Brushing aside Donald Trump’s dismissiveness, the nation’s intelligence chief insisted Thursday that U.S. agencies are more confident than ever that Russia interfered in America’s recent presidential election. And he called the former Cold War foe an “existential threat” to the nation.
Did Russian hacking sway the results? There’s no way for U.S. agencies to know, said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
Asked about the possible effect of the disclosure of private information stolen by hackers, Clapper said, “The intelligence community can’t gauge the impact it had on the choices the electorate made.” But he did say Russian hacking “did not change any vote tallies.”
Clapper’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee was short on concrete evidence of Russian activities, but it raised the stakes in the intelligence community’s standoff with Trump. Clapper indicated the agencies he leads would not back down in their assessment, even if that threatens a prolonged crisis of confidence with their next commander in chief.
That puts the pressure back on Trump, who has raised the possibility of more positive relations with Russia and has repeatedly disparaged the U.S. intelligence agencies. He will be briefed Friday on the classified evidence concerning Russian interference.
Shortly after Thursday’s hearing, President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Coats served as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee before retiring from Congress last year.
The intelligence agencies’ classified report, which was shared with President Barack Obama on Thursday, identifies multiple motives for Russia’s interference, Clapper said, but he did not provide details.
In a joint report that roiled the presidential campaign last fall, the Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the U.S. was confident about foreign meddling, including Russian government hacking of Democratic emails.
An unclassified version of the report will be released next week, Clapper said. That version, expected to be a fraction of the length of the classified one, is not likely to answer all the questions about Russia’s actions. Exactly how the U.S. monitors its adversaries in cyberspace is a closely guarded secret, since revealing such details could help foreign governments further obscure their activities.
“I think the public should know as much about this as possible,” Clapper told the senators. “And so we’ll be as forthcoming as we can, but there are some sensitive and fragile sources and methods here.”
Clapper was less shy about declaring Russia “an existential threat to the United States.” That’s strong rhetoric that harks back to the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, language Obama has avoided. For his part, Trump has embraced the possibility of warmer U.S.-Russian ties.
The GOP is divided over how to deal with Russia. Once Trump takes office, he is certain to face opposition from Democrats as well as some in his own party regarding his posture toward Russia.
Trump has criticized U.S. intelligence findings, even citing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s contention that Russia did not provide him with hacked Democratic emails.
But in new tweets early Thursday, he backed away and blamed the “dishonest media” for portraying him as agreeing with Assange, whose organization has been under criminal investigation for its role in classified information leaks. “The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!” Trump wrote.