U.S. spymaster says evidence on Russian hacking has only gotten stronger

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listens to questions while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listens to questions while testifying alongside Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, right, before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday on foreign cyberthreats. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

The country’s top intelligence official set down a marker for President-elect Donald Trump Thursday, saying that evidence the Russian government sought to interfere in the U.S. election had only gotten stronger in recent months and included a “multifaceted campaign” of propaganda, “disinformation” and “fake news” in addition to the cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee.

“I don’t think we have ever encountered a more aggressive or direct campaign to interfere in our election process than we saw in this instance,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Clapper’s strong comments would appear to signal an extraordinary confrontation Friday, when he and other top U.S. intelligence officials are due to brief Trump on their findings about the Russian effort in a classified briefing at Trump Tower. The president-elect has repeatedly questioned the intelligence linking the Russian government to the election cyberattacks, even to the point — in a recent tweet — of citing statements this week by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denying that the Russian government had any involvement in providing his organization with internal emails from the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta. The delegation of the nation’s top intelligence officials, including FBI Director James Comey and CIA Director John Brennan, seems intended, at least in part, to demonstrate a united front by the intelligence community in the face of the president-elect’s mocking skepticism of their findings.

Trump, however, appeared to back down slightly in two early morning tweets shortly before the Thursday hearing began. “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 minds as to the truth.” He continued: “The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!”

If Trump reverses course and embraces the intelligence community’s conclusions about the Russian role in the election cyberattacks, it wouldn’t be the first time that he has abruptly taken a different tack. But Clapper appeared to do his best to leave the president-elect little wiggle room, twice saying that the intelligence behind the community’s findings had only gotten stronger since Oct. 7, when his agency and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement saying that the Russian government “directed” the cyberattacks on U.S. political organizations and that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

“Our assessment is even more resolute than it was on the seventh of October,” Clapper said in response to questioning at the hearing. At another point, he added, “If anything, what we have since learned” reinforces the conclusions in the October statement.

Clapper did not divulge what new intelligence he was referring to — nor did he reveal more about the evidence behind the initial findings, saying to do so might jeopardize sensitive “sources and methods” of intelligence collection. But he said that he intends to “push the envelope” in terms of public disclosure next week, when the U.S. intelligence community plans to release a report on the Russian hacking after briefing members of Congress on the findings.

Clapper also provided some new details about the scope of Russia’s activities, emphasizing it went well beyond cyberattacks. “This was a multifaceted campaign,” he said. “The hacking was only one part of it. It also entailed classic propaganda, disinformation [and] fake news.”

One organ for that campaign Clapper singled out was RT, the Russian government’s worldwide television network, which in December 2015 hosted retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national security director, at a 10th anniversary gala in Moscow. Without mentioning Flynn, who has acknowledged he was paid for his appearance at the gala through his speakers’ bureau, Clapper noted that RT was “very, very active in promoting a particular point of view — disparaging our system, our alleged hypocrisy about human rights. … Whatever fissure they could find in our tapestry, [the Russians] would exploit it, whether it’s RT, the use of social media — they exercise all of those capabilities in addition to the hacking. The totality of all that, regardless of the impact [on the election], which we can’t gauge, the totality of that, not only as director of national intelligence, but as a citizen, is of grave concern.”

Clapper’s comments were reinforced in testimony by two other Obama administration officials —National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers and Undersecretary of Intelligence Marcel Lettre— and for the most part went unchallenged by members of both parties. Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., began the hearing by calling Russia’s hacking “an unprecedented attack on our democracy.” McCain’s ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said it calls for a response that goes beyond the measures ordered by President Obama last week, when he evicted 35 Russian diplomats and imposed sanctions on four top military intelligence officials and three contractors.

“I think what Obama did was throw a pebble,” Graham said. “I’m ready to throw a rock.”

The only slight pushback came from Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who noted that the Chinese government in 2014 hacked the Office of Personnel Management and stole personal information on millions of government workers — with no apparent response from the Obama administration.

But Clapper distinguished between that attack and what the Russians did during the election. What the Chinese did, Clapper said, “was espionage. It was not an attack per se. I always say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw publicly too many rocks. There is a difference between an act of espionage that we conduct, and other nations do, and an attack.”

The hearing at times took on a partisan tone when some Democrats tried to goad Clapper into criticizing Trump. “Let’s talk about who benefits from a president-elect trashing the intelligence community,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. She cited Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and the Islamic State as the “biggest benefactors.”

Clapper, who is due to retire when Trump takes office later this month, acknowledged that some questioning of the intelligence community was appropriate. But, he said, “I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”