WASHINGTON — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Thursday that Russia curtailed its election-related cyberactivity after the Obama administration accused Moscow of trying to interfere with the presidential race. The top U.S. intelligence official also said he had formally submitted a resignation letter effective at the end of President Barack Obama’s term.
In one of his last appearances on Capitol Hill, Clapper defended the administration’s response to allegations that intelligence officials at the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, pressured analysts to discard information that reflected poorly on the war effort in Iraq and Syria.
He also predicted that the information warfare that Russia has conducted since the Soviet era would likely continue beyond the U.S. election cycle.
Hacked emails from Democratic Party officials were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign, revealing details embarrassing to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Clapper and the Department of Homeland Security said in October that based on the “scope and sensitivity” of the hacking efforts, only Russia’s “senior-most officials” could have authorized the hacking. Russia has denied involvement.
“After the issuance of the statement and the communication that I know took place between our government and Russian government, it seemed to have curtailed the cyberactivity that the Russians were previously engaged in,” Clapper said.
He said he was specifically referring to the “cyber-reconnaissance” that had been observed prior to the statement. “That sort of activity seemed to have curtailed,” he said.
He said intelligence agencies don’t have good insight on when or how Wikileaks obtained the hacked emails.
The committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., took Clapper, along with two defense officials who testified, to task about allegations that CENTCOM massaged intelligence reports to make it appear the U.S. was doing better than it was in Iraq and Syria.
Nunes said lawmakers have not seen any “meaningful correction actions” taken by defense or intelligence officials. The allegations are still being investigated.
Clapper noted that a recent survey of intelligence employees has shown increases in the percentage of employees who think their reports have been satisfactorily handled. “This is a one-year period, but it does show a positive trend,” Clapper said.
On Ukraine, Clapper predicted that Russia would sustain its presence in the eastern part of the country. Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatist rebels in the east brought relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbors to the verge of full rupture.
“Clearly, the Russians want to sustain influence in a traditional part of greater Russia, which is the Ukraine. … I think we just continue this sort of semi-stalemate we’re in.” Clapper said.
Also on Russia, Clapper said he did not foresee a change in Russian aggression in NATO countries in light of President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to seek improved U.S.-Russia relations. He noted that Russia’s only aircraft carrier recently deployed to the Mediterranean Sea — an indication that “the Russians are there to stay.”
He said Russia’s navy repair supply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus is its only base outside the former Soviet Union. “I expect they’re planning on expanding their presence at Tartus to support naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said.
On his retirement plans, the 75-year-old Clapper said it “felt pretty good” to submit his formal letter of resignation Wednesday. All top administration officials sign resignation letters before they depart on Jan. 20. Clapper said his resignation letter is effective at noon on Inauguration Day.
Committee members jokingly asked him to stay on for perhaps four more years. Clapper could be asked to stay on temporarily until his successor is confirmed, but that would be up to Trump and it’s unclear if Clapper would agree to stick around.
“I got 64 days left and I think I’d have a hard time with my wife anything past that,” Clapper said.
Clapper, who has been in the intelligence business for more than 53 years, has been director of national intelligence since August 2010. A lieutenant general in the Air Force, Clapper has held multiple intelligence positions since the 1960s, including director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.