There are bipartisan calls in Congress to investigate Russia's actions
Trump has consistently rejected assertions that Russia is behind election hacking
The leading US intelligence official said Thursday that his foreign counterparts have expressed concern that President-elect Donald Trump is disparaging the US intelligence community, potentially damaging public confidence.
“I do think public trust and confidence in the Intelligence Community is crucial” both in the US and in other countries that rely on US intelligence, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’ve received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts about the disparagement of the US Intelligence Community, or I should say, what has been interpreted as disparagement of the US Intelligence Community.”
Clapper was speaking at a hearing on global cyberthreats that focused almost exclusively on Moscow’s alleged hacking during the presidential elections.
The hearing gave lawmakers and senior US intelligence officials the chance to draw a line in the sand for Trump, presenting a united front on their conclusion that Russia is a major threat to the United States and was behind election-related hacking – a conclusion the President-elect has refused to accept.
“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,” Clapper, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre and the commander of US Cyber Command, Michael Rogers, wrote in a joint statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Clapper said at the hearing that there was a line between critical thinking about assessment and undermining those gathering the intelligence.
“I think there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism which policymakers – to include policymaker No. 1 – should always have on intelligence, but I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” he said.
And he noted that some intelligence agents die in service for their country. “You only need to walk into the lobby and look at the stars on the wall or the NSA and the number of intelligence people who have paid the ultimate price for their country,” he said.
Rogers told the committee that he was concerned about morale within the Intelligence Community and that having political leaders who are confident in intelligence agencies is “crucial to that.”
“I don’t want to lose good, motivated people because they feel there’s not room for them to contribute,” Rogers said. “Without that confidence, I just don’t want a situation where our workforce decides to walk because that’s just not a good place for us to be.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he wanted to convey to Trump that “It’s okay to challenge the intel, you’re right to do so, 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,” Graham added, “not undermined.”
In his opening questions to Clapper, Committee Chairman John McCain noted the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that the cyberthefts and disclosures were intended to interfere with the US election process and could only have been authorized by Russia’s most senior levels.
“We stand actually more resolutely on the strength of that statement that we made on the seventh of October,” Clapper said. After the election, the Intelligence Community concluded that at least one Russian motive had been to help Trump win.
Clapper said that the hacking did not succeed in changing any vote tallies, but that it was impossible for intelligence to assess how the information released from the breaches affected voters’ attitudes.
McCain emphasized the Russian role and delivered an implicit rebuke to Trump, who has urged people to “move on” from the issue of Moscow-directed hacking.
“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation,” the Arizona Republican said. “There’s no escaping the fact that this committee meets today … in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy.”
McCain added that the “goal of this review is not to question the outcome of the election nor should it be.” It’s crucial that the country move forward with full knowledge about what happened and that Congress take bipartrisan steps, he said.
Russia reacted almost immediately, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitr Peskov telling CNN that Moscow is “sick and tired of those irresponsibly blaming everything on our country. If there is a need for an enemy, why not to try someone else?”
“We have suggested cooperation on combating cyberthreats numerous times,” Peskov said. “It was rejected.”
But both Clapper and Rogers said in their testimony that the US has been trying to create international norms for cyber-related conflict. “We continue to engage with partners around the world about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in cyberspace, ” Rogers said. “We are clearly not where we want to be in this regard.”
Trump has suggested that the Intelligence Community’s conclusion on Russia was driven by political interests. Clapper, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1961, stressed that he has served every president “in the trenches” since John F. Kennedy.
“I am apolitical,” he said, adding that it was a priority to supply “unvarnished” and “untainted” policy recommendations to policy makers.
On Wednesday, Trump championed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s claim that Russia wasn’t the source of stolen documents from the Democratic National Committee that his group distributed.
McCain asked Clapper whether Assange had endangered men and women serving the US with his earlier release of State Department cables.
“Yes, he has,” Clapper said.
McCain then asked whether Assange should be accorded any credibility – another implicit rebuke of Trump. Clapper responded, “No, he should not.”
The President-elect’s apparent support for Assange and his dismissal of the intelligence community’s findings on Russia have alarmed fellow Republicans, but on Thursday morning, Trump tweeted that “the media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!”