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Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) speaks at a news conference to discuss the committee's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein


By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee accused Russia on Thursday of mounting a campaign of "propaganda on steroids" seeking to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and listed several areas of concern about possible links to Republican Donald Trump's campaign.

"I will not prejudge the outcome of our investigation," Senator Mark Warner told a rare public intelligence committee hearing on alleged Russian efforts to influence elections. "We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but so far there is a great, great deal of smoke."

Moscow denies attempting to influence the election, and Trump has dismissed suggestions of links with Moscow as Democratic sour grapes about his surprise November defeat of Hillary Clinton.

The lawmakers warned of the seriousness of Russian efforts, and experts at the hearing detailed what they described as the dissemination of disinformation and cyber attacks on both Democratic political operatives and Republicans.

They also warned of the potential for Russian influence on upcoming elections in France and Germany, and said Britain's "Brexit" vote last year on leaving the European Union should also be examined.

Clint Watts from the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University told Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican committee member who made a failed bid for the presidency in 2016, that he may have been victimized by such propaganda during the U.S. primary season.

Watts said he had been aware of cyber attacks for a year leading up to the U.S. election.

"We're all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary," said Senator Richard Burr, the intelligence committee's chairman.

Warner, who was a technology executive before entering politics, described a sweeping Russian campaign using trolls and botnets, or networks of hacked or infected devices, to disseminate large amounts of disinformation.

"This Russian 'propaganda on steroids' was designed to poison the national conversation in America," Warner said.

Citing concerns to be addressed in the committee's probe, Warner listed the prediction by a Trump associate about the release of hacked emails weeks before they were released, a change in the Republican Party's platform to water down language on Ukraine, and Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and other Trump associates being forced to step down over alleged ties to Russia.

A separate investigation in the House of Representatives into Russia's alleged role in the U.S. election has become mired in controversy over accusations that its Republican chairman, Trump ally Devin Nunes, is not impartial.

(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

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