President-elect Donald Trump sparked a fresh furore on Wednesday by again casting doubt over the government's conclusion that Russia meddled in the US election via cyber-attacks, citing the claims of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. By Paul HANDLEY for AFP.
The comments come on the eve of the first public hearing in Congress on the alleged hacking, led by strong Trump and Russia critic John McCain, who called Moscow’s actions an “act of war.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers are due to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The incoming president, who on Friday will be briefed by US spy chiefs on Moscow’s alleged election hack, earned widespread criticism when he appeared to trust Assange more than the intelligence services that will report to him starting on January 20.
In a series of tweets starting late Tuesday, he taunted the CIA, FBI and other agencies, suggesting they still don’t have proof Russia penetrated Democratic party computers and gave the documents to WikiLeaks.
“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” Trump said.
And then early Wednesday, after Assange appeared on Fox News denying the Russian government gave WikiLeaks stolen Democratic documents, Trump followed up: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless?”
Trump was referring to thousands of emails and documents hackers took from the computers of the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, which were published by WikiLeaks in the weeks ahead of the November 8 presidential election.
Some of the documents were embarrassing to the Clinton campaign and analysts say they likely contributed to Trump’s victory over the former secretary of state.
The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have both concluded that the Russian government was behind the hacking, and intentionally divulged the documents via WikiLeaks to disrupt the election.
The intelligence chiefs and President Barack Obama have pointed the finger at Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying no such operation could go on in Moscow without the highest level of approval.
And on December 29, Obama retaliated, expelling 35 Russian officials from the United States who he said were “intelligence operatives,” placing sanctions on Russian government officials and intelligence services, and alleged hackers.
Intelligence community angered
Yet Trump has persistently questioned the conclusion that Russia was to blame, saying it is simply a case of sour grapes by the losing Democrats, rather than professional intelligence analysis.
But his choice to cite Assange against the CIA and FBI roiled officials in both political parties and angered the intelligence community.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan branded Assange “a sycophant for Russia.”
“He leaks, he steals data, and compromises national security.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also questioned Trump’s choice.
“I don’t believe any American should give a whole lot of credibility to what Mr. Assange says,” he said on CNN.
The former spokesman of the CIA, George Little, blasted Trump, using the acronym for president-elect of the United States.
“No PEOTUS in our history has ever mocked his own intelligence community so openly or so often,” Little said via Twitter.
“Let’s stare this reality square in the face: PEOTUS is pro-Putin and believes Julian Assange over the @CIA. On Jan. 20 we will be less safe.”
In a briefing for journalists, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer deflected questions about the Assange tweets, saying Trump is looking forward to his briefing Friday by the intelligence chiefs.
Yet at the same time, former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a Trump backer, praised Assange.
The Democratic Party documents published by WikiLeaks “finally opened people’s eyes to Democrat candidates and operatives [that] would not have been exposed were it not for Julian Assange,” she said on Facebook.
Pressure for Congressional probe
While Trump — who has made clear he wants a reset of bilateral relations with Moscow — appears to want the election hacking issue to go away, momentum was building for more information to be made public on it.
Last month, Obama ordered a full report to be drawn up by the end of his term in the White House, promising to divulge as much as possible without compromising US intelligence sources.
Pressure is also rising for an independent investigation commissioned by Congress into the issue.
In a letter to Congress reported by The Hill, a group of former senior diplomats and security officials, including onetime secretary of state Madeline Albright and former CIA director Leon Panetta, called for an urgent probe.
“Some have questioned whether the Russian government, despite the conclusion of 17 of our intelligence agencies, was really responsible for the hacks. Such doubts only reinforce why an independent inquiry should occur outside of Congress,” they said.
McCain: Russia cyber-attacks on US an ‘act of war’
Russia’s alleged cyber-attacks on US political organizations — hacking which the intelligence community concluded amounted to meddling in the US election — were an “act of war,” senior US Senator John McCain said Wednesday.
“It’s an act of war,” McCain, a hawkish Republican and critic of the Kremlin, told reporters in the US Capitol. “If you try to destroy the fundamentals of democracy, then you have destroyed a nation.”
McCain modulated by insisting there are “gradients” to acts of war.
“I’m not saying it’s an atomic attack. I’m just saying that when you attack a nation’s fundamental structure, which they are doing, then it’s an act of war.”
McCain has been a staunch critic of Moscow, insisting Washington must hit President Vladimir Putin’s government with harder sanctions than the ones President Barack Obama’s administration announced last week for Russia’s role in US election-related hacking.
He has also been critical of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly cast doubt over intelligence community conclusions about the cyber-attacks.
McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who lost to Obama, traveled last week on a congressional trip to Ukraine.
He said a key takeaway from his visit was that Ukrainian officials “want an American presence” as a bulwark against Russia.
“They’re scared to death of Putin. And they’re scared to death of us abandoning them,” McCain said Wednesday. DM
Photo: Rod Rodriguez wearing a Donald Trump clown mask and carrying a sign that reads ‘Scariest Clown Ever!’, joined over a thousand demonstrators who marched on International Migrants Day through downtown Los Angeles, California, USA, 18 December 2016. EPA/MIKE NELSON
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.