Dec. 12, 2016
In the weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, CIA analysts who work on Russia updated their assessment about Russian cyber meddling. They previously had assessed that Russia was trying to undermine the U.S. presidential election, but after Nov. 8 they came to believe that Russian interference was ultimately designed to help Trump win.
Trump and his aides reject not just the CIA's updated assessment about Russian intentions, but the earlier consensus reached by all 17 agencies, and released in a rare joint public statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and DHS head Jeh Johnson, that Russia was meddling in the election in the first place.
The seriousness of the gulf can hardly be overstated: many foreign policy experts and lawmakers believe Russia's behavior was an attack on the nation. One former CIA leader, Hillary Clinton supporter Michael Morell, likened Russia's intrusion into U.S. politics Friday to "the political equivalent of 9/11."
The FBI, for its part, assesses that Russia's main goal was to sow chaos and undermine American democracy, a senior law enforcement official told NBC News. Helping Trump served that purpose, the official said, but Russia didn't expect Trump to win the election.
The CIA's assessment that the Russians favored Trump was not based on any single piece of new intelligence, officials briefed on the matter told NBC News. Instead, it was the result of more stringent analysis of a growing body of circumstantial evidence more detailed than anything the public has seen.
Human sources, communications intercepts and other intelligence have allowed analysts to piece together the identities of some of the players, and the steps they took to hurt Clinton's candidacy while boosting Trump's, officials said.
The CIA also noted that while Russian hackers gathered information on Republicans, they didn't release any of it, the way they did with Democratic emails leaked to WikiLeaks. The Republican National Committee denies its systems were hacked, but the emails of individual Republicans were collected—something NBC News reported in October.
The CIA also tracked a campaign of anti-Clinton news stories amplified by social media, some of which originated with Russian state media outlets, officials told NBC News.
In October, DNI Clapper and Homeland security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued an extraordinary joint statement that "the U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations."
One source familiar with the intelligence said it included profiles of some of the suspects with pictures, and could lead to eventual indictments of specific Russian actors, if the Justice Department decides to pursue them.
The evidence on that score simply doesn't support Trump's recent comments that "It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey."
That is why the two Trump supporters who lead the Congressional intelligence committees, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Rep. Devin Nunes of California, have each issued statements in recent days expressing concern about Russian hacking.
"The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been, and remains, concerned about Russia's actions," Burr said in statement to NBC News Friday.
Nunes said Friday: "Russia's cyber attacks are no surprise to the House Intelligence Committee, which has been closely monitoring Russia's belligerence for years."
On Monday, the top Republicans in Congress — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan — each issued statements pledging to investigate Russian meddling in the election.
It's unclear whether Trump has been briefed on the same evidence top Republicans have seen, because he has had only a handful of intelligence briefings since the election.
[His choice, he has chosen to skip most of the daily security briefings.]
President Barack Obama does not intend to make it easy on Trump: He has ordered that a dossier be assembled on the evidence about the Russian covert operation.
A senior Obama administration official told NBC News that portions of that will be made public before January 20th.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine Independent who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News that can't happen soon enough. The way to thwart Russian information campaigns is to publicize them, he said.
He warned, though, is that the U.S. Is not going to be able offer the sort of proof many skeptics are demanding.
"If you provide proof, you provide a roadmap to show the Russians how we caught them," he said, "including intelligence sources and methods."