Russia undoubtedly interfered in US election, says top intelligence official
America's top intelligence official has said Russia undoubtedly interfered in the 2016 US presidential election but stopped short of the explosive description of "an act of war".
In a joint report that rocked the presidential campaign last autumn, the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence community said the US was confident of foreign meddling, including Russian government hacking of Democratic emails.
In its assessment, the intelligence community has said Moscow interfered in the election to help Republican Donald Trump win.
"We stand actually more resolutely on the strength of that statement than we did on the 7th of October," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Armed Services Committee.
Pressed by Senator John McCain on whether the actions constituted an "act of war", Mr Clapper said that was "a very heavy policy call" more appropriate for other entities in the government to decide.
Mr Clapper and other US intelligence said President Barack Obama has received a report on the Russian interference and other foreign meddling in the US election.
They said Russia poses a major and growing threat to US government, military, diplomatic and commercial operations.
Mr Clapper said politicians will be briefed on the Russian hacking report next week and an unclassified version is tentatively scheduled to be released shortly after that.
He declined to discuss Russia's meddling beyond earlier statements, but said Russia's hacking "did not change any vote tallies".
Mr McCain, the Republican chairman of the committee, said "every American should be alarmed" by Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
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", Mr McCain said.
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.
Mr Trump has criticised 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 on Thursday, Mr Trump backed away from his apparent embrace of Mr Assange.
Mr Trump blamed the "dishonest media" for portraying him as agreeing with Mr Assange, whose organisation 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!" Mr Trump wrote.
Mr Clapper told the committee Mr Assange has no credibility.
The committee's session is the first in a series aimed at investigating purported Russian cyber attacks against US interests and developing defences sturdy enough to blunt future intrusions.
Appearing before the committee were Mr Clapper; Marcel Lettre, the undersecretary of defence for intelligence; and Admiral Michael Rogers, National Security Agency chief and the top officer at US Cyber Command.
Mr Obama struck back at Moscow in late December with penalties aimed at Russia's leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, that the US said were involved. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
But Mr Trump could easily rescind the sanctions. So far, he has publicly refused to accept the conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attacks.
Mr Trump this week escalated his criticism of US intelligence professionals, such as Mr 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.
Mr Trump suggested on 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 Mr Obama came after he pledged a "proportional" response to the hacking of the Democratic Party and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. Emails stolen during the campaign were released in the final weeks by WikiLeaks.
CIA director John Brennan said in a December 16 message to employees that the FBI agreed with the agency's conclusion that Russia's goal was to support Mr Trump in the election.
Mr Brennan wrote that he had also spoken to Mr 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 Mr 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 US approach after Mr Trump takes office.