in the last few years. Additionally, Coats reiterated an earlier finding that that permission to use cyber tools against other nations comes from the very top of the Russian government.
“This aggressiveness was evident in Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and we assess that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized the 2016 U.S. election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets,” he wrote.
Coats' concern was echoed by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “Of all the many difficult challenges we are going to discuss this morning, nothing worries me more than the threat of a well-planned, well-executed wide-scale attack on the computer networks that make America work,” Burr said in his opening remarks.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) asked the intelligence chiefs to answer "yes" or "no" to the question of whether Russian intelligence agencies were responsible for the hacking and leaking of information in order to influence the U.S. election. The answer was "yes" across the board, despite Trump's ongoing insistence that another actor, such as China, could instead be responsible.
In another "yes" or "no" question, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked the intelligence heads whether or not they would install cybersecurity software made by Kaspersky Lab, after published reports stated that the FBI is investigating the relationship between Kaspersky and the Russian government.
In answer to Rubio's question, all were emphatic that they would not use Kasperksy products.
Eugene Kaspersky, Kaspersky Lab's CEO, took exception to this apparent disparaging of his company's product.
“I respectfully disagree with their opinion, and I'm very sorry these gentlemen can't use the best software on the market because of political reasons," Kaspersky said, in a statement emailed to SC Media.
Kaspersky has denied that it has any connection to the Russian government. “As a private company, Kaspersky Lab has no ties to any government, and the company has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts,” the company said in a statement issued on May 9.
The Russian cyberthreat was not the only one discussed by the committee. Coats noted that North Korea, China, Iran, terrorist groups and criminals all pose a severe problem to the U.S.
Coats believes China will continue cyberespionage efforts against the U.S. government and its allies and business interests, although he noted such efforts have been greatly reduced since China and the U.S. signed an agreement to limit such activities against each other.
The North Korean threat, meanwhile, will focus on American allies in that region, as Pyongyang is fully capable of launching disruptive cyberattacks to support its political goals, according to today's testimony.
The Senate Committee was also interested in what the intelligence community was doing as far as developing a specific cyber doctrine that the nation could follow. Sen. Mark Lankford (R-Okla.) directly asked who is responsible for creating this doctrine and who should be held responsible if it is not completed.
Coats replied that he and his colleagues all agree that a doctrine is needed, adding that former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani had been tasked by the President with this responsibility, but as of right now the job is not done. Coats concluded by saying he hopes that in a year's time the doctrine would be in place.