Smoke, mirrors & Russian dolls: spooks can't always agree, it seems. Reuters/Larry Downing
Smoke, mirrors & Russian dolls: spooks can't always agree, it seems. Reuters/Larry Downing

The overseers of the US intelligence community have not embraced a CIA assessment that Russian cyber attacks were aimed at helping president-elect Donald Trump win the 2016 election, three American officials told Reuters on Monday.

While the Office of the Director of National Intelligence does not dispute the CIA’s analysis of Russian hacking operations, it has not endorsed their assessment because of a lack of conclusive evidence that Moscow intended to boost Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, said the officials, who declined to be identified.

The position of the ODNI, which oversees the 17 agency-strong U.S. intelligence community, could give Trump fresh ammunition to dispute the CIA assessment, which he rejected as “ridiculous” in weekend remarks, and press his assertion that no evidence implicates Russia in the cyber attacks.

Trump’s rejection of the CIA’s judgement marks the latest in a string of disputes over Russia’s international conduct that have erupted between the president-elect and the intelligence community he will soon command.

An ODNI spokesman declined to comment on the issue.

“ODNI is not arguing that the agency is wrong, only that they can’t prove intent,” said one of the three officials. “Of course they can’t, absent agents in on the decision-making in Moscow.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry branded the episode as a turf war between US security agencies.

“It looks like banal infighting between US security services,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Facebook page on Tuesday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose evidentiary standards require it to make cases that can stand up in court, declined to accept the CIA’s analysis – a deductive assessment of the available intelligence – for the same reason, the three officials said.

In October, the US government formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber attacks against American political organizations ahead of the November 8 presidential election. Democratic President Barack Obama has said he warned Russian President Vladimir Putin about consequences for the attacks.

Reports of the assessment by the CIA, which has not publicly disclosed its findings, have prompted congressional leaders to call for an investigation.

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans a closed briefing and a public hearing on the Russia hacking issue as soon as the Senate returns from its year-end recess in the first week of January, a spokeswoman said.

“The committee plans to systematically look at this issue and will begin with both a classified briefing and an open hearing in early January when the Senate returns,” said Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for the panel’s Republican chairman, Senator Bob Corker.

Obama last week ordered intelligence agencies to review the cyber attacks and foreign intervention in the presidential election and to deliver a report before he turns power over to Trump on January 20.

The CIA assessed after the election that the attacks on political organizations were aimed at swaying the vote for Trump because the targeting of Republican organizations diminished toward the end of the summer and focused on Democratic groups, a senior official told Reuters on Friday.

Moreover, only materials filched from Democratic groups – such as emails stolen from John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman – were made public via WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organisation, and other outlets, officials said.

The CIA conclusion was a “judgement based on the fact that Russian entities hacked both Democrats and Republicans and only the Democratic information was leaked,” one of the three officials said on Monday.

It was “a thin reed upon which to base an analytical judgement,” the official added.

Republican Senator John McCain said on Monday there was “no information” that Russian hacking of American political organizations was aimed at swaying the outcome of the election.

“It’s obvious that the Russians hacked into our campaigns,” McCain said. “But there is no information that they were intending to affect the outcome of our election and that’s why we need a congressional investigation,” he told Reuters.

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