Modern field guide to security and privacy

Trump accepts Russia's role in political hack

For the first time, the president-elect said he believes Russia meddled in the election. In Washington, a growing cadre of Senators want a wider investigation to determine the extent of Moscow's interference.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in Trump Tower, Manhattan, N.Y. January 11, 2017.

President-elect Donald Trump no longer denies it.

For months, Mr. Trump pushed back against US intelligence assessments that Russia orchestrated hacks into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other party organizations in a propaganda campaign consisting of leaked emails and fake news to discredit Hillary Clinton.

But in his first press conference since July, when Trump encouraged Russia to find and release emails belonging to Mrs. Clinton, the president-elect said he believed Russia was responsible for breaching the Democratic group – yet failed to condemn the digital attacks. 

"As far as hacking, I think it was Russia," Trump said. "But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people," he added, blaming both the DNC and the US for having poor "hacking defense."

At the press conference Wednesday at Trump Tower in New York, the president-elect seemed to indicate he wouldn't retract the economic sanctions against Russia put in place by the Obama administration, and also appeared to accept that the suspected influence campaign ordered by Russian President Putin – a key finding of last week's Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report.

But Trump did not offer specifics for how his White House would respond to the Kremlin.

"[Mr. Putin] shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it," Trump said of the hacks. "Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading it than when other people have led it. You will see it."

"If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability," the president-elect added.

Yet Trump's apparent acceptance of the US intelligence community's findings might not be enough Washington lawmakers – even Republicans – who want to probe further into Russia's alleged election interference. 

At a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday, attended by outgoing Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper and the chiefs of the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency, Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina called for an independent, bipartisan investigation of ODNI's report that blames Putin for the political hacks and disinformation campaign. 

“We must be alert though to the challenges that face us and those that seek to undermine Western democratic values,” Mr. Burr said. “Our values are indeed under assault. The difference is the tools being used to carry [influence operations] out.”

Burr said he had “no reason” to doubt the intelligence community's findings and promised a bipartisan review of its classified sources. Mr. Clapper, who departs his role after Trump’s inauguration next week, told Burr that ODNI would give the committee full access to the sources and methods of the report.

On the heels of last week's intelligence report that showed that the suspected Russian influence campaign also compromised Republican organizations, leaders on Capitol Hill are worried that Moscow's alleged efforts to sow distrust in US institutions could extend past inauguration day.

"The Russians also hacked systems associated with the Republicans," said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Tuesday. "They just chose not to release that material yet. There's nothing that prevents them from doing so at a time of their choosing in the future." Mr. Warner serves as the committee's ranking member.

FBI Director James Comey said that Russian hackers had gained access to Republican party organizations and campaigns at the state and local level, and broke into Republican National Committee web domains that were "no longer in use."

If the Intelligence Committee does launch an investigation of the ODNI report, it could be the first salvo in a slew of proposed congressional efforts to determine the effect of Russian hacking in the presidential campaign. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called for the Senate to stand up a new committee on cybersecurity to investigate Moscow's suspected breaches and strengthen US digital defenses.

But even after Trump seemed to place the blame on Putin for election-related hacks on Wednesday, congressional efforts to probe the suspected Russian influence campaign could create tension between the president-elect and Republicans in Congress. This weekend, Trump and top aide Kellyanne Conway have maintained there was “no evidence” hacking impacted the vote – a point that the report explicitly did not attempt to assess.  

And Trump could also upset Capitol Hill with continued criticism of the intelligence community. At Wednesday's news conference, Trump appeared to blame intelligence agencies for leaking an unconfirmed dossier to media organizations that includes allegations about ties between Trump and Russian interlocutors – including the exchange of inside information surrounding the WikiLeaks disclosures and salacious sex acts. 

"It would be a tremendous blot on their record, because a thing like that should have never been written," Trump said. "That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do."

The Guardian has reported that the FBI had applied for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court to track possible contacts between the president-elect's team and Russia this summer, but it's not clear whether an investigation resulted from that request.

While those reports remain unconfirmed – and there remains conflict in media reports as to whether the intelligence community briefed Mr. Trump on the dossier – the US government does appear increasingly worried that hackers could steal confidential documents and manipulate them to sow confusion and distrust. 

"It is well within their technical competence to do something like that," Clapper said. "The next worrisome trend [in cyber] will be the compromise of the fidelity of information."

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