WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's top intelligence official said Thursday that Russia undoubtedly interfered in America's 2016 presidential election but stopped short of using the explosive description "an act of war," telling lawmakers such a call isn't within the purview of the U.S. intelligence community.
In a joint report that roiled the presidential campaign last fall, the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence community said the U.S. was confident of foreign meddling, including Russian government hacking of Democratic emails.
In its assessment, the intelligence community has said Moscow interfered to help Republican Donald Trump win.
"We stand actually more resolutely on the strength of that statement than we did on the 7th of October," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on whether the actions constituted an "act of war," Clapper said that was "a very heavy policy call" more appropriate for other entities in the U.S. government to decide.
Clapper pushed back against a barrage of criticism leveled against U.S. intelligence agencies by Trump in recent days and the president-elect's apparent embrace of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
During an exchange with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Clapper said, "There is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism" and "disparagement." He said the intelligence community is an organization of human beings and isn't perfect. But he said U.S. spy agencies also don't get the credit they deserve for foiling terrorist plots and other successes too secret to discuss.
Clapper said Assange is "holed up" in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, unable to leave without being arrested for breaching his bail conditions. Swedish authorities have investigated Assange for a possible rape, which he has denied.
Assange has "put people at risk" by leaking classified information, Clapper added.
President Barack Obama has received a report on the Russian interference and other foreign meddling in the U.S. election, according to Clapper. He and other senior U.S. intelligence officials said Russia poses a major threat to U.S. government, military, diplomatic and commercial operations.
Clapper said lawmakers will be briefed on the Russian hacking report next week and an unclassified version is tentatively scheduled to be released to the public shortly after that.
CIA Director John Brennan said in a Dec. 16 message to employees that the FBI agreed with the agency's conclusion that Russia's goal was to support Trump in the election. Brennan wrote that he also had spoken with Clapper and said "there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election."