Russian intelligence agencies are trying to interfere with the U.S. presidential election, the top Democrats on the intelligence committee said Thursday.
The lawmakers, part of the so-called "Gang of 8," members of Congress who are briefed on nearly all the nation's intelligence secrets, went much further than President Barack Obama has been willing in engaging the question of Russian hacking into American political organizations.
"Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
"At the least, this effort is intended to sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes of the election — we can see no other rationale for the behavior of the Russians."
They added that they believe "that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government."
The statement goes further than anything Obama or U.S. intelligence officials have been willing to say about hacks into the Democratic National Committee, state election systems, and other entities that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded were carried out by Russian spies.
One reason the U.S. has not made the same accusation is that American agencies have not determined conclusively that Russian intelligence leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks, which then made them public. It is one thing to steal information -- Russian, Chinese and American cyber spies routinely hack into adversary political organizations for spying purposes. The leaks, designed to embarrass the Democrats, would cross a line, several officials have said.
But to some experts, it's obvious that Russia was responsible for the leaked emails, and the U.S. shouldn't need ironclad proof to make that assessment.
Michael Vickers, a former top Pentagon intelligence official who is now advising Hillary Clinton, said Wednesday that Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. political system were "beyond the pale," and "appalling."
"I think they have really crossed a threshold," Vickers said, and he added that Russian president Vladimir Putin would not stop such provocations unless the U.S. responded vigorously.
The Obama administration has not said how, if at all, it will respond to Russian hacking.
Feinstein and Schiff said, "We call on President Putin to immediately order a halt to this activity. Americans will not stand for any foreign government trying to influence our election. We hope all Americans will stand together and reject the Russian effort."