On Thursday morning, Senator John McCain, of Arizona, convened a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the subject of cybersecurity, “in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy.” By that, McCain meant, mostly, the theft and release of e-mails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, which the American intelligence community believes to have been the work of hackers connected to the Russian government. But a lot of the senators had more on their mind. The main witnesses, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, were asked if Donald Trump had demoralized spies by casting doubt on their hacking assessment (possibly, but they hadn’t taken a poll); if the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, had any credibility (neither thought so); and if anyone really listened to the radio anymore (yes). That last question came from Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who thought that the United States was not on top of the information war against Russia. Graham judged a cautionary note that Clapper had offered about espionage and people who “live in glass houses” inadequate to the moment. “I think what Obama did was throw a pebble. I’m ready to throw a rock,” Graham said. He glanced around the chamber with a look of cold eagerness, and added, “So to those of you who want to throw rocks, you’re going to get a chance here soon.”
Rocks, pebbles, scissors, tweets: coming at us, in all directions. This is a hearing that was provoked as much, or more, by Trump’s disdain for facts as it was by the hacking itself. And yet it wasn’t much of a sober examination of cybersecurity, or even of what exactly happened during the Presidential election. An intelligence report on the subject is still in the works (it is due Friday, with the public getting some version of it next week), and so Clapper and Rogers repeatedly demurred when asked for specifics. Clapper was clear, though, that he and his colleagues believed that the Russians had been up to no good. He said that when the report came out it would suggest a motive behind the hacking—“actually, more than one motive.” There were certainly multiple motives behind the hearing, most of them partisan. McCain hopped between a Cold War antipathy for the Russians and his own complex relationship with his party’s President-elect. McCain had endorsed Trump, then unendorsed him, and now seems to want to work with him, even though he has been dismissive of the entire premise of the hearings. McCain, after his suggestion that the Russian role was historic in nature, quickly added that the point of the hearings was “not to question the results of the election.” In one of his first questions to Clapper, McCain said that if the Russians had been successful “in changing the results of an election, which none of us believe they were”—he drew that word out, into what sounded like a cross between a purr and a warning, and then continued—“that would have to constitute an attack on the United States of America because of the effects if they had succeeded, would you agree with that?”
Clapper responded hesitantly at first, addressing what McCain had taken as a given—that the Russians had failed. There had not been changes in “tallies or anything of that sort,” he said. That is, no hacking of Election Day. As for the rest, “certainly the intelligence community can’t gauge the impact it had on choices the electorate made,” Clapper said. When McCain nudged him back to his main question, Clapper said, “Whether or not that constitutes an act of war, I think, is a very heavy policy call that I don’t believe the intelligence community can make, but it certainly would carry, in my view, great gravity.”
Later in the hearing, Clapper said that his sense of concern, both as the director of National Intelligence and as “a citizen,” was not confined to cyber crimes but to “a multifaceted campaign that the Russians mounted,” which involved “disparaging our system, our alleged hypocrisy about human rights, et cetera, et cetera.” He added, “All of these other modes—whether it is RT”—the Russian English-language television news network—“use of social media, fake news—they exercised all of those capabilities in addition to the hacking.” The quality of the stories that come from these sources is an issue for citizens, but Clapper’s formulation should raise some notes of caution about when and whether it is, indeed, a matter for the head of an American intelligence agency. Do complaints about American hypocrisy really belong in the same category as “fake news,” let alone hacking? When does a complaint become a “capability”?
It was the Democrats, meanwhile, who were most concerned with expressing outrage that the President-elect, or really anyone, would doubt the American intelligence community. “Who actually is the benefactor of someone who is about to become Commander-in-Chief trashing the intelligence community?” Senator Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, demanded. (When Clapper didn’t come up with the names, she supplied them: “Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and ISIS.”) She added, “There would be howls—and, mark my words, if the roles were reversed there would be howls from the Republican side of the aisle.” That is, without a doubt, correct, and another reminder of how the G.O.P. has abased itself in the presence of Donald Trump. And yet the Democrats’ passion on this point seemed, at times, to be too much even for Clapper, who noted that the agencies weren’t “perfect” and that his own “fingerprints” had been on the broken assessment that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, laying the groundwork for a disastrous invasion. He did say that he thought that they’d improved since then. (No one seemed interested in reminding Clapper, who is retiring in a few weeks, that a lie he had told the Senate about the N.S.A.’s activities had played a role in the Edward Snowden affair, as my colleague Ryan Lizza has reported.)
The hacking of the D.N.C. exposed risks to our electoral system; the way that all sides have responded to it has not revealed great reservoirs of strength. The Democrats are rightly dismayed by Trump’s reckless indifference, but they have not found their voice on the issue—that is, a way to integrate it into a critique of Trumpism, rather than of Trump’s inconsistencies. (As my colleague John Cassidy wrote today, they may be doing better with Obamacare.) Some “establishment” Republicans, like McCain and Graham, seem only ready to take on Trump when they view him as insufficiently hawkish. Graham used the hearing to warn Trump that if at some point he wanted to take military action against someone he might find himself needing to point to the intelligence community’s findings to justify that action to the American people, and so he shouldn’t mock them now. If these Republicans are serious about making sure that their President stays in the neighborhood of the truth—and about pushing back against his demagoguery—that won’t be enough.
One of the more sensible comments came from Senator Angus King, the independent from Maine, who recalled a trip to the Baltic states, during which he had asked local officials how they dealt with what has, for years, been a barrage of fake news and electoral interference. He had been told of various countermeasures, but the defense that worked best, ultimately, was “for our public to know what’s going on so they can take it with a grain of salt. . . . Their people now say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just the Russians.’ ” King added, “We need to have our people understand when they’re being manipulated.” Under the Trump Administration, that may count as a basic survival skill. It won’t just be about what’s coming from the Russians. They are not the only ones controlling Twitter accounts. People in White Houses throw a lot of rocks, too.