In an unprecedented public display of acrimony, President-elect Donald Trump and the CIA are engaged in a war of words over the extent and details of Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.
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“There must be big smiles this morning at the Kremlin,” said former White House cybersecurity official Richard Clarke, now an ABC News consultant. “It's unprecedented that a president-elect should be denigrating CIA, refusing to read their intelligence and disagreeing with them on a major substantive issue even before he is inaugurated.”
Trump used his Twitter account this morning to continue his effort over the weekend to discredit the CIA and its reported conclusion that the Russians hacked into Democratic Party computers in an effort to help elect Trump.
Trump tweeted, “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
His Twitter rant followed a statement issued by a U.S. intelligence official this morning denouncing the pushback against the intelligence community’s assessment.
Responding to Trump’s comments over the weekend, an intelligence official told Reuters, “It is concerning that intelligence on Russian actions related to the U.S. election is being dismissed out of hand as false or politically partisan.”
“The inclination to ignore such intelligence and impugn the integrity of U.S. intelligence officials is contrary to all that is sacred to national security professionals who work day and night to protect this country,” the official said.
Weekend of Words
The dispute between the incoming administration and the intelligence community began in earnest last week. On Friday, the presidential transition team released a short statement saying, “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” It was not clear which agency the statement was referring to.
However, one senior career U.S. official told ABC News today that Trump’s “not just taking a shot at an old CIA assessment from 14 years ago, he’s disparaging and insulting every analyst currently in the intelligence community working hard to protect the United States.”
"Who is the President-Elect going to trust and rely on?" the official asked rhetorically.
And by today, the anger and frustration within the intelligence community was apparent.
Speaking to ABC News, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the war of words was a “really ugly situation” and noted that it was “unprecedented to have a president so frontally assault” the intelligence community.
“I would advise that he find a way to turn down the rhetoric and focus on hearing from them [the intelligence community], what they believe and why they believe it,” Harlow said.
Harlow’s sentiments were echoed by John Cohen, an ABC News consultant and former acting under secretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security.
“What is laughable and ridiculous is that you have individuals with no law enforcement, national security or intelligence experience calling into question the credibility and integrity of career intelligence professionals,” he said. “Creating a dispute and undermining the trust between the incoming administration and these intelligence officials is problematic because this administration will rely on these professionals as they seek to make critical decisions in the future.”
Clarke agreed, adding that as Trump takes power, “there's the potential here for a great deal of tension on on-going basis between the career CIA intelligence officers and the president.”
Hackers Cast a Wide Net
U.S. intelligence officials have maintained since October that Russian hackers targeted both Republicans and Democrats. But the hackers were far more successful in their cyberattacks on the Democrats — stealing thousands of emails between party officials and other data — than they were with Republicans, whose official party systems had better defenses against cyberattacks.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security said in October, “The U.S. intelligence community (USIC) is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.”
In selecting their targets, the hackers cast a wide net.
Among those attacked was a former Republican Party employee whose computer was not connected to the Republican National Committee’s computer system.
Over the weekend, Reince Priebus, who is the RNC chairman and has been selected to be White House chief of staff in the Trump administration, told ABC News’ “This Week” that the RNC’s systems were “absolutely not hacked.”
“We contacted the FBI months ago when the [hacking of the Democratic National Committee] issue came about. They reviewed all of our systems. We have hacking detection systems in place, and the conclusion was then, as it was again two days ago when we went back to the FBI to ask them about this, that the RNC was not hacked,” he said.
Officials conceded that the committee was a target of the Russians.
Disagreement Within the Intelligence Community
The news of the attack on the former RNC employee’s computer comes amid widespread disagreement within the intelligence community over the broader extent of Russia’s election-related hacking.
Sources said that the agencies are deeply split over the CIA’s conclusion that the hacking was done with the intent to get Trump elected. The agency declined to comment for this story.
While the CIA has championed this view, other agencies believe that the Russians expected Hillary Clinton would win and therefore their cyber efforts were made with the hope to weaken her when she was in office.
On Sunday, Trump flatly rejected reports that the CIA has concluded the Russian hacking was done with the aim of getting him elected.
“I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it,” he told Fox News on Sunday.
Rejecting the notion that the CIA might be trying to overturn the election, Trump said, “Once they hack, if you don’t catch them in the act, you’re not going to catch them. They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed someplace. I mean, they have no idea.”
He called into question media reports about the CIA’s conclusion and alleged that the stories were floated by his political opponents.
“I’m not sure [the CIA] put it out. I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country,” he said.
Speaking broadly about the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russians were involved in hacking related to the election, Trump said, “Take a look. They’re not sure. They’re fighting among themselves. They’re not sure.”
His comments stood in contrast to statements made by some in his party.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CBS that there was “no doubt about the hacking … The question is about the intention,” but that he did not have information on whether the RNC was hacked.
And on ABC News’ “Good Morning America” today, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said he did not want “interference into our politics” or for “politics [to] interfere with our intelligence.”
“People are trying to politicize our intelligence because they do not like the election result,” she said.
And on Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeared to denounce Trump’s handling of the situation, saying in a statement, “exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes does a grave disservice to those professionals and potentially jeopardizes our national security.”
But, Ryan added: “As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.”
Whatever the hackers' motives, there is no doubt among U.S. officials that the Russians’ goal was to interfere with the U.S. election.
Responding to this accusation, Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for the Russian government, said, “It looks [like an] absolutely unfounded, unprofessional, unqualified statement and accusation that has nothing to do with reality.”
And while there is broad consensus on this point, officials said that, as of the beginning of this month, Barack Obama’s administration has not been able to agree on what — if any — retaliatory action to take to show that there will be consequences for the interference.
ABC News’ Rhonda Schwartz, Alex Hosenball and Paul Blake contributed to this report.