Donald Trump has spent weeks trash-talking America’s spies and intelligence analysts. The spy chiefs retaliated Thursday—just a day before the intelligence community briefs Donald Trump on Russian attempts to influence the U.S. elections.
Under bright lights, and sitting before a large depiction of the Great Seal of the United States, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Cyber Command head Adm. Mike Rogers contradicted the incoming president again and again. Yes, they said, the Russians really were behind the hacks that impacted the election. And no, don’t trust Wikileaks boss Julian Assange when he tells you otherwise.
President-elect Donald Trump is expected to receive a briefing from the intelligence community Friday. But he has repeatedly dismissed their assessment that Russia tried to interfere in the election that made him the 45th president of the United States.
“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” Trump wrote on Twitter this week. Not only were the nation’s spies taken aback by this tone, intelligence officials told multiple outlets that this was incorrect; the briefing had always been scheduled for Friday.
Not only was Russia behind hacks and spreading misinformation, Clapper told senators, but their campaign to interfere continues to this day.
“This was a multi-faceted campaign,” Clapper said before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning. “So the hacking was only one part of it, and it also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.”
About a month before the election, Clapper had released a statement saying that his office was “confident” that the Russian government had been behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairperson John Podesta. On Thursday, Clapper says he stands even “more resolutely” on this conclusion now than he did then.
The intelligence community believes it has definitive evidence that Russia tried to influence the elections through its hacking and information operations, but can only share that evidence with lawmakers in session closed to the public, in order to protect the methods by which is was intercepted, two U.S. officials briefed on the evidence told The Daily Beast.
Trump has repeatedly voiced skepticism of this intelligence, which the spy chiefs acknowledged was his right as the top consumer of that information. But in Clapper’s view he had crossed dangerously into the territory of “disparagement” of the intelligence community.
“There is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism, which policymakers, including policymaker number one, should always have for intelligence, but I think there's a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” Clapper said.
Earlier this week President-elect Donald Trump also aligned himself with Assange, whose Wikileaks site has previously exposed the sources America's spies use, much to the chagrin of those in the intelligence community who believe those actions put Americans at risk.
Assange had said that Russians were not the source of leaked emails his site published, and that anyone could have hacked Podesta’s emails.
“He’s holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, because he’s under indictment I believe by the Swedish government for a sexual crime. He has, in the interest of, ostensibly, openness and transparency… put people at risk,” Clapper said Thursday. “I don’t think those in the intelligence community have a lot of respect for him.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill and other Democrats had spent the morning aligning themselves with the spy bosses. (Not too long ago, in the run up and aftermath of the Snowden affair, many of these same Democrats were harshly critical of these intelligence chiefs.) On Thursday, however, these senators went after the president-elect, who had cited Wikileaks head Julian Assange as a source and questioned the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had tried to interfere with the U.S. elections.
“There should be howls,” said an incredulous McCaskill. “The notion that the elected leader of this country would put Julian Assange on a pedestal compared to the men and women of the intelligence community and the military… I think it should bring about a hue and cry, no matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat.”
The exchange highlighted a bipartisan coalition that is building to challenge the President-elect on national security issues, either by exposing Russian interference in the American democratic process, or by pressing new sanctions to punish them for it.
“I can count on maybe more than one hand who have stood up in a nonpolitical way to defend the intelligence community over the last few weeks,” McCaskill said, praising Republicans who had joined her in that effort. Among those was Sen. Tom Cotton, a defense hawk who rarely finds reasons to join forces with the Democrat.
“I'll add my voice to senators... in my admiration for the men and women in our intelligence agencies,” said Republican Sen. Tom Cotton. “Intelligence officers don't wear uniforms and are usually undercover, so I want to express my admiration and deepest respect and gratitude for what they do.”
Angus King, an independent senator from Maine, told The Daily Beast he understood some of the skepticism towards the intelligence community over the election hacks. The December intelligence briefing to lawmakers on the intrusions did not include a smoking gun linking Russia to the hacks. . But Clapper said at Thursday’s hearing that what intelligence agencies had found between then and now raised the intelligence community's confidence to “high.”
“I believe they have the forensics,” said King, a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. “I understand skepticism...but I believe the President-elect has to sit down and listen.”
As for the intelligence community's reaction to the Trump's skepticism?
“My impression is that the reactions range from puzzlement to furious,” King said. “If you spend your whole life putting your life at risk for your country and your future leader puts the word intel in quotes in a tweet which implies sarcasm, that's got to be at best dispiriting and at worse infuriating.”
The three hour panel convened by Chairman John McCain also exposed a number of flaws within American strategy. There was uncertainty about what sort of retaliation the United States might get back from a cyberattack, Clapper said, and there was no set way to respond -- meaning there was little deterrence to America's adversaries.
“It disturbs me that we don't know what our deterrence really ought to be,” Sen. Roger Wicker said. Added McCain, “It seems like every attack is handled on a case-by-case basis, and that's not a strategy.”
For hawks like McCain and his close friend Sen. Lindsey Graham, it’s time to strike back at Russia, and establish a deterrence against future attacks. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, is hoping to introduce new sanctions against Russia within a week.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time now not to throw pebbles, but to throw rocks,” Graham said. “I wish we were not here. If it were up to me, we would all live in peace, but Mr. Putin is up to no good, and he needs to be stopped. And Mr. President-elect, when you listen, you can be skeptical, but understand [the intelligence community] are the best among us, and they’re trying to protect us.”
—with additional reporting by Kim Dozier.