Foreign Relations & International Law

What Yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee Portends

Benjamin Wittes
Friday, January 6, 2017, 1:57 PM

There actually wasn’t that much new information conveyed at yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Russian election hacking and other foreign cybersecurity threats.

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There actually wasn’t that much new information conveyed at yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Russian election hacking and other foreign cybersecurity threats. The witnesses, particularly outgoing DNI James Clapper, did not want to get out ahead of the report the administration is issuing on Russian meddling in the election, so they largely stuck to what the administration has already said—though emphasizing that the evidence of Russia's involvement in the matter is even stronger now than it was when the administration made its statements in October.

Yet the hearing was pregnant with messages about the posture of at least key segments of Congress with respect to Donald Trump’s Russia fixation and willingness to lock horns with the intelligence community. The bottom line, at least in my view, is that Trump is playing with congressional fire to the extent he continues publicly to side with Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange against his own intelligence community in the face of powerful evidence of Russian involvement in the DNC and Podesta hacks. He may not care, and he's certainly got an impressive history of getting away with not caring about things. But this strikes me as a political fight he is unlikely to win.

The evidence of this reality in yesterday’s hearing had a few distinct elements. First off was the particularly warm body language between committee members, the leaders in particular, and Clapper. While John McCain, the committee chairman, was unspairing in his criticism of the Obama administration for not developing a cyber deterrence strategy, his demeanor towards the DNI was one of profound respect and cordiality. Others too made a point of thanking Clapper for his long service in various intelligence capacities and across administrations.

The message here was not merely one of fondness for the man himself, though that was evident at times; it was a way of conveying admiration and respect for the intellingence community that he and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers were there representing. Sometimes, this linkage was explicit. At one point, Clapper was asked to describe his career and its apolitical nature and was asked pointedly whether it was representative of others in the community. He was asked, more than once, for his opinion of Julian Assange and about how Assange is regarded within the community. (Needless to say, Clapper’s not a fan.) Nor was the love fest purely emanating from the Democratic side. The hearing, pretty much wall to wall, showcased the committee’s confidence in the intelligence community as a set of institutions with integrity. At a time when that integrity is under fire from the President-elect, it was a powerful statement.

Indeed, no defense of Trump’s position emerged in any significant way from any member of the committee. To be sure, Sen. Tom Cotton raised the question of whether Trump will be worse for Russia than Hillary Clinton would have been, given his commitment to increased defense spending. And he asked questions that aimed to clarify the relatively narrow scope of the IC’s findings with respect to Russia. Sen. Thom Tillis, doing his best imitation of Noam Chomsky, declared that “there is research done by a professor up at Carnegie Mellon that is estimating that the United States has been involved one way or another in 81 different elections Since World War II. That is not including the coups or regime changes. And Russa has done it 36 times.” But Tillis's Chomskyism was fainthearted and short-lived, and no Republican on the committee stood up for the proposition that the hack may not have been a Russian effort to influence the election. Mostly, Republican senators who weren’t leading the charge contented themselves instead with asking the witnessess about other foreign cybersecurity concerns.

And some GOP senators were really on fire. Sen. McCain set the tone when he opened the hearing by declaring that “there’s no escaping the fact that this committee meets today for the first time in this new Congress in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy.” And Sen Graham engaged in this remarkable six-minute colloquy with Clapper and Rogers, which is really worth watching in full:

Indeed, the whole hearing had an unusually bipartisan tone given the generally polarized political atmosphere of this particular moment. Democrats went out of their way to praise Sen. McCain. And there was, for the most part, relatively little difference between the tone of Republican and Democratic questions.

I think this all augurs quite badly for Trump if he is really hell-bent on a major confrontation with the intelligence community over its Russia conclusions. The New York Times reports today that Trump has described the hacking focus as “a political witch hunt.” The merits of that ridiculous claim aside, if it is a witch hunt, it’s one to which some Republicans and all seemingly all Democrats on this committee are fiercely committed and against which no Republicans appear eager to defend the president-elect’s position. That means that a presidential war against the intelligence community on behalf of the innocent virtue of Vladimir Putin will likely also mean a battle with Congress.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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