WASHINGTON - FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on Thursday that Russia is still working to influence the U.S. presidential election, and hoping to “denigrate” former vice president Joe Biden because it sees the Democratic nominee as part of an American policy establishment antagonistic toward Moscow’s interests.
Election year politics were front and center at the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on threats to the country, as lawmakers pressed Wray to weigh in on a variety of issues where politics, extremism and violence overlap.
"The intelligence community consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our elections," Wray said. Unlike in 2016, when the most serious interference efforts involved hacking Democrats' emails and state election systems, Wray said Russian activity so far this year seems more limited to misinformation campaigns.
"We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020," he said, citing the use of social media, state media and other types of propaganda.
The Russians are trying "to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as a kind of anti-Russian establishment," Wray said. He said the FBI recently alerted Facebook and Twitter to fake accounts that traced back to Russia, and that the companies then took down those profiles.
Wray argued that in the battle against political misinformation, it's important to act quickly before fake social media campaigns or accounts get big - because knocking down false accounts early, before they acquire too many followers, greatly diminishes their effectiveness.
But the FBI director also warned that too much focus on disinformation could be debilitating, causing Americans to distrust the democratic process itself.
"In many ways what concerns me most is the steady drumbeat and misinformation" that could lead to "a lack of confidence of American voters and citizens in the validity of their vote," Wray said.
The danger, he added, lies in the "level of noise" becoming so great that a sense of futility sets in among some Americans.
"I think that would be a perception, not a reality. I think Americans can and should have confidence in our election system and our democracy," he said."
Republicans and Democrats on the committee pressed Wray to say whether right-wing extremists or left-wing extremists pose a more serious threat of violence to the country, but Wray avoided making such a judgment, saying the FBI does not look at political ideology but whether individuals are planning violence.
Asked about President Donald Trump's repeated denunciations of antifa, Wray said it's "a real thing. It's not a group or an organization - it's a movement or an ideology," adding that the FBI is investigating individuals who support the antifa movement and may be planning to engage in violence. He said he was concerned about small local "nodes" of such individuals who may be building toward violence.
Monday night, Trump tweeted in apparent frustration with Wray, saying antifa are "a bunch of well funded ANARCHISTS & THUGS who are protected because the Comey/Mueller inspired FBI is simply unable, or unwilling, to find their funding source, and allows them to get away with "murder". LAW & ORDER!"
The FBI director also discussed a different online movement linked to violence, called boogaloo, that has often been categorized as a form of right-wing extremism, but Wray cautioned lawmakers that boogaloo so far appears to have murky motivations that aren't easily categorized.
"Their main focus is just dismantling, tearing down the government," and it's not clear that their adherents have any clear goal beyond that, said the director.
Wray argued that much of the violence stemming from racial-injustice protests that have gripped pockets of the country this summer "does not appear to be coordinated by any one particular group or movement," though he added that law enforcement has seen instances of local protesters coordinating on tactics, which he said was concerning because that can lead to dangerous interactions with law enforcement.
He also said he was alarmed about a recent rise in violence against police officers emerging from the protests, adding, "it breaks my heart."
Chris Miller, who heads the National Counterterrorism Center, appeared alongside the FBI director, but lawmakers directed most of their questions toward Wray.
Other agency leaders typically appear at such hearings, but the Trump administration has resisted sending many of its intelligence officials to appear before Congress. Lawmakers and the White House have accused each other of politicizing sensitive intelligence issues, and some legislators have suggested that it may be counterproductive to have such a hearing at all with less than two months until the election.
Trump's acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, was a no-show Thursday, having broken his agreement to appear and prompting a showdown with the committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who issued Wolf a subpoena.
Thompson said Wolf's absence served as "an appropriate metaphor for the Trump administration's dereliction on so many of these important issues."
Wray and his FBI have sought to steer clear of such fights, even as Trump and fellow Republicans sharply criticize the bureau's investigation of a possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives interfering with the 2016 election.
A lengthy investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller did not find proof of such a conspiracy, but Mueller's findings have not ended the angry back-and-forths in Congress over foreign interference in the upcoming election, nor did it end political battles over secret intelligence reports.
Last month, senior federal officials said Russia is using a range of tactics to try to undermine Biden's candidacy, while China has engaged in largely rhetorical efforts to harm Trump's chances of being reelected.
U.S. officials insist they are ramping up their security efforts but have not seen election interference efforts as intense as those in 2016, when Russian intelligence operatives hacked Democrats' emails and then helped make them public. Officials have also said they are still seeing persistent but largely unsuccessful efforts by foreign-based hackers to penetrate state or local election computer systems.