By Ellen Nakashima and Karoun Demirjian
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The country’s top intelligence official said Thursday that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election consisted of hacking, as well as the spreading of traditional propaganda and “fake news.”
“That’s classical tradecraft that the Russians have long used,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on foreign cyber threats, and especially Russian hacking and interference in the election.
The hearing comes as President-elect Donald Trump has loudly and repeatedly voiced skepticism that the Kremlin was orchestrating the campaign, directly clashing with the view of the U.S. intelligence community and the committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Every American “should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation,” McCain said at the opening of the packed hearing.
“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,” he said.
McCain, who has been critical of the Obama administration’s responses to cyber provocations by foreign nations such as China and Russia, pressed Clapper on whether the election hacking and meddling was an attack on the United States and an “act of war.”
“We have no way of gauging the impact, certainly the intelligence community can’t gauge the impact, it had on choices the electorate made,” Clapper replied.
Determining whether an action is an “act of war” 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.”
Also testifying were Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel Lettre and U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers,.
The three officials released a joint statement ahead of their testimony outlining cyber threats against the country and the country’s ongoing strategy to defend itself. The statement describes Russia as “a full-scope cyber actor that poses a major threat” to the country’s infrastructure and networks.
“In recent years, we have observed the Kremlin assume a more aggressive cyber posture,” the statement said.
Regarding the targeting of the Democratic Party in 2016, the statement repeated President Barack Obama’s assertion that the hacking operation could only have been authorized by “Russia’s senior-most officials.”
A classified report on Russian intelligence interference in the election has been prepared for President Obama, who was to receive it 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.”
Democrats share the intelligence community’s view that Russia was behind the meddling.
“There is still much we do not know, but Russia’s involvement in these intrusions does not appear to be in any doubt,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee’s ranking member. “In this case, detection and attribution were not so difficult, the implication being that [Russia 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.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took a swipe at Trump for his disparagement of the intelligence community. Trump, for instance, has indicated he believes WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange’s comments that Russia is not behind the Democratic party hacks. “Who benefits from a president elect trashing the intelligence community? Who actually is the benefactor?”
Clapper replied that “there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism which policy makers, to include policy maker Number 1, should always have for intelligence, but I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”