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Senate Armed Services Committee Rallies Behind Intelligence Community

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It was an unusually united front on Capitol Hill yesterday. Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee got behind the intelligence community's findings that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump, though, continues to express skepticism that Russia hacked and released Democratic Party emails.

At yesterday's committee hearing, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said it was OK to challenge the intel. But he cautioned President-elect Trump not to undermine the intelligence community. The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the senators that Russia had waged a multifaceted campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CLAPPER: The hacking was only one part of it. And it also entailed, you know, classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.

GREENE: James Clapper there. Now, also on that Senate panel, questioning Director Clapper and other intelligence chiefs, was Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. She joins us on the line now from St. Louis in her home state of Missouri. Senator, good morning.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Good morning.

GREENE: So what evidence have you seen so far that confirms without a doubt that Russia was indeed behind this hacking?

MCCASKILL: Well, some of the evidence will become public next week when the report that was presented to the president yesterday...

GREENE: A report that's going to Donald Trump today, yeah.

MCCASKILL: And to Donald Trump today - but, essentially, they have everything from intercepting communications at the election - after the election in terms of celebratory information coming from Russia. We have...

GREENE: This is the Washington Post story today saying that Russian officials were celebrating after Donald Trump won.

MCCASKILL: Correct. And they have technical information. And I think the important thing to remember here is that there is a vast array of intelligence workers in our country - 17 different agencies, thousands and thousands of people. There is unanimous - no one is doubting that this occurred. And the vast majority of these people that do this work are, in fact, military. So for Donald Trump to question the facts that they have uncovered - carefully uncovered - all that does is undermine the intelligence community. And, frankly, it's a gift to our enemies.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about that Washington Post story you mentioned, Russian officials celebrating. Does that lend a lot of credence in your mind to the argument that Russia was involved in a hack here?

MCCASKILL: No. No.

GREENE: Isn't it possible Russian officials might have been celebrating just because they were happy Trump won?

MCCASKILL: No. I think that the facts are centered on the actual work that was being done and the interceptions that were done and the tracking that was done by our intelligence community around the hacks. But some of the surrounding activities - as you mentioned in your piece, General Clapper said this was multidimensional.

This wasn't just hacking emails. This wasn't just getting into the servers of the Democratic Party. This was also other information that was being - coming from Russia. And Russian operatives, with the approval of the Russian government to spread misinformation, fake news, propaganda...

GREENE: Multifaceted campaign, he called it.

MCCASKILL: It was a multifaceted campaign.

GREENE: Well, have you seen evidence that we have not yet seen? You say we'll see this report in public. But you - as a member of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate, have you seen classified stuff that we haven't?

MCCASKILL: I have had classified briefings.

GREENE: You have.

MCCASKILL: And that's the hard thing about doing interviews about this - is you have to be careful.

GREENE: You can't tell me anything.

MCCASKILL: That I can't talk about the methods and sources that would compromise our ability to fight this kind of warfare, which, of course, is the warfare of choice for the terrorist community.

GREENE: Well, have you seen - let me ask you this - any indication - I mean, all the focus has been on Russia - any indication that any Americans were in on this hack or at least aware of it while it was happening?

MCCASKILL: I'm not aware of that, no.

GREENE: OK. Nothing you've seen so far.

MCCASKILL: No.

GREENE: You know, Donald Trump has repeatedly brought up U.S. intelligence failures on Iraq. And there was this distinction that came up yesterday. There's having healthy skepticism, and there is disparaging the intelligence community. Let's talk about healthy skepticism. I mean, do Americans have a right to doubt what they're hearing because of all the weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence that proved to be wrong before the Iraq War?

MCCASKILL: Well, I thought the leaders yesterday did a good job - of our intelligence community - saying, it's not as if there's been - haven't been mistakes made. But this is a very broad consensus. And I do think that the Bush administration picked through intelligence and selectively emphasized that which supported what they wanted to do, which was go into Iraq. I think they cherry-picked intelligence in order to convince the American people that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

But I'm not going to sit here and say that the intelligence community is perfect. I will say that our intelligence community is the best in the world, that we - since that time, we have done an awful lot of work in the intelligence community because of the terrorist threat. You know, terrorism is not a country. We have to be - have eyes and ears everywhere in the world.

GREENE: You think the intelligence community has gotten better since the days before Iraq?

MCCASKILL: No question they have gotten better.

GREENE: Let me ask you this. There did seem to be a remarkable degree of bipartisan consensus that Russia was to blame yesterday. How solid, really, is this bipartisanship we seemed to see yesterday?

MCCASKILL: I think it's very solid, particularly with Senator McCain and Senator Graham and even Senator Cotton, who, you know, wanted to argue around the edges.

GREENE: Senator Tom Cotton, yeah. He seemed to be backing up Trump in some ways.

MCCASKILL: Well, he wanted to say, we don't really know that Russia wanted them to win - wanted Trump to win. But I think what you're seeing is not that anyone disagrees on the Hill that the Russians did this. I think you're seeing some reluctance, which, I guess, is understandable of a party to take on frontally their newly elected president.

GREENE: OK.

MCCASKILL: I mean, he is going to be their leader for the next four years. And I think some of the Republicans are hesitant to publicly confront him on what I think is irresponsible trashing of our intelligence community.

GREENE: All right. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Senator, thanks so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

MCCASKILL: You bet. My pleasure.

GREENE: Now, we also reached out to Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But none agreed to go on our air this morning. We do hope to have them on our program soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.