The Cable

Intel Chief Fires Back at Trump in Feud Over Russian Election Meddling

James Clapper answers the president-elect, reiterating Russia’s interference in the election.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (L) and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers (C) testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 5, 2017. / AFP / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (L) and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers (C) testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 5, 2017. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

With President-elect Donald Trump leveling near-daily attacks against the intelligence community and its conclusion that Russia intervened in the U.S. election, American spy chiefs finally fired back Thursday, trooping to Capitol Hill to insist that the Kremlin directed the hacking and leaking campaign.

“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,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a joint statement with National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and Marcel Lettre, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Clapper said Thursday that the evidence backing the intelligence community’s findings that Russia directed the campaign has only grown stronger since the election.

“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,” Clapper added, in a thinly veiled reference to Trump and his repeated denigration of the intelligence community’s conclusions.

On Thursday, multiple media outlets reported that Trump was expected to tap former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats to be director of national intelligence, installing a relative novice at the head of a body some Trump advisors want to gut. A former ambassador to Germany and four-term congressman before entering the upper chamber, Coats served on the Senate Intelligence Committee before his retirement this year.

Trump advisors have floated a plan to strip the office Coats will lead of funding and perhaps to also make cuts at the CIA, reforms that Coats may lack the experience to effectively carry out. “If you’re going to do some surgery, you need to understand how it works,” said a former senior intelligence official, adding that Coats’s predecessors have typically had experience serving as intelligence officers.

In one way, though, Coats’s selection marks a surprising turn: He has been tough on Russia after its 2014 invasion of Crimea. While Trump urged closer ties to Moscow, and cabinet picks like ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson, tapped for secretary of state, have been lukewarm on Russian sanctions, Coats pushed for tougher action than President Barack Obama’s administration wanted. That could set up additional clashes between Russia hawks and doves inside the Trump camp.

U.S. intelligence officials will release next week an unclassified copy of a report examining Russia’s election interference, which was commissioned by the White House, Clapper said Thursday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. But in his testimony, Clapper refused to go beyond his prior public statements on the issue and offered scant clues as to the contents of the forthcoming report.

Trump views blaming Russia for interfering in the U.S. election as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of his victory, and the next flash point in that conflict will come next week when intelligence officials make public the report.

The forthcoming report, Clapper said, will show Moscow’s broader strategy, a multipronged campaign that spanned hacking, leaking information, propaganda, and fake news stories. Private cybersecurity researchers largely agree with the intelligence community’s findings. Russian operatives, including intelligence agencies and RT, the Russian state-funded news outlet, used any “fissure they could find in our tapestry” and exploited it to their benefit, Clapper said.

The hearing highlighted some of the divisions between the Republican president-elect and GOP lawmakers. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chair of the Armed Services Committee, convened the hearing, though cyberissues usually fall under the purview of the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Trump ally Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). 

“Unless we demonstrate that the costs of attacking the United States outweigh the perceived benefits, these cyberattacks will only grow,” McCain said.

In recent days, Trump has sided with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in questioning Russia’s responsibility for the hack. Assange’s website published the stolen Democratic National Committee emails, and Reuters reported Thursday that U.S. officials determined after the election that Russia passed the stolen information on to WikiLeaks through a third party.

On Thursday, Clapper struck back at the Australian exile as an enemy of the United States. “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,” Clapper said. (Assange is wanted for questioning over rape allegations but is not under indictment.) Assange’s disclosures, Clapper said, have routinely put people at risk. “I don’t think those of us in the intelligence community have a whole lot of respect for him,” he said.

On Thursday, Trump tried to downplay his conflict with the intelligence community, despite a tweet storm calling into question U.S. spooks’ conclusions about the hacks. “The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!” he tweeted.

Trump will be briefed on the White House report Friday, hard on the heels of reports that he is considering cutting funding for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and possibly for the CIA. Clapper said Thursday that he had not been contacted by the Trump team on those plans. Sean Spicer, a Trump spokesman, denied the Wednesday report in the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s transition team is planning aggressive intelligence reform.

Trump’s repeated questioning of the intelligence community’s findings hurts morale among the 17 different agencies, Clapper said. “I haven’t done a climate survey, but I hardly think it helps it,” he noted.

“I don’t want to lose good, motivated people because they feel there’s not room for them to contribute,” Rogers added.

Some GOP lawmakers, like McCain, are pressing for tougher actions against Moscow, not accommodation. The Obama administration expelled diplomats and sanctioned some Russian intelligence officials, but critics want more.

“I think what Obama did was throw a pebble. I’m ready to throw a rock,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Thursday.

Clapper appeared to endorse such a move. “I’m a big fan of sanctions against the Russians, but that’s just me,” he said.

But just how to deter adversaries remains a topic of debate among U.S. officials and cybersecurity experts. Clapper argued Thursday that it is difficult to create the “substance and psychology” of deterrence in cyberspace, because the risks of using the weapons are poorly understood. Unlike nuclear weapons, hacks leave no devastating mushroom cloud as in Hiroshima, making bad actors like Iran and North Korea more likely to use potentially destabilizing cyberweapons.

“They view it as a relatively low-cost act that can cause havoc,” Clapper said. “They keep pushing the envelope as their capabilities improve.”

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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