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Senate Armed Services Committee Holds First Hearing On Alleged Russian Hacking

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today the head of U.S. intelligence stepped into the rift that's opened between President-elect Donald Trump and the nation's spy chiefs. James Clapper is the director of National Intelligence. He's in charge of all 17 intelligence agencies, agencies that Trump has taken to publicly and repeatedly mocking.

Testifying on Capitol Hill today, Clapper fielded questions on Trump, also on Russia and hacking and on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. We'll hear more about those Assange questions in a moment. But we begin our coverage with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Today's hearing was officially about cyber threats writ large, but from the get go, it was all about Russia and all about Donald Trump. This marked the first opportunity for senators - in this case, members of the Armed Services Committee - to ask Clapper and other intelligence leaders to respond publicly to Trump's seeming disregard for their work. Clapper's answer - to praise what he called the talented and dedicated patriots of U.S. intelligence.

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JAMES CLAPPER: You only need walk into the lobby of CIA and look at the stars on the wall or the front lobby of NSA and the number of intelligence people that have paid the ultimate price in the service of their country.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: So let's talk about who benefits from a president-elect trashing the intelligence community.

KELLY: That's Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill. Trump has dismissed CIA conclusions about Russia as ridiculous. And recently he has tweeted about intelligence, putting the word in quotation marks, a tactic widely interpreted as sarcasm. Today, Clapper said policymakers are entitled to be skeptical of intelligence, but he added pointedly, there's a difference between skepticism and disparagement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAPPER: The intelligence community is not perfect. We are an organization of human beings, and we're prone sometimes to make errors. I don't think the intelligence community gets the credit it's due for what it does day in and day out to keep this nation safe and secure.

KELLY: This same theme played out when the questions turn to Russia and whether Clapper and the other spymasters testifying stand by their statement that Russia tried to interfere with last year's election. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham used his time to push Clapper on how high it went.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: You say you think this was approved at the highest level of government in Russia.

CLAPPER: That's what we said.

GRAHAM: OK, who's the highest level of government?

CLAPPER: Well, the highest is President Putin.

GRAHAM: Do you think a lot happens in Russia big that he doesn't know about?

CLAPPER: Not very many.

GRAHAM: Yeah, I don't think so either.

CLAPPER: Certainly none that are politically sensitive in another country.

GRAHAM: OK.

KELLY: Then Graham closed in for the kill, making plain that when he talked about Russia, the person he was really talking to was his fellow Republican Donald Trump.

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GRAHAM: Putin's up to no good, and he better be stopped. And Mr. President-elect, when you listen to these people, you can be skeptical, but understand. They're the best among us, and they're trying to protect us.

KELLY: No senator, Republican or Democrat, offered a ringing defense of Trump's positions on either Russia or the credibility of U.S. spy agencies. Trump himself appeared today to walk back his earlier comments.

Shortly before the hearing got underway, he was tweeting again about intelligence, again in quotes but now saying he's a big fan. It's not clear whether Clapper saw that tweet before walking into the hearing room, but the director of National Intelligence, a man who rarely cracks a smile, mentioned another reason to be in good spirits today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAPPER: After 53 years in the intelligence business in one capacity or another, happily, I've just got 15 days left.

KELLY: He'll spend one of them tomorrow fielding questions directly from the president-elect. Clapper is headed to New York along with the heads of the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency. They're delivering a classified briefing at Trump Tower on Russia and its cyber ambitions. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.