National Intelligence Director ‘Confident’ of Election Hacking by Russia

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, right, testifies before the Senate on Jan. 5, 2017, about Russia’s hacking of the U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Saying he is more confident of this now than in October, the highest intelligence officer in the United States told Congress on Thursday that Russia’s top officials authorized interference in the U.S. presidential election.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called it impossible to gauge how such interference affected the electorate’s choices in the voting booth, but said the interference did not change the vote tallies.

The hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee comes one day after President-elect Donald Trump delivered his latest slap against the intelligence community.

In a bizarre tweet Wednesday, Trump quoted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as saying “Russians did not give him the info.”

The info in question are the hacked emails of the Democratic National Convention and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Wikileaks disseminated the trove piecemeal in the weeks leading up to the U.S. general election, prolonging the shelf life of baiting headlines about supposed corruption in the Clinton camp.

Several senators were critical this morning of the president-elect and Assange, the latter of whom Clapper says the intelligence community does not respect.

But the barbs have had little effect on Trump’s Twitter page.

“The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange – wrong,” he told Twitter followers. “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!”

Clapper told the Senate, however, that the media are not the only ones perceiving Trump as antagonizing U.S. intelligence.

“I’ve received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts of what has been interpreted as disparagement of the intelligence community,” Clapper said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had a warning for Trump spreading this image while speaking in glowing terms of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin’s up to no good,” Graham said. “He’s got to be stopped. Mr. President-elect, when you listen to these people [briefing him on U.S. intelligence], you can be skeptical. But you have to understand, they’re the best among us.” 

Trump has not had a press conference since July, an event in which he famously invited Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.

Sen. John McCain kicked off today’s hearing by calling Russian electoral interference an “unprecedented attack on our democracy.”

“Every American should be alarmed by Russian attacks on our nation,” McCain said.

A hawk on Russia, McCain expressed confidence in the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to lead the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election. He criticized President Barack Obama, however, for failing to develop a policy of cyberdeterrence.

“What seems clear is that our adversaries have reached a common conclusion that the reward for attacking America in cyberspace outweighs the risk,” McCain said.

The Arizona Republican then rattled off a list of questions the U.S. has yet to answer about cyberthreats: What constitutes an act of war? Does the U.S. have a theory of cyberdeterrence? Is the government organized appropriately to address the threat? Who is accountable for the problem?

Clapper, along with Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre II and Director of the National Security Agency Michael Rogers, noted in a joint statement that “the cyber threat cannot be eliminated” – it can only be managed.

“At present, however, the risk calculus some private and public sector entities employ does not adequately account for foreign cyber threats or systemic interdependencies between different critical infrastructure sectors,” the statement says.

Russia’s cyber reach has been dominating public discourse, but each witness noted that China, Iran, North Korea, criminals, the Islamic State group and other designated terrorist groups all pose a cyberthreat to the United States.

And they are not alone. “As of late 2016 more than 30 nations are developing offensive cyber attack capabilities,” the joint statement says.

But Russia’s offensive cyber program in particular is highly advanced and is growing even more aggressive of late.

The United States has seen Russian cyber operations against “government organizations, critical infrastructure, think tanks, universities, political organizations, and corporations often using spear phishing campaigns,” according to the statement.

They say Russia uses these methods “to influence public opinion across Europe and Eurasia.”

Clapper and the others predict that Russian cyber operations will continue to target the United States “to gather intelligence, support Russian decision making, conduct influence operations to support Russian military and political objectives, and prepare the cyber environment for future contingencies.”

Sen. Jack Reed urged the Senate to convene a special or select committee to investigate Russian cyberattacks.

Noting that Russia’s cyberactivities are famously elusive and hard to indentify, and that detection was not so difficult this time, the Rhode Island Democrat also questioned whether Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted the United States to detect Russian interference.

Clapper did not address that issue directly, but called Russian interference “a multifaceted campaign.” Hacking is only a part of it, he said, saying it also entails classic propaganda and disinformation – including fake news.

Russia’s interference in the U.S. election is similar, Clapper added, to efforts that have long been underway in Europe.

Sens. McCain and Graham, R-S.C., recently returned from a trip to the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia, to assure these American allies of continued U.S. support under the new administration.

During the Cold War, McCain noted, the United States used Radio Free Europe and Voice of America as a strategy to counter Soviet propaganda. He said the United States lacks a sufficient strategy today but needs one.

“They are doing pretty significant stuff, particularly in the Baltics and Eastern Europe,” McCain said.

Graham seized on Clapper’s characterization of espionage and election interference, calling the former a more passive act of intelligence collection, and the latter more activist.

“So, when it comes to espionage we better be careful about throwing rocks,” Graham said. “When it comes to interfering in our election, we’d better be ready to throw rocks.”

Graham went on to say that President Obama’s response to Russian interference amounted to throwing a pebble.

“I’m ready to throw a rock,” he said. “Those of you who want to throw rocks, we’re going to get a chance soon. If we don’t throw rocks, we’re going to make a huge mistake,” Graham added.

Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, spoke up about whether Russian cyberactivities would stop if they faced harsher penalties. “We have got to change the dynamic here because we’re on the wrong end of the cost equation,” Rogers said.

Iran and China have the same capabilities to interfere in U.S. politics, he noted.

Clapper said the intelligence community is working on a report about Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, including what motivated the cyberattacks. The CIA, FBI and NSA will release an unclassified version of their findings early next week, Clapper said.

Trump meanwhile is scheduled meet with Clapper and Rogers on Friday to receive a briefing on Russian cyberattacks.