Intelligence chiefs testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee today on Capitol Hill pushed back against President-elect Donald Trump’s public rebukes of the intelligence community, warning that a disparagement from the top could undermine the effectiveness of the workforce.
Responding to a question from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., about “who benefits president-elect trashing the intelligence community,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” suggesting Trump was engaged in the latter.
Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, warned that skepticism from the leadership could risk staff departures en masse.
“We realize that what we do is in no small part driven in part by the confidence of our leaders in what we do,” Rogers said. “And without that confidence, I just don’t want a situation where our workforce decides to walk, because I think that really is not a good place for us to be.”
Despite conclusive statements last year from the intelligence community that Russia directed hacks into computers of organizations and people involved in the 2016 presidential election, Trump has publicly and repeatedly doubted those findings, prompting President Barack Obama to order a full review of the intelligence. That classified report was delivered to the White House today, and Obama was briefed. Trump will be briefed on its findings Friday.
The leadership testifying today did not address the report’s findings directly, but James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, asserted again he has “high confidence” Russia directed the attacks.
He said he would not comment further on the report’s findings until Congress was fully briefed and a version of the report was made public, both of which are expected to happen on Monday of next week.
“I think the public should know as much about this as possible,” Clapper said, cautioning that “sensitive and fragile sources and methods” included in the report prevent him from speaking freely about it.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wanted to know if Clapper thought the Russian hacks before the 2016 presidential election amounted to “an act of war.”
“I think it is a very heavy policy call that I don’t believe the intelligence community should make,” he said. “But it certainly would carry, in my view, great gravity.”
Clapper warned about the danger of responding in kind to a cyberassault, saying the issue is “not knowing the counterretaliation.” The report will deal with the best practices for defenses, he said, rather than counterassaults.
Today’s hearing highlighted the divide between Congress and Trump over Russia and President Vladimir Putin. No Republicans on the committee appeared willing to embrace Trump’s doubt that the highest levels of the Russian government were involved in directing hacks into computers of Democratic National Committee officials and Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, including her campaign manager, John Podesta. And there was bipartisan disdain for WikiLeaks founder and fugitive computer activist Julian Assange, who denied that Russia was the source of campaign-related documents the site published and whom Trump appears to have embraced.
Trump tweeted recently, “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
Clapper testified today that his confidence that Russia played a direct role in the hacks is “very high.”
According to Justin Harvey, a cybersecurity expert who works at Accenture, it appears the Russians planted software in DNC computers to send information to Russia.
“We saw the Cyrillic alphabet being used in the compiler. We saw the level of complexity of the malware is not your run-of-the-mill random cybercriminal that perhaps sits in their mother’s basement,” he told ABC News. “It was very much nation-state level, very complex code that was being utilized.”
Clapper’s testimony comes as news broke overnight that Trump is considering plans to reform America’s top intelligence agencies, including a restructuring of Clapper’s office.
This morning, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer denied those reports, and Trump tweeted about them, saying the media want to make him appear to dislike the intelligence community, when in fact, he said, he is a “big fan.”
Clapper acknowledged that the ODNI is not perfect, saying, “There’s always room for improvement.” He reminded lawmakers, when asked about the reports that Trump could reform the agency, that his organization was created by U.S. law in 2004 in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.