Russia’s intelligence agencies compromised the networks of some state-level Republicans and their affiliated organizations, but not the current Republican National Committee or the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump, top U.S. intelligence chiefs said Tuesday.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey and other spy bosses told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia “harvested” information from Republicans but that it captured “old stuff” and targeted RNC Web domains that were no longer in use.
The testimony shed new light on a terse line in the intelligence community’s declassified report from Friday about Russia’s cyber-mischief campaign, in which Clapper and his compatriots said Moscow had also collected information from the GOP in addition to the reams of data it took from Democrats and then released to the public.
Doesn’t that mean the Russians have the ability to release information about Republicans someday — even if it’s old? asked committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat.
“Sure,” Clapper said.
The prospect for such releases, along with other potential mischief by Russia involving U.S. or other elections, was one undercurrent in the hearing, the latest since Clapper’s office released the report.
Senators warned that unless the U.S. acts strongly to deter such plots, they could intensify. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio raised a U.K. case in which Russian intelligence officers purportedly compromised the computer of a political enemy and then deposited child pornography on it. Local police were notified, they investigated, and the man was arrested and charged.
What stops the Russians from doing something similar in the U.S., Rubio asked. Suppose foreign hackers got into the computer of a member of Congress, made some illegal bank transfers and then called the FBI?
“Congressman John So-And-So has been money-laundering, and sure enough you’re arrested and charged and removed from the public discourse,” Rubio said. Isn’t that a danger here? he asked.
“It is certainly well within both their technical competence and their potential intent to do something like that,” Clapper said.
Clapper and senators also said they expect similar Russian tricks in upcoming elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Clapper told Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., that Moscow has interfered in the elections of “a couple dozen” countries over time and that its meddling in the U.S. goes back to the 1960s.
The long-standing danger was part of another undercurrent in the session, in which Republicans cast the cyber breach of Democrats as a result of their own sloppiness — through the mishandling of passwords by Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and their neglect of what Republicans called an old threat.
“This hacking business is ubiquitous. It has been since the Internet was set up,” Idaho Sen. Jim Risch said.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr observed that neither Podesta nor the Democratic National Committee provided the FBI with the compromised devices so that investigators could examine them, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said he thought it was clear Hillary Clinton had lost because she ran a bad campaign, not because of Russian meddling.
The Democrats on the panel, meanwhile, objected to what they perceived as more unfairness from Comey and the FBI. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Kamala Harris of California and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, called on Comey to disclose publicly whether the FBI has investigated any connections between Trump’s camp and Russia.
Comey said the FBI never comments publicly on open investigations. That angered the Democrats, given Comey’s disclosure to Congress that the bureau had reopened an investigation into Clinton days before the November election. Wyden pressed Comey to release what the FBI has investigated ahead of Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. Harris and King echoed that call — but Comey responded each time that it was against the FBI’s policy.
“The irony of your making that statement here I cannot avoid — but I’ll move on,” King said.