- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2017

The nation’s top intelligence chiefs said Thursday that the government needed to conduct a far more aggressive information war push to counter foreign cyberespionage while strongly defending their conclusion that top Russian officials authorized efforts to hack the presidential election in an effort to influence the vote.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the CIA and other agencies are increasingly confident that Russia used hacking, propaganda and misinformation in an effort to influence the U.S. election. He dismissed President-elect Donald Trump’s skepticism and said the U.S. has to fight an information war more aggressively. Mr. Trump is to get a private briefing on the controversy Friday.

Mr. Clapper told lawmakers that the U.S. has fallen far short in efforts to counter such hacking and tell its story in the face of foreign criticism. He recommended reviving the U.S. Information Agency, the Cold War-era office that oversaw an aggressive public diplomacy campaign.

“We need a USIA on steroids,” Mr. Clapper said. The defunct agency, which was dismantled in 1999, could prove an effective bulwark against Moscow’s powerful propaganda operation, he said.

Resuscitating and revamping the agency and focusing its pro-U.S. messaging into traditional and social media networks would go a long way in countering Kremlin-sponsored media outlets such as Russia Today and SputnikNews.com, Mr. Clapper said.

“[Russia Today] was very active in promoting a particular point of view, disparaging our system, our alleged hypocrisy about human rights,” he said. “Whatever crack, fissure they could find in our tapestry, they would exploit it.”

Mr. Clapper, who declared Russia “an existential threat to the United States,” said the intelligence community couldn’t gauge the impact on the election from information that hackers gleaned and released to the public. Democrats and Republicans have sparred over the extent to which revelations made public by WikiLeaks during the campaign cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in November.

Mr. Trump made a potential peace offering to the intelligence agencies by announcing plans to nominate former Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, a known skeptic of Russia, to succeed the retiring Mr. Clapper as head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and by denying a Wall Street Journal report that he planned a major overhaul and downsizing of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

But the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the first of the 115th Congress, could not fully paper over the clash between the intelligence agencies and Mr. Trump, who has openly questioned their analysis of Russia’s role in the election. Mr. Clapper acknowledged there was a widespread perception that the president-elect was disparaging the work of the intelligence agencies.

Mr. Trump took to Twitter to say he is “a big fan” of the U.S. intelligence community, but only after a slew of tweets critiquing the agencies’ initial findings on Russian interference. Mr. Trump also denied that he expressed support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s claims that Russia was not the source of information gleaned from email accounts within the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

“I simply state what [Mr. Assange] states,” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Mr. Clapper called for an expanded government information campaign as Russia steps up its own efforts.

Russia Today says it is on the air in 100 nations, broadcasting 24-hour television content in English, Arabic and Spanish, to an estimated audience of 700 million. SputnikNews.com’s website publishes content in 35 languages.

Both agencies played an integral role in Moscow’s “multifaceted campaign” to interfere and undermine the U.S. presidential election, Mr. Clapper said.

“The hacking was only one part of it. It also included classic propaganda, disinformation and fake news,” he told the Senate panel.

Mr. Clapper advocated for a USIA-like agency during a 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging cybersecurity threats.

“I think I would [need] a much more robust capability from the standpoint of the resource commitment to countermessaging,” he said at the time, adding that from a personal standpoint “a USIA on steroids that would address these messages more broadly and more robustly” is what was needed to wage information cyberwar.

Russian ties

Debate over the need for an information agency arose as U.S. intelligence officials delivered their comprehensive assessment of Moscow’s involvement in the election.

Among the information WikiLeaks released during the campaign were embarrassing internal emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and revelations that Democratic Party leaders worked behind the scenes to help Mrs. Clinton at the expense of Democratic primary rival Sen. Bernard Sanders. Mr. Clapper said explicitly Thursday that there was no evidence at all that Russian hackers were able to corrupt voting totals.

The full report, which details the sources and methods Moscow used, was delivered to the White House on Thursday. Congressional lawmakers are expected to be briefed on its contents next week, Mr. Clapper said.

Russian officials again angrily denied that they tried to hack the U.S. election. They called the charges part of a larger anti-Russian prejudice in the U.S.

Moscow is “sick and tired of those irresponsibly blaming everything on our country,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN. “If there is a need for an enemy, why not try someone else?”

Coverage on the Senate hearing on SputnikNews.com characterized the discussion as “two hours of unsubstantiated statements, calls for aggression towards Russia, and hyperbole.”

An unclassified, redacted version of the White House report will be released to the public, said Mr. Clapper, who testified alongside Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel Lettre and Adm. Mike Rogers, head of U.S. Cyber Command.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Obama is confident that the intelligence assessment on Russia is unvarnished.

“The president has insisted that the intelligence community should not hesitate to present to the president what could be considered bad news, because a whitewashed assessment doesn’t serve anybody well,” Mr. Earnest said.

He added that anyone who consumes intelligence “using rose-colored reading glasses is not going to be able to make good decisions.”

In an interview on PBS, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said it was dangerous for Mr. Trump to publicly criticize the U.S. intelligence community the way he has.

At the Senate hearing, committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, asked whether Russia’s hacking constituted an act of war. That decision, Mr. Clapper said, would be “a very heavy policy call that I don’t think the intelligence community should make.”

It was the first public appearance for the intelligence community’s top officials since the leak of a classified CIA internal review reportedly concluding that senior Russian officials tried to help Mr. Trump win the presidency.

Even before receiving the final report, the Obama administration announced a string of sanctions and the expulsions of nearly three dozen Russian diplomats. Citing in part hopes for better relations under Mr. Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to retaliate.

Mr. Clapper also said the U.S. intelligence community stood ready to defend its findings in the White House report despite the political fallout and skepticism from the president-elect.

“There is an important distinction between healthy skepticism and disparagement” of the analytical rigor that U.S. intelligence professionals put into assessments like the White House report, Mr. Clapper said.

“The intelligence community is not perfect [but] I do not think the intelligence community gets the credit it’s due for what it does day in, day out” to thwart national security threats, he said.

When asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, whether Mr. Clapper and his colleagues were prepared for the Trump backlash, he replied, “Absolutely.”

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