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Only Russia's top officials could have authorized campaign data thefts, U.S. intelligence officials testify

Senate Republicans broke with the GOP’s incoming president in a nationally televised congressional hearing Thursday, criticizing Donald Trump’s skepticism that hackers backed by Russian intelligence agencies had interfered with the 2016 presidential race.

Only one of 14 Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, offered a modest defense of Trump, and he did so by suggesting the president-elect’s promises to boost military spending and production of oil and gas will serve to block Russian ambitions.

“There is some contrary evidence, despite what the media speculates, that perhaps Donald Trump is not the best candidate for Russia,” Cotton said.

But as three American spymasters testified that only top leaders in the Kremlin, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, could have authorized complex cyberattacks against a U.S. presidential election, there was little pushback from Republican lawmakers who are highly suspicious of Russian intentions and deeply perplexed by Trump’s repeated praise for Putin.

“Russia clearly tried to meddle in our political system, no two ways about it,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the incoming president.

“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who led the first congressional hearing on the hacking since the November election. “There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference.”

Thanks to a series of mocking tweets and taunts, Trump’s relations with the intelligence community has been tense for weeks. After the hearing ended, he signaled plans to give the 17 U.S. spy agencies new leadership.

Aides said Trump would name Dan Coats, a former member of the Senate from Indiana, a onetime U.S. ambassador to Germany and a paid lobbyist, as director of national intelligence, the highest post in U.S. spying.

If confirmed by the Senate, Coats would face a daunting task as the link between Trump and the intelligence community. He may also need to reconcile his own hawkish views on Russia, and Putin, with Trump’s far friendlier posture toward the Kremlin.

Sen. Coats was banned, along with McCain and several other members of Congress and White House officials, from entering Russia in 2014 after the Obama administration slapped economic sanctions on Russia for its annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine.

Coats, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, would succeed James R. Clapper, a career intelligence officer. Clapper previously had announced plans to resign when President Obama leaves office on Jan. 20.

Clapper took careful note of Trump’s caustic tweets on Thursday, suggesting some were unwarranted.

“I think there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism, which policymakers — to include policymaker No. 1 — should always have for intelligence, but I think there's a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” Clapper said.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will moderate his doubts or his criticism after he gets a personal briefing Friday on the Russian hacks from a bevy of U.S. intelligence chiefs, including Clapper, CIA Director John O. Brennan and James B. Comey, head of the FBI.

They are scheduled to brief Trump in New York about evidence they say confirms the Kremlin approved the hacking and leaking of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, among other targets, last year.

They will be armed with a newly-completed classified report that Clapper said would include details of Russia’s motivations — including whether the operation was partly intended to help elect Trump, as U.S. officials have said privately.

Obama ordered the inter-agency review after Trump repeatedly rejected statements by U.S. intelligence officials about Russia’s role. Aides said Obama was briefed on the findings Thursday.

The full report will be given to Congress on Monday. Parts will be declassified and released to the public after that, according to the White House.

Intelligence officials will “scrub this report and make as much public as they possibly can,” Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Thursday. He called the report “an unvarnished assessment.”

Though Clinton and her aides have said the leaked emails damaged her White House bid, Clapper said he had “no way of gauging” whether the Russian hacks influenced “the choice the electorate made.” The operation did not involve changing vote tallies, he said.

“Whether or not it was an act of war is a very heavy policy call,” he added. “I don’t think the intelligence community should weigh in on that. I do think it should carry great gravity."

Asked about his level of confidence that the theft and disclosure of Democratic Party emails was directed by the Russian government and not done by a teenage hacker pecking away in a basement, as Trump has suggested, Clapper responded, “It’s very high.”

Once in office, Trump is likely to face intense pressure from Republicans to punish Russia. He also will face demands to do a better job than Obama did at deterring foreign cyberattacks on U.S. targets.

Clapper told the panel Thursday that since the election, Russia has continued to use computer hacks, leaks of pilfered material and fake news stories to erode faith in democratic processes and to try to weaken the U.S. government by portraying it as corrupt and dysfunctional.

Clapper was joined by Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, and Marcel J. Lettre, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence.

They provided few new details about the evidence, but were unequivocal in their judgments.

“We assess that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized the recent election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets,” the trio said in a statement.

Russia poses “a major threat to U.S. government, military, diplomatic, commercial and critical infrastructure and key resource networks because of its highly advanced offensive cyber program and sophisticated tactics, techniques, and procedures,” they said.

Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

2:55 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new information.

8:50 a.m.: Updated with comments from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

8:05 a.m.: Updated with details from Thursday’s hearing.

The story was originally posted at 5:30 a.m.

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