US official says Russia undoubtedly meddled in US election

© The Associated Press FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2016, file photo, National Intelligence Director James Clapper speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Clapper is among top U.S. intelligence officials set to testify on Jan. 5, 2017
WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's top intelligence official said Thursday that Russia undoubtedly interfered in America's 2016 presidential election but stopped short of using the explosive description "an act of war," telling lawmakers such a call isn't within the purview of the U.S. intelligence community.

In a joint report that roiled the presidential campaign last fall, the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence community said the U.S. was confident of foreign meddling, including Russian government hacking of Democratic emails.

In its assessment, the intelligence community has said Moscow interfered to help Republican Donald Trump win.

"We stand actually more resolutely on the strength of that statement than we did on the 7th of October," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee.

Pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on whether the actions constituted an "act of war," Clapper said that was "a very heavy policy call" more appropriate for other entities in the U.S. government to decide.

Clapper pushed back against a barrage of criticism leveled against U.S. intelligence agencies by Trump in recent days and the president-elect's apparent embrace of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

During an exchange with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Clapper said "there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism" and "disparagement." He said the intelligence community is an organization of human beings and isn't perfect. But he said U.S. spy agencies also don't get the credit they deserve for foiling terrorist plots and other successes too secret to discuss.

Clapper said Assange is "holed up" in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, unable to leave without being arrested for breaching his bail conditions. Swedish authorities have investigated Assange for a possible rape, which he has denied.

Assange has "put people at risk" by leaking classified information, Clapper added.

President Barack Obama has received a report on the Russian interference and other foreign meddling in the U.S. election, according to Clapper. He and other senior U.S. intelligence officials said Russia poses a major threat to U.S. government, military, diplomatic and commercial operations.

Clapper said lawmakers will be briefed on the Russian hacking report next week and an unclassified version is tentatively scheduled to be released to the public shortly after that.

CIA Director John Brennan said in a Dec. 16 message to employees that the FBI agreed with the agency's conclusion that Russia's goal was to support Trump in the election. Brennan wrote that he also had spoken with Clapper and said "there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election."

Clapper on Thursday declined to discuss whether Russia's interference was aimed at backing Trump win. But he said Russia's hacking "did not change any vote tallies."

McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services committee, said "every American should be alarmed" by Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election. There is "no escaping the fact that this committee meets today for the first time in this new Congress in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy," McCain said.

The hearing comes a day before Trump receives a briefing by the CIA and FBI directors — along with Clapper — on the investigation into Russia's alleged hacking efforts.

Trump has criticized their findings and even seemed to back Assange's contention that Russia did not provide him with hacked Democratic emails.

But in new tweets early Thursday, Trump backed away from Assange. Trump blamed the "dishonest media" for portraying him as agreeing with Wikileaks founder, whose organization has been under criminal investigation for its role in classified information leaks. "The media lies to make it look like I am against 'Intelligence' when in fact I am a big fan!" Trump wrote.

In fact, Trump has been dismissive about the certainty of the intelligence community's assessment of Russian hacking with a reminder of past failures, specifically their reporting on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the lead-up to the war.

Since then, Trump has derided the intelligence profession on Twitter, which has been widely reported by The Associated Press and other news organizations.

Appearing before the Armed Services Committee were Clapper; Marcel Lettre, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Adm. Michael Rogers, National Security Agency chief and the top officer at the U.S. Cyber Command.

Obama struck back at Moscow in late December with penalties aimed at Russia's leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, that the U.S. said were involved. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

But Trump easily could rescind the sanctions. So far, he has publicly refused to accept the conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attacks. Trump this week escalated his criticism of U.S. intelligence professionals, such as Clapper, by tweeting, without evidence, that an upcoming briefing on the suspected Russian hacking had been delayed until Friday, and said, "perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!"

Intelligence officials said there had been no delay.

The penalties imposed by Obama came after he pledged a "proportional" response to the hacking of the Democratic Party and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. Emails stolen during the campaign were released in the final weeks by WikiLeaks.

5 takeaways from the Senate hearing on Russian hacks

Here are the key things we learned from Thursday's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Russian cyber attacks during the U.S. presidential election.

1. More than one motive

Top intelligence officials reiterated their belief that the Russians hacked Hillary Clinton's campaign and other political party groups in an attempt to influence the presidential election and help President-elect Donald Trump win. However, Director of National Security James Clapper said there was actually "more than one motive." He said multiple motives will be detailed in a comprehensive report to be made public next week.

2. Trump still won

Clapper said the Russian cyber attacks "did not change any vote tallies or anything of that sort." However, he added that there is no way to gauge the impact of the hacking and the subsequent leak of information from Clinton's campaign on how Americans voted. He said the report to be released next week will not question the outcome or legitimacy of the election results.

3. No need for name-calling

The president-elect's dismissive comments about the intelligence community and its assessment that the Russians tried to influence the election were repeatedly brought up by both Democratic and some Republican senators, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Clapper said the comments are not helping the morale of agents at the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies. He said he encourages elected officials to maintain a "healthy skepticism" about intelligence reports but added that "there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement."

4. Russians did more than hack

Clapper said Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential campaign was "a multi-faceted campaign" that also included the dissemination of "fake news" and propaganda. "The hacking was only one part of it," he said. He added that the fake news and other disinformation efforts are continuing.

5. This is going to take a while

Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he will continue to hold a series of hearings in the months ahead to try to develop a policy on how to best deter cyberattacks. McCain said basic questions must still be answered as part of that effort. Among them: what constitutes an act of war or aggression in cyberspace that would merit a military response, either a cyber counterattack or other action; who is accountable for this problem, and do they have sufficient power to deliver results; and does Congress need to change how its committees are organized to help find solutions? McCain has said he plans to create a new cyber subcommittee as part of the Armed Services panel. Republican congressional leaders have so far rejected calls for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Russian hacks.

Key moments from the Senate's Russian hacking hearing

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) held a long-awaited hearing Thursday with top intelligence officials on Russian cyber-aggression, after weeks of President-elect Donald Trump scoffing at their conclusions that Kremlin-backing hackers meddled in the 2016 election. Below are highlights from the hearing, which included testimony from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency chief Michael Rogers:
  • McCain called Russia's hacking "an unprecedented attack on our democracy” and suggested it would be "an attack on the United States of America" had Moscow's action’s affected the results of the election. Still, he cautioned that “none of us believe" Russia had swayed the outcome, and Clapper said the intelligence community has no way to gauge how the hacking may have affected the electorate’s choices. “Whether or not that constitutes an act of war I think is a very heavy policy call that I don’t believe the intelligence community should make,” Clapper said. “But it's certainly — would carry, in my view, great gravity.”
  • Democrats — and Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — repeatedly criticized Trump's "disparagement" and "trashing" of the intelligence community. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill accused the president-elect of putting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose site released many of the most damaging hacked Democratic emails, "on a pedestal,” adding: “I think it should bring about a hue and cry. ... No matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, there should be howls. And mark my word: If the roles were reversed, there would be howls from the Republican side of the aisle.”
  • Trump’s rhetoric about intelligence agencies is alarming American allies, Clapper told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "I've received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts about, you know, the disparagement of the U.S. intelligence community, or I should say what has been interpreted as disparagement of the intelligence community,” Clapper said. In response to an earlier question from McCaskill, the spy chief remarked: "I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”
  • Graham suggested that Trump should support more sanctions against Russia, remarking that President Barack Obama had thrown a “pebble” at the Kremlin instead of a “rock.” He also reminded the GOP that Republicans could be hacked in the next election. “It’s not like we’re so much better at cybersecurity than Democrats,” Graham said.
  • Graham had Rogers confirm that Iran and China had the same capabilities to hack the U.S., and that Vladimir Putin likely knew of Russia’s cyber intrusions — points it seems Graham wanted Trump to be aware of. "I want to let the president-elect know it's OK to challenge the intel,” Graham said, adding: “But what I don't want you to do is undermine those who are serving our nation in this arena until you're absolutely sure they need to be undermined. And I think they need to be uplifted, not undermined.”
  • McCain also went after Assange, whom Trump had quoted Wednesday in a barrage of tweets scoffing at Russian involvement in hacks aimed at the Democratic Party. McCain asked Clapper to confirm that Assange was responsible for publishing the names of people who work for U.S. intelligence — and he questioned whether “there’s any credibility we should attach to this individual.” Clapper responded, “Not in my view.” And Rogers said, “I second those comments."
  • McCain said investigating Russian activity is not meant to cast doubt on Trump's victory. “The goal of this review, as I understand it, is not to question the outcome of the presidential election, nor should it be," he said. "As both President Obama and President-elect Trump have said, our nation must move forward. But we must do so with full knowledge of the fact."
    Clapper affirmed that the intelligence community “will ascribe a motivation” for why Putin would have directed cyberattacks against the U.S. when it releases its report to Congress and the public early next week — while cautioning that Russia had "more than one motive." Intelligence officials and even the White House have indicated that Putin was personally involved in the Kremlin’s cyber intrusions.
  • Russian propaganda was an element of the Kremlin’s “multifaceted campaign” against the U.S., which included its news agencies, social media, "fake news" and the English-language news channel RT, Clapper said. “Of course, RT, which is heavily supported by — funded by — the Russian government, was very, very active in promoting a particular line, point of view, disparaging our system, our alleged hypocrisy about human rights, et cetera, et cetera,” he continued. “Whatever crack they could fissure, they could find in our tapestry, if you will, they would exploit it.”
  • Clapper denied involvement in a possible plan by Trump to rearrange the nation's intelligence agencies. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Trump and his advisers are considering “a plan that would restructure and pare back the nation’s top spy agency.” Top committee Democrat Jack Reed asked: “Have you at all, as the experts in this field, been engaged in any of these discussions, deliberations, advice?” Clapper responded: “No, we have not.”
  • Clapper said “there is some pushback” on a proposal that the federal government consider Republican and Democratic party infrastructure to be part of the nation's “critical infrastructure,” which the Department of Homeland Security notes serves as the backbone of the U.S. economy, security and health. “It's a policy call, to whatever additional protections that such a declaration would afford,” he said. “I think that would be a good thing. But whether or not we should do that or not is really not a call for the intelligence community to make.”
  • Before the hearing began, Clapper, Rogers and Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel Lettre issued a joint statement calling Russia “a full-scope cyber actor that poses a major threat to U.S. Government, military, diplomatic, commercial, and critical infrastructure and key resource networks” — and warning that the Kremlin will continue its aggression in cyberspace. They added: “We assess that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized the recent election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets,” language that tacitly points the finger at Putin.
  • McCain also said the hearing “is not the time or place to preview” the findings of the intelligence community's still-unreleased comprehensive report on Russia's interference in the U.S. political process — but Reed asked the witnesses to preview it anyway. “Although your investigation and report to President Obama is not yet public, we hope you'll be able to convey and explain what’s been accomplished so far, including the steps already announced by the president,” he said.

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