Russia cyber attacks are 'major threat,' Congress probe hears

WASHINGTON, Jan 5 (Reuters) - The top U.S. intelligence official told Congress on Thursday he was "even more resolute" in his belief that Russia staged cyber attacks on Democrats in the 2016 election campaign, despite skepticism from Republican President-elect Donald Trump about findings on Moscow's role.

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said he had a very high level of confidence that Russia hacked Democratic Party institutions and operatives, as well as disseminating propaganda and fake news aimed at the Nov. 8 election.

"Our assessment now is even more resolute than it was" on Oct. 7 when the government first publicly accused Russia, Clapper told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Although Trump called himself a "big fan" of intelligence agencies, he is heading for a conflict over the issue because he has cast doubt on their assessments that Russia targeted the election. Many lawmakers from both parties are wary of Moscow and distrust Trump's praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and efforts to heal the rift between the United States and Russia.

Trump will be briefed by intelligence agency chiefs on Friday on hacks that targeted the Democratic Party in the run-up to the election surprisingly won by the New York businessman.

Look back at Trump's election night victory party:

"I don't think we've ever encountered a more aggressive or direct campaign to interfere in our election process than we've seen in this case," said Clapper, who leaves when Trump becomes president on Jan. 20. Clapper stopped short of declaring Russia's actions "an act of war," saying that determination was beyond the scope of his office.

Clapper did not say what made him confident that Russia was behind the cyber attacks, but that conclusion is shared by U.S. intelligence agencies such as the CIA and several private cyber security firms.

Moscow denies the hacking allegations. President Barack Obama last week ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies he said were involved in hacking U.S. political groups such as the Democratic National Committee (DNC).


In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump cast doubt on a Russian role in the affair, writing: "(WikiLeaks founder) Julian Assange said 'a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta' - why was DNC so careless? Also said the Russians did not give him the info!"

However, on Thursday, Trump said in another post on Twitter that he was not against intelligence agencies or in agreement with Assange, whose organization leaked Democrats' emails.

Documents stolen from the DNC and candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta were leaked to the media before the election, embarrassing the campaign.

U.S. intelligence officials have said Russian cyber attacks were specifically aimed at helping Trump beat Clinton. Several Republicans have acknowledged the Russian hacking but have not linked it to an effort to help Trump win.

Trump and top advisers believe Democrats are trying to delegitimize his election victory by accusing Russia of helping him.

Clapper said there were multiple motives for the hacking but pointed out that "they did not change any vote tallies or anything of that sort."

Clapper, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre all testified at Thursday's hearing about cyber threats.

More than 30 nations are developing offensive cyber attack capabilities as of late 2016, Clapper said.

They described Moscow as a major threat to a wide range of U.S. interests because of its "highly-advanced offensive cyber program" and sophisticated capabilities.

An unclassified version of the intelligence community's review of Russian interference in the U.S. election will be made public early next week and will assign a motive for the attacks, Clapper said. The report was delivered to Obama on Thursday.

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