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U.S. Intelligence Chiefs Testify Before Senate Panel On Russian Hacking

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The four top U.S. intelligence officials were on Capitol Hill today to talk about the role Russia played in the presidential election. They fielded senators' questions about their conclusion that Russia hacked into sensitive networks to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.

NPR's Tom Gjelten followed today's hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee and joins us now. Hi there, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So the Intelligence Committee released its report on the hacking on Friday. What new information about Russia's actions came out at this hearing?

GJELTEN: What caught my attention was an intriguing line of questions from some Democrats about whether there is now an investigation of the Trump campaign's own contacts, if there are any or were any, with Russian intelligence. And what's interesting about that is that those members have already seen the classified intelligence here. They may know the answer to that question, but they can't talk about it in the open.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said the American people deserve to know whether there is an investigation of that connection, that possible connection. He asked FBI Director James Comey about that. And then Independent Senator Angus King of Maine followed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGUS KING: Mr. Comey, did you answer Senator Wyden's question that there is an investigation underway as to connections between either of the political campaigns and the Russians?

JAMES COMEY: I didn't say one way or another.

KING: You didn't say that there...

COMEY: That was my intention, at least.

KING: You didn't say one way or another whether even there's an investigation underway.

COMEY: Correct. I don't - especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation.

KING: The irony of...

COMEY: I'm not saying...

KING: The irony of your making that statement here I cannot avoid. But I'll move on.

COMEY: Well, we sometimes...

MCEVERS: That's a clear reference to Comey's letter to Congress saying the Bureau had reopened its investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, right?

GJELTEN: That's right, Kelly. In fact, Comey came back and said they do talk about closed investigations but not pending investigations. But Angus King had clearly scored a point there. But the bottom line here is there may in fact be an investigation of the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence. But it's all in the classified domain, at least for now.

MCEVERS: What did intelligence officials say about Russian preference for Trump over Clinton?

GJELTEN: They said this conclusion was largely based on the amount of material that the Russians had leaked about the Democrats, the Democratic National Committee. The Republicans came back and said, well, maybe the Republicans just had better cyber security, which the intelligence officials didn't really get into.

They said they couldn't say whether the Russians had prioritized targeting the Democrats, but they did double down on this idea that the Russians preferred Trump over Clinton. Asked why, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said they've seen that Russians prefer dealing with Western leaders who've had business dealings in Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CLAPPER: The Russians just believed or came to the conclusion that because the president-elect is a businessman, that he would be easier to make deals with and - than the Democrats.

GJELTEN: And Clapper also emphasized how much more aggressive this effort was than previous ones.

MCEVERS: President-elect Trump at one point questioned the intelligence behind these conclusions. Quickly, did any of the Republicans show that type of skepticism today?

GJELTEN: No, they didn't. Marco Rubio came back and said, well, it looks to me like the Russians were actually successful in sowing confusion about this and questioning the legitimacy of this process, the legitimacy of the election. If that was their intent, Marco Rubio said, they seem to have succeeded.

MCEVERS: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thank you very much.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.