Trump’s Hacking Feud Risks Alienating U.S. Intel Agencies

  • President-elect cites WikiLeaks founder Assange in defense
  • Trump to be briefed on intelligence on Friday, Pence says

QuickTake: Chilled U.S.-Russia Relations

President-elect Donald Trump stepped up his criticism of the U.S. intelligence community, suggesting the agencies he’ll count on for briefings on everything from terrorist operations to foreign military maneuvers don’t have enough evidence to back up their conclusion that Russia hacked the U.S. election campaign.

In a series of tweets starting late Tuesday evening, Trump called an alleged delay in his intelligence briefing on the hacks “very strange” and went on to quote an interview with fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who said on a Fox News opinion show that “a 14-year-old” could be responsible for breaches of Democratic Party offices last year.

The president-elect’s skepticism drew expressions of disbelief from intelligence analysts.

“There is no precedent for this,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer and author of a book about presidential intelligence briefings. “No president-elect has had a public spat with his intelligence agencies. There have been hiccups before, but never publicly."

For a QuickTake on the Trump-Putin relationship, click here

Trump’s missives come as intelligence officials prepare classified and public versions of a report on the Russian hacking for the Obama administration, and Republican Senator John McCain conducts a hearing on the breaches Thursday in Washington. They also emerged barely two weeks before Trump takes office and assumes oversight of the 17 entities -- from the National Security Agency to the Defense Intelligence Agency -- that make up the intelligence community.

"The president-elect has expressed his very sincere and healthy American skepticism about intelligence conclusions,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “We’re going to sit down later this week. The president and I have been receiving, since the election, regular intelligence briefings."

That briefing on Friday will be provided by CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said on the transition’s daily press briefing call.

Intelligence briefings are typically a daily, morning ritual for U.S. presidents, prepared throughout the evening and made final just before the briefer, at times aided by the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, meets the president. Only the most senior White House staff and key Cabinet secretaries have access to the reports, which are based on a mix of human intelligence sources -- often spies risking their lives in dangerous environments -- as well as electronic eavesdropping, satellite reconnaissance and other communications intercepts.

‘Hacking Defense’

The intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking during the election campaign was first announced on Oct. 7. That assessment added that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” language that was interpreted as suggesting President Vladimir Putin was aware of the breaches. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in the hacks.

Trump, whose skepticism over the Russian hacking accusations predates his campaign debates with rival Hillary Clinton, hasn’t backed down on his assertions that the evidence presented to him so far is underwhelming. He asked why the Democratic National Committee didn’t have a stronger “hacking defense.”

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case,” Trump tweeted Tuesday night. “Very strange!”

A U.S. official, who has knowledge of the matter and asked for anonymity, said there wasn’t any briefing scheduled for Tuesday. Trump said Dec. 31 that he planned to release more information about the hacking by Wednesday.

‘Less Safe’

George Little, a former spokesman for the CIA, said Wednesday on Twitter, “Let’s stare this reality square in the face: PEOTUS is pro-Putin and believes Julian Assange over the @CIA. On Jan. 20 we will be less safe,” he added, using an acronym for the president-elect of the United States.

Yet former CIA director James Woolsey downplayed the potential rift between the incoming administration and intelligence officials. Woolsey, who has advised Trump, said in meetings the president-elect came across as a "fair-minded, balanced individual."

‘Minor Blip’

“This is a minor little blip,” Woolsey said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “The intelligence business is full of controversy and arguments about assumptions about ‘why did you do this’ and ‘why did you do that.”’ To those inside intelligence agencies decrying Trump’s criticism: “I’d say pull yourself together and get back to work or find a different job. Intelligence is important enough, tough enough and from time to time angry enough that it’s important not to get distracted by small matters,” he added.

President Barack Obama last week moved to sanction top Russian intelligence officials over the hack. The Obama administration also expelled 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the country, and restricted access to two Russian diplomatic compounds.

Trump has pledged to improve relations with Putin and praised the Russian leader last week for not retaliating after the Obama administration penalized Russian officials.

“I just want them to be sure, because it’s a pretty serious charge,” Trump told reporters on Saturday as he arrived at a New Year’s Eve celebration at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. “When you look at the weapons of mass destruction -- that was a disaster and they were wrong, and so I want them to be sure. I think it’s unfair if they don’t know. I know a lot about hacking, and hacking is a very hard thing to prove. It could be somebody else.”

That’s despite top Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, welcoming the sanctions and warning that Russia poses a threat to national security.

‘Sycophant for Russia’

Trump’s latest comments have riled critics, who say the president-elect is too quick to discount U.S. intelligence and, now, to give credence to Assange, who made his career leaking confidential government documents.

Ryan called Assange “a sycophant for Russia” in an interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program on Wednesday.

“Mr. Assange is a fugitive from the law hiding in an embassy,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Wednesday on CNN. “I hope no American will be duped by him.”

Graham, who said “there’s no doubt in my mind that Russia hacked into the DNC,” said he will introduce legislation next week to impose more sanctions on Russia, not ease them as Trump at times has suggested.

“When it comes to Russia he seems to have a blind spot,” Graham said of Trump. “Don’t listen to Julian Assange on anything.”

Representative Adam Schiff, of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Trump’s waving off intelligence resources could put the U.S. at risk.

“With every conspiracy theory-laden tweet and erratic off-the-cuff comment, the president-elect does damage to our national security, while raising new concerns about his capacity to grow into the job,” Schiff said in a statement.

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