A Senate panel hearing Thursday on foreign cyberthreats quickly became a politically charged affair, with Democrats eagerly questioning intelligence officials about Russian interference in the election while most Republicans seemed keen to avoid drawing links between President-elect Donald Trump and the Russian government.
The prevailing Republican posture during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing highlighted the reluctance among many in the GOP to cross Trump, who has voiced skepticism about the CIA’s assessment that Russia interfered to try to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Such reluctance comes after years of widespread Republican distrust of Russia and open questioning of the intentions of President Vladimir Putin and other state leaders.
There were two exceptions Thursday — the committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), two longtime national-security hawks who did not hold back from sounding alarms about Russia’s meddling in the election and the implications for the future.
“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation,” McCain said in his opening remarks. “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. That’s why Congress must set partisanship aside, follow the facts and work together to devise comprehensive solutions to deter, defend against and, when necessary, respond to foreign cyberattacks.”
Other Republicans peppered Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and two other officials with queries about intrusions from other nations, including an instance of Chinese hackers breaching the Office of Personnel Management’s database in 2015, general questions about the nation’s national security apparatus and skepticism about why Russia would want Trump to win.
“I heard this morning that a lot of the news media was characterizing this as a hearing on Russian hacking, and actually it’s on foreign cyberthreats to the United States,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). “I would like to cover a couple of the other ones.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sought to correct what he said he views as “imprecise language,” including “phrases like, ‘hacked the election,’ ‘undermine democracy,’ ‘intervened in election.’ ”
“So I want to be more precise here,” Cotton said before getting Clapper to acknowledge that interference intelligence officials referenced in October centered on the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email system and the email account of top Clinton campaign aide John Podesta.
Cotton also questioned the notion that Russia would want to help Trump.
“Donald Trump has proposed to increase our defense budget, to accelerate nuclear modernization, to accelerate ballistic missile defenses, and to expand and accelerate oil and gas production, which would obviously harm Russia’s economy,” he said. “Hillary Clinton opposed or at least was not as enthusiastic about all those measures.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) cited research that concluded that the United States has involved itself in 81 different elections abroad since World War II. He said Russia has done it about 36 times.
“We live in a big glass house, and there are a lot of rocks to throw,” said Tillis, echoing an earlier comment from Clapper about “glass houses” and the fact that the United States conducts its own espionage efforts.
Their lines of questioning stood in contrast to the Democrats, who were bent on repeatedly raising Russian interference in the election and digging deeper into their motivation and reach into the United States.
“Can you talk a little bit about the activities of the Russian government’s English-language propaganda outlets, RT, Sputnik, as well as the fake-news activity we saw, as well as the social media, and how those paint a complete picture that is supplemental to what we saw with the hacking in this case?” asked Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) accused Trump of “trashing” the intelligence community. Trump has disparaged the work of U.S. spy agencies and forgone many daily briefings they have offered. He said in December that he did not believe the CIA’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election to help him win. Trump has also praised Putin.
“I assume that the biggest benefactors of the American people having less confidence in the intelligence community are, in fact, the actors you have named today: Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and ISIS,” said McCaskill, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Graham, a close ally of McCain’s, sent a warning shot at Trump about lambasting the intelligence community’s conclusions.
“I want to let the president-elect know that it’s okay to challenge the intel,” Graham said. “You’re absolutely right to want to do so. But what I don’t want you to do is undermine those who are serving our nation in this arena until you’re absolutely sure they need to be undermined. And I think they need to be uplifted, not undermined.”
McCaskill said: “I want to thank the chairman and I want to thank Senator Graham and others. There have been others I can count on maybe a little bit more than one hand who have stood in a nonpolitical way to defend the intelligence community over the last few weeks.”
She added: “And mark my word, if the roles were reversed, there would be howls from the Republican side of the aisle.”
To which McCain responded sarcastically, “Thank you for that nonpartisan comment.”