Clapper: Scope of "multifaceted" Russian cyber campaign had to be approved at highest levels

“This was a multi-faceted campaign,” James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in its public hearing on the Russian government’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The attacks went beyond just the hacks of the DNC and Center for American Progress, the outgoing Director of National Intelligence testified, but consisted of a broad effort that also included “classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.” That kind of coordinated campaign would have needed approval from the highest levels of Russian government, Clapper told Sen. Jake Reed (D-RI):

Clapper reiterated the Obama administration’s public accusation that Moscow orchestrated the computer attacks that hit the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign operatives, leading to a WikiLeaks dump of embarrassing internal emails that ousted top Democratic National Committee leaders and destabilized Clinton’s campaign in the final months.

“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,” he said in prepared testimony.

The session is the first foray in the new Congress to examine the allegations of Russia’s tampering in last year’s presidential race, which intelligence officials have reportedly concluded was aimed at helping get Donald Trump elected.

Senator John McCain chairs the committee and has called for action based on the classified report issued by the intelligence community. McCain, who also wants a joint select committee investigation into Russian cyberwarfare activity, said, “Everyone should be alarmed” at the findings of the ODNI probe.

At the same time, Clapper acknowledged that the hacking didn’t actually impact the electoral system in any way, although its influence on voter choices was obviously not within his purview to judge:

Clapper said that suspected Russian hacking “did not change any vote tallies or anything of that sort.”

But Clapper added that on the question of whether the hacking affected “the choices that the electorate made … There’s no way for us to gauge that.”

And Cyber Command Chief Adm. Mike Rogers said that the hacking of America’s election system and process “is of great concern.”

McCain’s correct that everyone should be alarmed at this, but they should be even more alarmed at the lack of attention cyberattacks have gotten until now. We just found out last night that the intelligence community and the FBI didn’t bother to take a look at the evidence for themselves on this hack, a stunning lack of interest especially stacked up against the rhetoric we’ve heard over the last few weeks. When China conducted hacks into actual government agencies like OPMthe Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, State Department as opposed to private political organizations, and at the critical cyber-infrastructure supplier Juniper, McCain et al didn’t start screaming for a joint select committee to investigate cyberwarfare. Perhaps if they had, the Russian campaign Clapper describes wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.

If McCain wants a joint select probe on all of these attacks, the Senate should pull together and conduct one. Until then, this is less about seriously repairing our vulnerabilities and much more about an election outcome a lot of people didn’t like, and McCain’s wasting our time and everyone else’s to conduct a political stunt.

Clapper promises that the unclassified release of the DNI conclusions on the Russian campaign will be released next week. We’ll see how well they back their conclusions, especially in light of their lack of access to the actual physical evidence.