WASHINGTON (AP) — The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Thursday that "every American should be alarmed" by Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and lawmakers pressed intelligence officials about foreign cyberthreats.
There is "no escaping the fact that this committee meets today for the first time in this new Congress in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
In their assessment, U.S. intelligence agencies say Moscow interfered in the election to help Republican Donald Trump win against Democrat Hillary Clinton. A report on Russian and other foreign meddling in elections was delivered to President Barack Obama on Thursday.
In prepared testimony, intelligence officials said Russia poses a major and growing threat to U.S. government, military, diplomatic and commercial operations — as well as America's critical infrastructure. Russia is among at least 30 nations that are developing capabilities to launch cyberattacks, according to their statement.
The hearing comes a day before the president-elect receives a briefing by the CIA and FBI directors — along with the head of national intelligence — on the investigation into Russia's alleged hacking efforts.
Trump has criticized their findings and even seemed to back WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's contention that Russia did not provide him with hacked Democratic emails.
In new tweets early Thursday, Trump backed away from his apparent embrace of Assange. Trump 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.
The committee's session is the first in a series aimed at investigating purported Russian cyberattacks against U.S. interests and developing defenses sturdy enough to blunt future intrusions.
Appearing before the committee were James Clapper, the national intelligence director; Marcel Lettre, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Adm. Michael Rogers, National Security Agency chief and the top officer at the U.S. Cyber Command.
Accusations Russia interfered in the 2016 election by hacking Democratic email accounts have roiled Washington for weeks. President Barack Obama struck back at Moscow in late December with penalties aimed at Russia's leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, that the U.S. said were involved. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
But Trump easily could rescind the sanctions. So far, he has publicly refused to accept the conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attacks. Trump this week escalated his criticism of U.S. intelligence professionals, such as Clapper, by tweeting, without evidence, that an upcoming briefing on the suspected Russian hacking had been delayed until Friday, and said, "perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!"
Intelligence officials said there had been no delay.
Trump suggested Wednesday in a tweet that one of Russia's primary targets, the Democratic National Committee, could be to blame for being "so careless."
The penalties imposed by Obama came after he pledged a "proportional" response to the hacking of the Democratic Party and presidential nominee Clinton's campaign chairman. Emails stolen during the campaign were released in the final weeks by WikiLeaks.
CIA Director John Brennan said in a Dec. 16 message to employees that the FBI agreed with the agency's conclusion that Russia's goal was to support Trump in the election. Brennan wrote that he also had spoken with Clapper and said "there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election."
Moscow has denied the hacking allegations and dismissed Obama's sanctions as an attempt to "harm Russian-American ties." Although Russian President Vladimir Putin rebuked the Obama administration for trying to punish Russia, he said his country would not immediately retaliate and would instead wait for a new U.S. approach after Trump takes office.
Trump praised Putin's move and called him "very smart."
To buttress the case for sanctions imposed by Obama and to expose Russia's cybertactics, the Homeland Security Department released a report prepared with the FBI that for the first time officially tied cyberattacks into the DNC email accounts to hackers affiliated with the GRU and FSB.