WASHINGTON – The nation’s top intelligence officer said Thursday that the Russian government’s “multifaceted” meddling in the 2016 presidential election consisted of hacking, as well as the spread of traditional propaganda and fake news.
“Of course RT [Russia Today], which is heavily supported by — funded by the Russian government was very, very active in promoting a particular … point of view,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Disparaging our system, our alleged hypocrisy about human rights, et cetera, et cetera. Whatever crack, fissure that they could find in our tapestry, they would exploit it.”
RT could not be reached for comment.
Asked by committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) if Russia’s involvement in the election constituted an attack on the U.S. and an act of war, Clapper said that is a “very heavy policy call that I don’t believe the intelligence community should make, but it certainly would carry, in my view, great gravity.”
He said that the intelligence community could not assess what impact the interference had “on choices the electorate made,” and but that it did not have an impact on vote tallies.
Clapper, who oversees the nation’s 16 spy agencies, told the lawmakers that he stands even “more resolutely” now with the intelligence community’s Oct. 7 conclusion that campaign cyberthefts and disclosures were intended to interfere with the U.S. election process and could only have been authorized by Russia’s most senior levels.
The hearing came as President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly voiced skepticism that the Russian government was behind the the effort, citing claims Wednesday from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that Russia wasn’t the source of stolen documents from the Democratic National Committee that his group distributed.
“Julian Assange said “a 14-year old could have hacked Podesta’ — why was DNC so careless?” Trump said on Twitter. “Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
Julian Assange said "a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta" – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle questioned Trump’s apparent siding with Assange over the intelligence community during Thursday’s hearing.
Trump tweeted Thursday that the media had misrepresented his comment, saying via Twitter, “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange – wrong. 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!”
The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange – wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2017
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2017
Clapper said that the intelligence community has little respect for Assange, after being asked his opinion by McCain.
“I think there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism which policymakers — to include policymaker number one — should have, but I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” Clapper said, after being asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D- Mo.) who would benefit from a president-elect criticizing the intelligence community.
Both Clapper and Admiral Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, who was also testifying, expressed concerns about intelligence officers’ morale after Trump’s perceived disparagement of their work.
“Public trust and confidence in the intelligence community is crucial,” Clapper said. “And 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.”
Trump has pointed to the CIA’s false claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction, leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as evidence that intelligence assessments from the CIA should not be trusted. Clapper conceded Thursday “my fingerprints” were on the report baring the claims, but said that the intelligence community has made strides in its intelligence gathering since then.
A classified report on the breadth and depth of Russian interference is scheduled to be disclosed to Trump on Friday. President Barack Obama is expected to receive his briefing on Thursday.
Clapper said that intelligence officials “plan to brief the Congress and release an unclassified version of this report to the public early next week.” He said he intends to “push the envelope as much as I can on the unclassified version” of the report to give the public the most information possible.
The report ascertains motive for the meddling, to which Clapper said there is more than one.
McCain said that the purpose of the review is not to call into question the results of the election, but that such a review is vital to preserving democracy and fair elections.
“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation. There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference,” McCain said in his opening statement. “That is why Congress must set partisanship aside, follow the facts, and work together to devise comprehensive solutions to deter, defend against, and, when necessary, respond to foreign cyberattacks.”
Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) indicated that perpetrators of the hacking may have wanted the U.S. to trace the breach back to Russia.
“In this case, detection and attribution were not so difficult, the implication being that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may have wanted us to know what he had done, seeking only a level of plausible deniability to support an official rejection of culpability,” Reed said.
Clapper declined to comment on Reed’s assessment, citing that commenting could jeopardize sources and methods used to compile the classified report into the hacking.
To counter the information war, Clapper recommended “having a [United States Information Agency] on steroids,” referring to the body that oversaw pro-U.S. government messaging between 1953 and 1999, when it was replaced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), noted that the U.S. has also acted to influence other nation’s elections. He cited an dataset assembled in August by Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University that shows the U.S. interfered in foreign elections at least 81 times between 1946 and 2000 — not counting U.S.-backed military coups or regime change efforts. Russia, according to the dataset, attempted to influence 36 foreign elections during the same time frame. Together, the two world powers intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections from 1946 and 2000.
Last week, the Obama administration announced retaliatory steps against Russia for its interference in the U.S. election, expelling 35 Russian diplomats, shutting down two diplomatic centers in the U.S. and imposing new sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies and companies.
Clapper recommended that the U.S. not respond to cyber attacks with cyber in a tit for tat manner. He differentiated between cyber espionage, like the June 2015 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack thought to have been carried out be the Chinese, which he said all nations engage in, and a cyber attack.
“In most cases to date, non-cyber tools have been more effective at changing our adversaries’ cyber behavior. When we do choose to act, we need to model the rules we want others to follow since our actions set precedence,” Clapper told lawmakers in his opening statement. “We also need to be prepared for adversary retaliation, which may not be as surgical due to the adversary’s skill or the inherent difficulty in calibrating effect and impact of cyber tools. That’s why using cyber to counter cyber attacks risks unintended consequences.”
Clapper said that the response to cyber intrusions is something policy makers must decide on, not the intelligence community, but voiced that he’s “a big fan of sanctions against the Russians.”