An unusual breach has emerged between the president-elect and intelligence officials who believe that Russia interfered with the election.
WASHINGTON — A breach has emerged between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. national-security establishment, with Trump mocking U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the election on his behalf, and top Republicans vowing investigations into Russian activities.
On Saturday, intelligence officials said it was not until the week after the election that the CIA altered its formal assessment of Russia’s activities to conclude that the government of President Vladimir Putin was not just trying to undermine the election, but had also acted to give one candidate an advantage.
Wary of being seen as politicizing their findings, CIA analysts had been reluctant to come to that conclusion during the election — even as many supporters of Hillary Clinton believed it was obvious, given the leak of emails from her campaign chairman and others.
One intelligence official said there were indications in early October that the Russians had shifted their focus to harm Clinton. The CIA’s slowness in shifting its assessment, another official said, was one reason President Obama on Friday ordered a full review of “lessons learned” on the operation to influence the election.
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But the disclosure of the still-classified findings prompted a blistering attack against the intelligence agencies by Trump, whose transition office said late Friday that “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” adding that the election was over and that it was time to “move on.”
Trump has split on the issue with many Republicans on the congressional-intelligence committees, who have said they were presented with significant evidence, in closed briefings, of a Russian campaign to meddle in the election.
The rift also raises questions about how Trump will deal with the intelligence agencies he will have to rely on for analysis of China, Russia and the Middle East, as well as for covert drone missions and cyberactivities.
At this point in a transition, a president-elect is typically delving into intelligence he has never before seen and learning about CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) abilities. But Trump, who has taken intelligence briefings only sporadically, is questioning analytic conclusions and their underlying facts.
“To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his a priori assumptions — wow,” said Michael Hayden, who was the director of the NSA and later the CIA under President George W. Bush.
With the partisan emotions on both sides — Trump’s supporters see a plot to undermine his presidency, and Clinton’s supporters see a conspiracy to keep her from the presidency — the result is an environment in which even those basic facts become the basis for dispute.
Trump’s team lashed out at the agencies after The Washington Post reported that the CIA believed that Russia had intervened to undercut Clinton and lift Trump, and The New York Times reported that Russia had broken into Republican National Committee (RNC) computer networks just as they had broken into Democratic ones, but had released documents only on the Democrats.
For months, Trump has strenuously rejected all assertions that Russia was working to help him, though he did at one point invite Russia to find thousands of Clinton’s emails.
There is no evidence that the Russian meddling affected the outcome of the election or the legitimacy of the vote, but Trump and his aides want to shut the door on any such notion, including the idea Putin schemed to put him in office.
Instead, Trump casts the issue as an unknowable mystery.
“It could be Russia,” he recently told Time magazine. “And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
The Republicans who lead the congressional committees overseeing intelligence, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security take the opposite view. They say that Russia was behind the election meddling, but that the scope and intent of the operation need investigation, hearings and public reports.
One question they may want to explore is why the intelligence agencies believe that the Republican networks were compromised while the FBI, which leads domestic cyberinvestigations, has apparently told Republicans that it has not seen evidence of that breach. Senior officials say the intelligence agencies’ conclusions are not being widely shared, even with law enforcement.
“We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee who was considered by Trump for secretary of Homeland Security, said at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “When they do, we must respond forcefully, publicly and decisively.”
He has promised hearings, saying the Russian activity was “a call to action,” as has Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said there was little doubt the Russian government was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
“All of the intelligence analysts who looked at it came to the conclusion that the tradecraft was very similar to the Russians,” he said.
Even one of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said he had no doubt about Russia’s culpability. His complaint was with the intelligence agencies, which he said had “repeatedly” failed “to anticipate Putin’s hostile actions,” and with the Obama administration’s lack of a punitive response.
The statement by Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, puts him in opposition to the position taken by Trump and his incoming national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has traveled to Russia as a private citizen for RT, the state-controlled news operation, and attended a dinner with Putin.
Intelligence can get politicized, and one of the running debates about the disastrously mistaken assessments of Iraq that Trump often cites is whether the intelligence itself was tainted or whether the Bush White House read it selectively to support its march to war in 2003.
But what is unfolding in the argument over the Russian hacking is more complex. It is made harder by the fact that the CIA and the NSA do not want to reveal human sources or technical abilities.
This much is known: In mid-2015, a hacking group long associated with the FSB — the successor to the old Soviet KGB — got inside the DNC’s computer systems. The intelligence gathering appeared to be fairly routine, and it was unsurprising: The Chinese, for instance, penetrated Obama’s and McCain’s presidential campaign communications in 2008.
In spring 2016, a second group of Russian hackers, long associated with the GRU, a military-intelligence agency, attacked the DNC again, along with the private email accounts of prominent Washington figures such as John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. Those emails were ultimately published, a step the Russians had never taken before in the United States, though the tactic has been used often in former Soviet states and elsewhere in Europe.
That moved the issue from espionage to an “information operation” with a political motive.
In briefings to Obama and on Capitol Hill, intelligence agencies have said they believe that what began as an effort to undermine the credibility of U.S. elections morphed into a targeted effort to harm Clinton.
But to hedge their bets before the election, according to the briefings, the Russians also targeted the RNC, Republican operatives and prominent members of the Republican establishment, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But few of those emails have surfaced, save for Powell’s, which were critical of Clinton’s campaign for trying to draw him into a defense of her use of a private computer server.
A spokesman for the RNC, Sean Spicer, disputed the intelligence community had concluded the RNC had been hacked. “The RNC was not ‘hacked,’ ” he said on Twitter. “The @nytimes was told and chose to ignore.” On Friday night, before The New York Times published its report, the committee had refused to comment. On Saturday, Spicer told CNN there were “people within these agencies who are upset with the outcome of the election.”