Top US spy chiefs will testify in Congress Thursday on alleged Russian interference in the US election as President-elect Donald Trump continued to question intelligence that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic party computers.
The American public could get a better idea of the strength of the evidence on the alleged hacking as the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing led by strong Russia critic John McCain, who on Wednesday called Moscow’s actions to subvert the US presidential vote an “act of war.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers are due to testify amid a heated rift between Trump and the intelligence bodies he will rely upon for crucial advice when he become president on January 20.
In tweets this week, Trump ridiculed the CIA and FBI conclusions, which are supported by outgoing President Barack Obama, that hackers working at the bidding of the Russian government stole embarrassing Democratic Party documents from the party’s computers and leaked the via WikiLeaks to undermine the presidential campaign of Trump rival Hillary Clinton.
Referring to a planned presentation to him by intelligence chiefs, Trump tweeted: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”
He then added to the insult by citing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in his dismissal of the findings of multiple US agencies that Russia was behind the hacking.
“Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ - why was DNC so careless?” Trump said, referring to the thousands of emails and documents robbed from the computers of the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chief John Podesta.
Intel agency shakeup looming?
Trump’s taunts have boosted pressure on the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Director of National Intelligence to back up their claims last month that the Russian government was behind the hacking, intentionally divulging the documents via WikiLeaks to disrupt the election and help Trump.
The intelligence chiefs and Obama have pointed the finger at Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying no such operation could go on in Moscow without the highest level of approval.
On December 29, Obama retaliated, expelling 35 Russian “intelligence operatives,” placing sanctions on Russian government officials and intelligence services, and alleged hackers.
But the evidence made public by the agencies remains thin, allowing Trump, who has made clear he wants to improve fraught relations with Russia, to mount a challenge to the US intelligence establishment.
The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that Trump is already working on a plan to restructure the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which Trump believes “has become bloated and politicized,” the Journal reported, citing people official with the planning.
The plan could also include revamping the CIA, cutting back its headquarters staff while boosting deployment of agents in the field, the Journal said.
Trump will be briefed Friday by the heads of the CIA, FBI and DNI on the evidence behind their conclusion on Russia election interference. And a declassified version of a White House report on the case is expected to be released next week.
But he meanwhile rankled officials in both political parties and angered the intelligence community by his choice of Assange as a reference for his views.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan branded Assange “a sycophant for Russia.”
“He leaks, he steals data, and compromises national security.”
Democratic Senator Mark Warner said Trump showed “frankly flabbergasting” disrespect for the intelligence officials.
“I think the most important thing the intelligence community can always do is speak truth to power,” he told MSNBC.
“And it seems like perhaps the president-elect doesn’t want to hear those truths.”