U.S. spy agencies fight Congress over plan for probe of covert Russian influence campaign

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 02, 2016 2:22 PM

By Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. intelligence officer has asked Congress to drop a provision in a pending bill that would create a special committee to combat Russian efforts to exert covert influence abroad, saying such a panel would duplicate current work and hinder cooperation with foreign allies.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper laid out the objections of the U.S. intelligence community in a Sept. 9 letter to the chairmen and top Democrats on the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees. He charged that parts of the bill amounted to "micromanagement" of the intelligence community.

The intelligence bill, an annual measure that provides broad Congressional authorization for a wide range of U.S. intelligence activities and agencies, has already been approved by both intelligence committees and the House of Representatives. Backers in the Senate are marshalling support for the bill in the hope it will be approved next week, an official familiar with the matter said.

The legislation would require the creation of an interagency committee to combat Russian propaganda and covert efforts to influence people, economic and political decisions in the United States and elsewhere.

Clapper's letter, seen by Reuters, said the panel would duplicate work already being done by intelligence agencies, and could also damage U.S. agencies' relationships with their foreign counterparts.

As a general matter, many provisions in the legislation "go well beyond oversight and into micromanagement" of the intelligence community, wrote Clapper, who was appointed by outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama.

The bill would require multiple Cabinet officers, including the National Intelligence and FBI directors and the secretaries of State, Defense, the Treasury and Energy, as well as the heads of the other intelligence community agencies to appoint officials to serve on the panel examining Russian political interference in Western politics.

Its main mission would be to "counter active measures by Russia to exert covert influence over peoples and government by exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies," the pending legislation says.

The term "active measures" describes actions by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency whose officers included now-Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States and other countries have conducted similar campaigns.

CAMPAIGN BY MOSCOW

American and some allied intelligence agencies detected an increase in such activities in Europe several years ago, and began making cooperative efforts to track and combat them, a senior U.S. intelligence official said on Thursday.

The escalating Russian campaign started well before the hacking of U.S. political institutions, in particular of Democratic Party, during the 2016 presidential election campaign said the official, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. American officials have traced that hacking to Russia, but the Kremlin has denied any involvement.

Moscow's campaign has included other hacking, overt and covert financing of far-right and nationalist political groups, efforts to influence powerful political and economic figures, and propaganda spread by government-controlled media outlets and on the Internet, said U.S. and European security officials.

U.S. and other intelligence analysts have concluded that the campaign is a "well-funded and coordinated effort to degrade and discredit Western-style democracy and sow divisions internally and within the NATO alliance, directed from the highest levels of the Russian government," the senior American intelligence official said.

The objections by Clapper were unrelated to the incoming administration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump. Clapper's letter preceded the election on Nov. 8 of Trump, who has said he will seek to improve ties with Moscow.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay; Editing by John Walcott and Frances Kerry)