The United States' intelligence chief said yesterday that the nation's leaders had to decide whether Russia's alleged hacking in the leadup to last year's presidential election is an act of war.
Intelligence officials told a senate hearing in Washington that they were more confident than ever that Russia had waged an unprecedented "multifaceted campaign" of hacking and disinformation to disrupt the US election, amid scepticism from Donald Trump, the president-elect.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, suggested that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, must have approved the hacking campaign and that it was up to US representatives to determine whether it amounted to an "act of war".
He said: "The Russians have a long history of interfering in elections but I don't think we've ever encountered a more aggressive and direct campaign to interfere with our election process than we have seen in this case."
Clapper and the directors of the CIA, FBI and NSA (National Security Agency) were to visit Trump Tower today to brief Trump on their findings, which were presented to President Barack Obama yesterday.
A public version of the report will be published next week and will include assessments of the Kremlin's motives and the agencies' evidence that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Trump has maintained that no such evidence exists and taken a confrontational stance toward intelligence officials over the matter.
On Thursday, Trump cast doubt on Russia's role in the affair, writing on Twitter: "Julian Assange said 'a 14-year-old could have hacked Podesta' - why was DNC so careless? Also said the Russians did not give him the info!"
The Russians have a long history of interfering in elections but I don't think we've ever encountered a more aggressive and direct campaign to interfere with our election process than we have seen in this case.
Yesterday Trump clarified that he had not been supporting Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, but rather allowing Americans to "make up their own minds as to the truth". He also wrote that he was a "big fan" of US "intelligence", continuing to place the word in quotes.
Assange has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since August, 2012, when he was granted asylum by Ecuador. He is unable to leave the without being arrested for breaching bail conditions.
Senator John McCain, who chaired the intelligence hearing, said "every American should be alarmed" by Russia's actions. "There's no escaping the fact that this committee meets today for the first time in this new Congress in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy," he said.
After the hearing, McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, said the hacking "fit the definition" of an act of war, adding, "you respond differently to different acts of war ... it doesn't mean all of a sudden you start shooting".
Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, was more cautious, saying he agreed that Russia had interfered in the election but justifying Trump's comments as a reaction to efforts to "de-legitimise" his victory.
The vote tallies themselves were not hacked and Clapper said it was impossible to gauge the effect on the election's outcome.