January 5, 2017
Senator John McCain joined three top US intelligence officials on Thursday in blaming Russia for election-related cyber attacks which the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee called an “unprecedented attack on our democracy”.
At an extraordinary Senate hearing called to hear the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in November’s presidential election, Mr McCain said the US needed a new strategy to deter future cyber attacks.
The officials told his committee that Russian cyber operations posed a “major threat” to the US, including “recent election-focused data thefts and disclosures” that they believed could only have been authorised by “Russia’s senior-most officials”.
President-elect Donald Trump has questioned the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russian government directed last year’s attacks, and this week embraced WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange’s statement that the hacks could have been carried out by a “14-year-old.”
Mr Trump tweeted this morning that: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange — wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth.”
Mr McCain said he was confident that James Clapper, director of national intelligence, would carry out a presidential review of Russia’s involvement with “integrity and professionalism,” an apparent rejoinder to Mr Trump’s scepticism.
The Arizona Republican also said that raising questions about Russia’s cyber attacks was not aimed at questioning Mr Trump’s election triumph. But he added: “Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attack on our nation.”
Mr Clapper cautioned that the hacking “did not change any vote tallies or anything of that sort.” When asked by Mr McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, whether Russian cyber operations might constitute an attack on the US, he added said that it was a “very heavy policy call” that should not be made by the intelligence community. But, he added, it would “in my mind, carry great gravity.”
The president-elect’s stance has left him at odds with key members of his party, including Mr McCain, who scheduled today’s hearing to provide a public forum for the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the US presidential election by hacking into computers belonging to the Democratic National Committee.
Mr Clapper said on Thursday that the agencies “stand more resolutely on the strength of that statement” now than they did when they said in October they were “confident” that the Russian government had directed an email hack affecting US political organisations.
What seems clear is that our adversaries have reached a common conclusion: the reward for attacking US cyber space outweighs the risk
The release of internal Democratic party emails by the radical transparency group WikiLeaks hamstrung Hillary Clinton’s campaign in its final weeks.
The Russian attacks were just “one part of a much bigger cyber problem,” Mr McCain said, citing other Russian hacks against US government targets, China’s alleged theft of 20m personnel records from the Office of Personnel Management and alleged Iranian probes of US Navy computers.
“What seems clear is that our adversaries have reached a common conclusion: the reward for attacking US cyber space outweighs the risk,” Mr McCain said.
He blamed the growing attacks on what he labelled the Obama administration’s policy of “indecision and inaction”.
President Barack Obama has ordered a review by the intelligence agencies on the Russian cyber campaign, which is to be completed before Mr Trump is inaugurated.
A public version of a classified report about the election-related hacks will be released next week, Mr Clapper told the committee. He declined to disclose confidential details about that report ahead of its release.
Admiral Michael Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command; and Marcel Lettre, undersecretary of defence for intelligence, were also due to testify today.
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