Who says there isn’t bipartisan agreement in Washington? At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that cyberterrorism is a threat to the United States and that Russia is one of the key bad actors.
Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel J. Lettre II, National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. were measured, authoritative and humble in their appearance, not an easy task to pull off. At one point, Clapper defended the intelligence community (“I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement”) but acknowledged, “The intelligence community is not perfect. We are an organization of human beings. We are prone sometimes to make errors. … I don’t think the intelligence community gets the credit it’s due for what it does day in and day out to keep this nation secure.” That’s about as effective a rebuttal to Donald Trump’s public denigration of the intelligence services as Clapper could have made. In presenting themselves as cautious professionals, they implicitly underscored the difference between the erratic, uninformed president-elect and themselves.
That wasn’t the only problem for Trump. Here are a bunch more:
1. McCain and others were careful to separate the issue of national security from the notion that Russia could have swayed election results. Clapper made this clear as well, saying that there is simply no way of knowing whether votes were changed. Trump has been using — or reacting to — the insinuation that he didn’t win without Russian help to dismiss the entire cyberattack issue, making him sound like Vladimir Putin’s defense counsel. Senators, by separating that issue from the Russian threat, will force the president-elect and his nominees to confront Russian interference with Western elections and other anti-Western activities.
2. Trump’s ongoing defense of Russia and citation of Julian Assange look even more ridiculous. Both Clapper and Rogers said they didn’t have faith in Assange’s credibility. (That’s also bad news for the Fox News evening hosts who have feted him and cited him as a credible person.) The testimony that the witnesses jointly submitted was explicit: “Russia is a full-scope cyber actor that poses a major threat to the U.S. government, military, diplomatic, commercial and critical infrastructure and key resource networks.” Trump will have a hard time disputing this if he wants to maintain the support of Republicans and the public at large.
3. Trump’s nominees will have no choice but to address the issue, the testimony and the facts raised in the hearing. (Does Rex W. Tillerson agree with the testimony or not? If not, what is his basis?) If the nominees refuse to answer or if they embrace Trump’s pro-Putin stance, they stand a solid chance of being blocked.
4. Democrats continue to demand that an independent select committee be created. That’s a popular position with voters, and it puts pressure on both the House and Senate to show that they can run credible, effective and timely investigations.
5. The intelligence agencies will release their unclassified report next week and will brief members of Congress on the classified report. Clapper said he would err on the side of disclosure in the unclassified report. Should Trump begin disparaging the testimony, he runs the risk of being contradicted by the authoritative final report. He will get his own briefing tomorrow. If Trump continues to deny reality, President Obama may decide to declassify everything and/or intelligence leaks may follow.