National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, right, looks on as National Intelligence Director James Clapper gestures during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 in Washington. U.S.
Evan Vucci/AP

Following Trump’s taunts, intelligence community returns fire

It started in earnest in August. Donald Trump, after accepting the Republican presidential nomination, was asked in advance of his first intelligence briefing whether he would trust the information. “Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country,” the Republican replied.

Intelligence agencies, of course, said nothing in response, but the antagonism only intensified. In the months that followed, as intelligence professionals uncovered evidence of a Russian espionage operation, intended in part to help put Trump in the White House, Trump’s mockery and taunts of U.S. agencies grew more frequent, though in each instance, officials remained publicly silent.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 1/5/17, 9:21 PM ET

New details emerge of Russian cyber-aggression toward U.S.

Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, talks with Rachel Maddow about the testimony Senators heard today from U.S. intelligence chiefs ahead of Donald Trump’s Friday briefing on Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, talks with Rachel Maddow about the testimony Senators heard today from U.S. intelligence chiefs ahead of Donald Trump’s Friday briefing on Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Yesterday, that changed. Leaders from intelligence agencies had a platform from which they could start to return fire against the president-elect that holds them in such low regard.
The nation’s top intelligence official on Thursday defended his colleagues’ findings that Russian agents interfered in the U.S. election – and dismissed the credibility of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a day after the president-elect appeared to back him over the intelligence community.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also took a swipe at the president-elect for “disparaging” the intelligence community.
Remember, congressional Republican leaders have refused to create a special select committee to examine the Russian hacking scandal, but individual committee chairs can conduct their own scrutiny. In yesterday’s case, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who’s been quite animated on this issue, convened a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter.

The hearing ended up serving two related purposes: intelligence officials explained their findings on Russia’s intervention in the American election – they appear to have little doubt about what transpired, and the role of Vladimir Putin’s government in ordering the cyber-attack – while they also took more subtle steps to defend the integrity of the intelligence community against Donald Trump’s attacks.

“I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” Clapper said at one point.

Admiral Mike Rogers, commander of the US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, added, “What we do is in no small part driven in part by the confidence of our leaders in what we do – and without that confidence, I just don’t want a situation where our workforce decides to walk.”

They didn’t explicitly use the president-elect’s name, but in context, they didn’t have to.

After the hearing, additional news broke:
A senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge confirmed to NBC News that the report on Russian hacking delivered to President Obama Thursday says that U.S. intelligence picked up senior Russian officials celebrating Donald Trump’s win.

The source described the intelligence about the celebration, first reported by the Washington Post, as a minor part of the overall intelligence report, which makes the case that Russia intervened in the election.

“Highly classified intercepts illustrate Russian government planning and direction of a multifaceted campaign by Moscow to undermine the integrity of the American political system,” said the official.
For his part, Trump turned to – what else? – Twitter last night to complain, “How did NBC get ‘an exclusive look into the top secret report he (Obama) was presented?’ Who gave them this report and why? Politics!”

Hmm. It’s almost as if the president-elect is shocked to discover there are consequences in response to his lengthy campaign to undermine confidence in U.S. intelligence agencies.

Perhaps Trump prefers to target adversaries who don’t push back?

The broader concern, however, remains the same: as a result of Trump’s bizarre recklessness, the new president will take office in the midst of an unprecedented feud with the same intelligence agencies he’ll need to rely on for information about national security. No one benefits from such a dynamic.

Postscript: Trump is scheduled to receive a detailed briefing today on the evidence against Russia. The president-elect has already suggested his mind is made up on the matter, and he’s been caught lying about the meeting itself.