The United States’ top intelligence officials have said that Russia mounted an unprecedented bid to disrupt the American election, even as President-elect Donald Trump has refused to accept their conclusions.
A day before the heads of four intelligence bodies brief the president-elect on their assessment of Russian meddling in last year’s race, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate hearing he had “very high” confidence in their findings.
In a joint report that roiled the presidential campaign last year, the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence community said the US was confident of foreign meddling, including Russian government hacking of Democratic party emails.
“We stand actually more resolutely on the strength of that statement than we did on the 7th of October,” Clapper told the Armed Services Committee.
Clapper, National Security Agency chief Michael Rogers and Marcel Lettre, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told the committee in a joint statement that “only Russia’s senior-most officials” could have authorised the operation in which hackers stole Democratic Party files and emails.
The data were then disseminated via WikiLeaks, embarrassing the Democratic party and harming losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s White House effort.
“Russia has clearly assumed an even more aggressive cyber posture by increasing cyber espionage operations…,” Clapper said.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington, said: “What we heard from Clapper was the use of the word ‘aggressive’ when talking about Russian hacking saying they have never seen something on this scale.”
The Senate Committee hearing comes a week after President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over the alleged hacking.
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,” McCain said.
Pressed by McCain, former presidential candidate and organiser of the hearing, on whether the actions constituted an “act of war,” Clapper said that was “a very heavy policy call” more appropriate for other entities in the government to decide.
Obama struck back at Moscow in late December with sanctions aimed at Russia’s leading spy agencies, the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era’s main security agency, the KGB, that the US said were involved.
Moscow has denied the hacking allegations and dismissed Obama’s sanctions as an attempt to “harm Russian-American ties”.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Moscow, said: “Russia has consistently denied that top level officials were involved in this hacking campaign against the United States.”
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.
Trump, who has pledged to bring about a rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia after taking office on January 20, has repeatedly dismissed that finding.
He even seemed to have backed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s contention that Russia did not provide him with hacked Democratic emails.
Al Jazeera’s Fisher said that Trump, who is due to be briefed on the findings by the intelligence committee on Friday, claims to have information on the hacking that he will soon make public.
Clapper said lawmakers will be briefed on the Russian hacking report next week and an unclassified version is tentatively scheduled to be released shortly after that.
He however, said Russia’s hacking “did not change any vote tallies”.