Conflict over Russia mean a rocky start for the new Trump administration and intelligence agencies
President-elect Donald Trump’s rejection this weekend of U.S. intelligence analysts’ conclusion that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help him win the White House is the latest in a string of conflicts between Trump and the intelligence community he will command.
Most of them involve Russia, which has grown increasingly aggressive – according to what U.S. intelligence agencies have told Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama – in Syria and Ukraine. The agencies also reported that Russia has ratcheted up activities in cyberspace including meddling, sometimes covertly, in European and U.S. elections.
The intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that not only did their Russian counterparts direct the hacking of Democratic Party organizations and leaders, but they did so to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, not just to shake confidence in the U.S. electoral system, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
The president-elect’s transition office responded by releasing a statement that exaggerated his margin of victory and attacked the U.S. intelligence community’s work on Iraq, but did not address the analysts’ conclusion about Russia.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction,” the statement said. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'”
In a statement issued on Saturday, California Democrat Adam Schiff, a member of the House intelligence committee, called the Russian hacking of the U.S. election “spectacularly successful.”
“One would also have to be willfully blind not to see that these Russian actions were uniformly damaging to Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump,” Schiff said. “I do not believe this was coincidental or unintended.”
Trump has rejected the intelligence agencies’ finding.
“I don’t believe they interfered,” he told Time magazine about Russia in an interview published this week. “That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say, ‘Oh, Russia interfered.'”
Russian officials have denied all accusations of interference in the U.S. election.
The president-elect has been receiving the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), one of the most highly classified documents in the U.S. government and which can include details of U.S. and allied covert operations, only once a week. That is far less often than most of his predecessors.So far, intelligence officials said, Trump has not requested a special briefing on Russia, despite the agencies’ warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to undermine trans-Atlantic unity and test U.S. and allied resolve.
In fact, two officials with knowledge of the situation said on Saturday that Trump’s transition team has made only “incidental contact” with the Central Intelligence Agency. This is despite the fact that Trump’s choice to head the CIA, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, has limited experience working with the agency. The Kansas Republican served on the House Intelligence Committee and the select committee investigating the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Democrats and some Republicans in Congress who have been briefed on the Russian activities share the intelligence agencies’ alarm about Trump’s plans for the 17-agency intelligence community, which includes the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center.
Privately, some members of the clandestine service, the CIA’s body of spies, said they would resign rather than obey any order to resume waterboarding or other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Trump endorsed during his campaign.Elsewhere in the $70 billion-a-year intelligence community officials on Saturday said they fear that Trump might invite legal trouble by trying to vastly expand electronic and physical surveillance of suspected terrorists based on their religion or national origin.
None of that may come to pass, of course, and campaign rhetoric and tweets do not always predict policies, the officials conceded.However, Trump’s statements about Russia and business dealings there, as well as those of retired Army Lieutenant Michael Flynn, his choice for national security adviser, are worrisome to many of the officials tracking Putin’s growing aggressiveness from seas to skies to cyberspace.
Obama has ordered the intelligence agencies to review cyber attacks and foreign intervention into the 2016 election and deliver a report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, the White House said on Friday.
Obama’s homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters on Friday the report’s results would be shared with lawmakers and others.
“The president has directed the intelligence community to conduct a full review of what happened during the 2016 election process … and to capture lessons learned from that and to report to a range of stakeholders, to include the Congress,” she said during an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)