TOI : US agencies said to identify parties who gave hacked emails to WikiLeaks, Intel chief doubles down on assessment Russia interfered in election; Moscow reportedly celebrated Trump win in intercepted communications
WASHINGTON — A united front of top intelligence officials and senators from both parties on Thursday forcefully reaffirmed the conclusion that the Russian government used hacking and leaks to try to influence the presidential election, directly rebuffing President-elect Donald J. Trump’s repeated questioning of Russia’s role.
They suggested that the doubts Mr. Trump has expressed on Twitter about the agencies’ competence and impartiality were undermining their morale.
“There’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Russian hacks. He added that “our assessment now is even more resolute” that the Russians carried out the attack on the election.
The Senate hearing was the prelude to an extraordinary meeting scheduled for Friday, when Mr. Clapper and other intelligence chiefs will repeat for Mr. Trump the same detailed, highly classified briefing on the Russian attack that President Obama received on Thursday. In effect, they will be telling the president-elect that the spy agencies believe he won with an assist from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Then Mr. Trump will have to say whether he accepts the agencies’ basic findings on Russia’s role or holds to his previous contention that inept, politicized American spies have gotten the perpetrator of the hacking wrong. That would throw the intelligence agencies into a crisis of credibility and status with few, if any, precedents.
In a pair of Twitter posts early Thursday, Mr. Trump appeared to back away from the scorn he had previously expressed for the intelligence agencies’ work, as well as from his embrace of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which released most of the hacked emails of Democratic officials.
“The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange — wrong,” he wrote. “I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!”
But on Thursday night, the president-elect returned to Twitter and appeared to underscore his doubts about the F.B.I.’s investigation of the hacking.
“The Democratic National Committee would not allow the FBI to study or see its computer info after it was supposedly hacked by Russia,” he wrote, a day after a report by BuzzFeed on the issue. “So how and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers? What is going on?”
Early next week, the public will get its fullest information to date on the evidence the agencies have to support their contention that Mr. Putin’s government used the hacked emails to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Mr. Trump’s. Mr. Clapper said he would “push the envelope” to include as much detail as possible in the unclassified version of the intelligence agencies’ report on the Russian operation.
The hacking, he added, was only one part of that operation, which also included the dissemination of “classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.”
Mr. Clapper will step down as intelligence director later this month after a career in intelligence and military service that began when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1961. His replacement is expected to be Dan Coats, a retired senator from Indiana, a Trump transition official said Thursday.
A low-key conservative who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr. Coats would oversee the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies in a job that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to improve the sharing of information, but that is sometimes criticized as adding a layer of bureaucracy.
The Coats news came on the same day that R. James Woolsey, a former C.I.A. director, stepped down as a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, citing his diminishing role in the transition.
The Senate hearing on Thursday, devoted to foreign cyberthreats, was unusual as much for its context as its content — a public, bipartisan display of support for the intelligence community that seemed aimed, at times, at an audience of one.
Though Mr. Clapper and most Republican senators were careful to avoid antagonizing the president-elect directly, the hearing spoke to the rift Mr. Trump has threatened to create between the incoming administration and the intelligence officials assigned to inform it.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the committee, said the purpose of the gathering was “not to question the outcome of the presidential election” but to move forward with a full understanding of what had happened.
Repeatedly, though, Mr. McCain and his colleagues seemed to undercut Mr. Trump’s past messages of support for Russia, and for Mr. Assange of WikiLeaks.
“Do you think there’s any credibility we should attach to this individual?” Mr. McCain asked.
“Not in my view,” Mr. Clapper said. Another witness at the hearing, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command, said he agreed.
The intelligence director said he welcomed skeptical questioning from Mr. Trump, allowing that the intelligence community was “not perfect.”
“We are an organization of human beings, and we’re prone, sometimes, to make errors,” Mr. Clapper said. But he said the agencies had learned from their failures, notably their declaration that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Democrats on the committee repeatedly coaxed intelligence leaders to rebut Mr. Trump’s multiple assertions that a random individual hacker might have hacked Democratic targets.
Senator Joe Donnelly, Democrat of Indiana, told Mr. Clapper that in the conflict between the intelligence agencies and Mr. Assange over Russian responsibility for the attack, “We’re on your side every time.” He asked Mr. Clapper to convey his level of confidence in attributing the election attack to Russia, rather than “someone in his basement.”
“It’s, uh, very high,” the laconic intelligence director replied.
At one point, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, wondered aloud “who benefits from a president-elect trashing the intelligence community.”
Ms. McCaskill said there would be “howls from the Republican side of the aisle” if a Democrat had spoken about intelligence officials as Mr. Trump had.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, used the occasion for an aside about Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s choice for national security adviser, who has a history of sharing discredited news stories and conspiracy theories. Mr. Kaine said that he was unsure whether Mr. Flynn was acting out of “gullibility” or “malice,” but that it was a cause for “great concern” that Mr. Flynn shared stories that “most fourth graders would find incredible.”
No Republican lawmakers embraced Mr. Trump’s remarks casting doubt on the intelligence conclusions, though some were more conspicuous than others in their efforts to distance themselves.
Perhaps the closest to a defense of Mr. Trump came from Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas. Denouncing “imprecise language” stating that Russia “hacked the election,” Mr. Cotton asked Mr. Clapper to confirm that the actual balloting was not affected.
Mr. Cotton also suggested that the conventional wisdom that Mr. Putin favored Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton might be wrong. Mr. Trump promised a stronger military and more American oil and gas production — policies Mr. Cotton suggested would not be to Russia’s advantage.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, criticized the Obama administration for its response to the Russian attack. He said the White House had lobbed mere “pebbles” in retaliation for the interference.
“When it comes to interfering with our election, we better be ready to throw rocks,” he said. Then Mr. Graham issued a warning for fellow Republicans who might be inclined to brush off any attack on an opposing party.
“Could it be Republicans next election?” he asked. “It’s not like we’re so much better at cybersecurity than Democrats.”