WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. intelligence official said on Thursday he was "even more resolute" in his belief that Russia staged cyber attacks on Democrats during the 2016 election campaign, rebuking persistent skepticism from Republican President-elect Donald Trump about whether Moscow was involved.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he had a very high level of confidence that Russia hacked Democratic Party and campaign staff email, and disseminated propaganda and fake news aimed at the Nov. 8 election.
"Our assessment now is even more resolute than it was" on Oct. 7 when the government first publicly accused Russia, Clapper told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said motives for the attack would be made public next week.
Trump on Thursday morning called himself a "big fan" of intelligence agencies. But he has cast doubt on their assessments that Russia targeted the campaign of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, drawing ire from his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats who are wary of Moscow and distrust Trump's praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The intelligence officials at Thursday's hearing said they worried a lack of support from atop the government could prompt valued staff members to leave their agencies.
"There's a difference between healthy skepticism ... and disparagement," Clapper said. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has used the expression "healthy skepticism" to defend Trump's criticism of intelligence findings.
Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, speaking at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics on Thursday, said that because Trump had never served in government, he was unfamiliar with the intelligence profession.
"It doesn’t bother me if someone is going to be skeptical and challenge our work and maybe disagree with our views, but I expect that the president of the United States will recognize that the CIA and intelligence community were established by statute for a very important reason,"
The congressional hearing was overseen by Republican Senator John McCain, a vociferous Russia critic. It was the first in a promised series of briefings and hearings on allegations that Russia tried to disrupt or influence the U.S. campaign, one of the most bitter in recent history.
Moscow denies the allegations.
McCain told reporters that Senator Lindsey Graham, also a vocal critic of Moscow, would chair a new Armed Services subcommittee dedicated to cyber issues.
Trump will be briefed by intelligence agency chiefs on Friday on the hacks. President Barack Obama received a report on the matter on Thursday. An unclassified version will be made public early next week.
"I don't think we've ever encountered a more aggressive or direct campaign to interfere in our election process than we've seen in this case," said Clapper, who leaves when Trump becomes president on Jan. 20. Clapper stopped short of declaring Russia's actions "an act of war," saying that determination was beyond the scope of his office.
Clapper and the two other officials who testified, National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, and Marcel Lettre, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, did not say what made U.S. intelligence confident Russia was behind the cyber attacks, a conclusion also reached by several private firms.
CRITICAL OF ASSANGE
Obama last week ordered the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies he said were involved in hacking U.S. political groups such as the Democratic National Committee.
The CIA has identified Russian officials who fed material hacked from the DNC and Democratic Party leaders to WikiLeaks at Putin's direction through third parties, according to a new U.S. intelligence report, senior U.S. officials said.
Documents stolen from the DNC and Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, were posted on the Internet before the election, embarrassing the campaign.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump was skeptical about a Russian role in the affair, writing: "(WikiLeaks founder) 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!"
But on Thursday, Trump said in another Twitter post that he was not against intelligence agencies or in agreement with Assange. "The media lies to make it look like I am against 'intelligence' when in fact I am a big fan!" Trump tweeted.
Clapper said Assange had put American lives in danger and deserved no credibility. McCain and other lawmakers also blasted Assange.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said there would be "howls" from Republicans if a Democrat described intelligence officials as Trump had.
U.S. intelligence officials have said Russian cyber attacks were specifically aimed at helping Trump beat Clinton. Several Republicans have acknowledged the Russian hacking but have not linked it to an effort to help Trump win.
Trump and top advisers believe Democrats are trying to delegitimize his victory by accusing Russia of helping him.
Senator Tim Kaine, an Armed Services member who was Clinton's vice presidential running mate, said: "It is my hope that this Congress is willing to stand in a bipartisan way for the integrity of the electoral process."
Graham said Obama's actions against Moscow fell short.
"I think what Obama did was throw a pebble. I'm ready to throw a rock," Graham said. "Putin is up to no good and he better be stopped."
(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)