We should punish Russia further, lawmakers say after U.S. report on election hacking

President-elect Donald Trump, seen in this Dec. 28, 2016, photo, talks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
President-elect Donald Trump, seen in this Dec. 28, 2016, photo, talks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. AP

The release Friday of a U.S. intelligence report that clearly says Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential campaign galvanized support in Congress for punishing Russia further and strengthening cyber defenses.

The report provided great depth about the Russian intrusions, prompting bipartisan calls for stronger action against Vladimir Putin’s regime. It coincided with a federal declaration that state voting needs to be better protected. No Democratic or Republican legislators asserted that the hacking had swayed the election’s outcome.

“Even though it didn’t affect the outcome, they tried to interfere, and they need to pay a price, and I don’t care what their motives were,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview with NBC’s news show “Meet the Press.”

“I would say this: Regardless of the outcome of the election, the American people have the right to know what a foreign power did to disrupt our election,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said to reporters earlier Friday.

The 25-page declassified U.S. intelligence document said Putin developed a “clear preference” for Donald Trump during the campaign and released stolen emails obtained by Russia’s hackers in an escalated campaign to support the Republican candidate.

Trump on Friday began the day displaying contentiousness about the hacking scandal, then moderated his tone and conceded that Russia may have been among the perpetrators. He also called for an investigation into who leaked parts of the report to news organizations before he saw it.

“We assess that Putin, his advisers and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump over Secretary Clinton,” the report said.

The report also said the “influence campaign” led Russian agents to relay to WikiLeaks, the global anti-secrecy organization, massive quantities of emails and documents pilfered by the hacking campaign, a charge that WikiLeaks has denied.

It said the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI had “high confidence” in that assessment, while the National Security Agency had “moderate confidence.” It did not specify why that difference occurred. The report said the three agencies conducted the investigation and concluded that Putin decided early in 2016 to escalate a campaign to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.”

In an interview with The New York Times in the morning, Trump twice said the allegations of foreign hacking in the campaign were part of a “witch hunt” by Democrats pained by Hillary Clinton’s election defeat.

“They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan,” Trump told The Times in what it said was an eight-minute interview. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.”

Trump said other countries, namely China, had also hacked targets in Washington such as the White House and Congress, and referred to a penetration that the Obama administration laid at the door of China two years ago in which personal information of 20 million government employees and their relatives was hacked from the Office of Personnel Management.

“How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt,” Trump said.

Shortly after noon, Trump welcomed to his New York office the three top Obama administration intelligence officials that he previously had denigrated: outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey.

He then listened to his first in-depth highly classified briefing on their charges that Russian hackers had conducted vast U.S. penetrations in the run-up to the Nov. 8 vote. His office later issued a statement with a far gentler tone.

In it, Trump said the meeting was “constructive” and noted his “tremendous respect for the work and service” of the U.S. intelligence community.

Even so, Trump said, hacking from U.S. adversaries abroad is rampant, and he repeated his assertion that the penetrations and subsequent leaks of stolen emails did not alter the legitimacy of his election.

“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election,” the Trump statement said.

Trump said U.S. security would be his “No. 1 priority” and that he would act immediately on cybersecurity defenses upon taking office Jan. 20 but revealed few details.

“I will appoint a team to give me a plan within 90 days of taking office,” Trump said. “The methods, tools and tactics we use to keep America safe should not be a public discussion that will benefit those who seek to do us harm.”

The Obama administration intelligence report released to the public “does not and cannot include the full supporting information,” it said, because details remain highly classified.

The report said Putin took a dislike to Hillary Clinton and “has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him.”

Hackers from a Russian military intelligence agency known by the initials GRU had penetrated computers at the Democratic National Committee by last March.

By May, “the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC,” the report said, adding that the Russian military unit relayed hacked emails and documents to “the Guccifer 2.0 persona, and WikiLeaks.” Guccifer 2.0 is a moniker taken by someone proclaiming to be an independent Romanian hacker.

It said that the website started publishing hacked DNC documents in June and that U.S. intelligence agents have “high confidence” that Russia relayed material to WikiLeaks “because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.”

It added that tens of thousands of emails and documents that WikiLeaks published first in July, then in October at the height of the presidential campaign, “did not contain any evident forgeries.”

The report said Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, who has been in refuge at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012, actively collaborated with RT, which it called Russia’s principal international propaganda outlet.

In contrast to the orchestrated campaign to damage the Democrats, Russia did not order its operatives to focus much on the Republican Party or Trump, the report said.

“Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign,” the report said.

Given the deeply divided U.S. electorate, it may be up to historians to decipher whether Russian actions played a significant role in the election outcome. For their part, some legislators called for an end to wrangling over the hacking issue, saying stronger action against Russia is urgent.

“If politicians turn the report into a red vs. blue shouting match, Putin gets a free pass,” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said. A Democratic senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, said bipartisan support exists for “strong additional sanctions against Russia, and I will support that effort every step of the way.”

In a separate action, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Friday formally designated state polling places and vote tabulation centers as “critical” elements of the nation, making them eligible for additional federal cybersecurity assistance.

Any future assessment is likely to have Clapper, the outgoing 75-year-old intelligence chief, as a central protagonist. In a Senate hearing on Monday, Clapper refused to say if he thought Trump is correct or not in affirming the leaks had no impact.

“We have no way of gauging the impact that – certainly the intelligence community can’t gauge the – the impact it had on the choices the electorate made. There’s no way for us to gauge that,” Clapper said.

Outside observers came to the defense of Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, who as titular head of all U.S. intelligence services has taken the brunt of Trump’s previous criticism.

“He is totally nonpartisan. He served Clinton. He served Bush. He served whoever was in the White House,” said Steven Aftergood, head of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “He’s not a political hatchet man.”

In an odd twist to Friday’s events, WikiLeaks, which over its 10-year existence has published millions of documents from whistleblowers, many of them classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables and reports, complained that the Obama administration leaked classified material to reporters ahead of the report’s release.

From its Twitter account, WikiLeaks said CIA officials and others were “illegally funneling TOP SECRET//COMINT information to NBC for political reasons before (Trump) even gets to read it.”

In his own tweet, Trump also lambasted NBC News, which along with The Washington Post posted reports citing U.S. intelligence officials saying senior Russian officials had celebrated Trump’s election victory.

“I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it,” Trump tweeted before receiving his intelligence briefing.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager, who will become a White House counselor once he takes office, appeared on the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends” and said she saw no reason why Russia would favor Trump.

“Why would Russia want Donald Trump to win the presidency?” Conway asked. “Donald Trump is going to increase the defense budget, modernize our nuclear capability. He wants to explore oil and gas. All of that hurts Russia and emboldens America first.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Anita Kumar, Kevin G. Hall and Gregory Gordon contributed to this article.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4