-- In his most stark comments on the matter to date, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper today squarely blamed the cyber-hacks of the 2016 presidential election on the Russian government.
During a hearing of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Clapper outlined key findings of a classified intelligence report on Russian election hacking that concluded Russian President Vladimir Putin "ordered" a campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election in an attempt by Russia to "undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process."
"We have high confidence that President Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election," Clapper said. "The goals of this campaign were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. Putin and the Russian government also developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
"Moscow's influence campaign blended covert intelligence operations with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries and paid social media users," Clapper added. "We are highly confident that the Russian intelligence services conducted cyber-operations against people and organizations associated with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including both major U.S. political parties."
Russia's election meddling is not limited to the United States, Clapper said, noting that Russia has targeted a "couple dozen" elections in other countries and that he fears that if Russia's capabilities evolve, it will continue to employ them.
Republican committee member Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pointed out that the report made no determination about whether the hacks had any influence on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, saying he believes Trump won "fair and square."
Clapper testified alongside other leaders of the intelligence community, including CIA Director John Brennan, NSA and Cyber Command chief Adm. Mike Rogers, and FBI Director Jim Comey, all of whose agencies contributed to the report.
The report was produced after President-elect Donald Trump for months publicly doubted the intelligence community's assessment about the Russia's role in hacking the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 president campaign.
Trump's incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said this weekend that following a formal briefing by intelligence leaders, Trump had accepted the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia was to blame.
But in a statement Trump released after his briefing, he chose not to concede to the findings he publicly questioned and instead was critical of the DNC for not properly defending itself against cyber-threats.
Comey testified today that the FBI tried to access the DNC's computer servers once it learned they had been compromised, but was denied by and only granted that access from a hired, third-party security firm. Comey said the FBI would have preferred to have access to the original devices.
Today's hearing was also Comey's first opportunity to offer public comments on his stunning announcement days before the presidential election that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, but Democrats did not pursue that line of questioning.
Instead, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asked Comey if he knew of any ongoing investigations into "contacts" between Trump campaign officials and Putin's government. Comey said he couldn't confirm or deny any pending investigations, promting Wyden to say he was "troubled" that by answer. "The American people have a right to know," Wyden said.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also took a swipe at Comey, contrasting Comey's discretion in this instance to his decision to publicly announce just days before the presidential election that he'd reopened the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server and after he had already determined she should not be prosecuted for a crime.
"The irony of your making that statement here I cannot avoid," King said to Comey.
Comey eventually closed the Clinton investigation on Nov. 6, just two days before the election, again without recommending any charges. Clinton later blamed him in part for her loss to Donald Trump.
Later during the hearing, Comey was asked if the intelligence report on Russia was in any way politicized at the direction of the White House.
Comey said it was not, and added, "I hope I've demonstrated by now, I'm tone-deaf when it comes to politics, and that's the way it should be."