Unhappy with conflicting reports about Russian interference in the presidential election that have been leaked to the news media, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has demanded an explanation from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, setting the stage for a tense few days on Capitol Hill.
Prior to the election, the Intelligence Community, loosely organized under the DNI, issued a joint statement saying that the agencies were confident that computer hackers who stole information from the Democratic National Committee and high-ranking individual Democrats were working at the direction of the Kremlin. At the time, the effort was characterized as an attempt to “interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Late last week, though, a report in The New York Times cited unnamed sources within the Central Intelligence Agency that claimed their analysis had reached a further conclusion: that Russia had specifically intended, through its hacking operation, to help Donald Trump win the presidential election. The finding was apparently bolstered by evidence -- again from unnamed sources -- that hackers had gained access to the Republican National Committee’s computer system as well as the DNC’s, but had not released any information from it. (The RNC has strongly denied that its systems were compromised.)
It was an explosive allegation that would undercut the legitimacy of the incoming administration, and President-elect Trump immediately pushed back against it, denigrating the competence of the CIA in an official statement from his transition team, and unequivocally denying that the RNC had been hacked.
While it is manifestly in his self-interest for Trump to dismiss the intelligence community as partisan, his views on the politicization of intelligence, particularly by the CIA, may run deeper. His pick for National Security Adviser, retired Army General Michael Flynn, is an outspoken critic of the U.S. intelligence services as a whole. In an interview with The New York Times last year, Flynn blasted the CIA in particular, suggesting it has come to see itself as a tool of the White House, rather than a provider of independent analysis.“They work for the American people. They don’t work for the president of the United States," Flynn said. “Frankly, it’s become a very political organization.”
Later reports citing sources within the Federal Bureau of Investigation suggested that the CIA’s conclusion was not unanimously shared within the Intelligence Community. The FBI, the unnamed sources reported, did not share the CIA’s confidence about Russia’s specific motives in sponsoring the hacking.
The letter from House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes expresses frustration with DNI Clapper, and demands clarification by the end of this week.
Related: Why the Russia Hacking Scandal Could Cost Trump His Pick for Secretary of State
“In light of the Committee's robust oversight efforts on these issues, I was dismayed that we did not learn earlier, from you directly, about the reported conflicting assessments and the CIA’s reported revision of information previously conveyed to this Committee,” the letter reads. “The Committee, therefore, has an urgent need to accurately understand the current IC assessment of alleged Russian cyber activities relating to the election, and any disagreements among IC components.”
The letter goes on to demand a briefing and a written statement, by the end of the week, clarifying the position of the IC. Additionally, Nunes cited his concern about the leaks to the press and demanded an assessment of whether or not classified material was supplied to reporters.
The Nunes letter comes at an extraordinarily sensitive time in Washington.
In one of the first major rifts between President-elect Trump and senior Republicans in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday publicly backed a call by a bipartisan group of senators for a full investigation into Russian interference in the election.
(Nunes, by contrast, said in a separate statement on Monday that he did not “see any benefit in opening further investigations...which would duplicate current committee oversight efforts and Intelligence Community inquiries.”)
Trump, by contrast, has said that he does not believe Russia was involved in the hacking at all, calling the idea “ridiculous” and has questioned the integrity of the Intelligence Community, accusing the various of agencies of reaching politically motivated conclusions.
Trump has long been criticized for his accommodative stance toward Russia in general and its President, Vladimir Putin, in particular. He has downplayed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its prosecution of a shadow war in Eastern Ukraine and has appeared to praise Putin’s authoritarian style of rule at home.
On Tuesday morning, Trump made the official announcement that he has chosen Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for Secretary of State. Tillerson is said to have a close personal relationship with Putin and has been awarded the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship.
“The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments,” Trump said on Twitter.
However, at a time when Congress is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election, Tillerson’s Putin connections may complicate his nomination.
On Monday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would have to confirm Tillerson, tweeted, “"Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State."