US intelligence officials say they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in efforts to disrupt this year's US presidential election, NBC News reported Wednesday.
The bombshell story comes days after The Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency believes Russia sought to influence the election and help secure President-elect Donald Trump's victory. Those efforts reportedly included hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and providing them to WikiLeaks. The New York Times, in an extensive report on the hacks, offered details on how the attacks were carried out and reported that Democratic House candidates were also targeted.
According to NBC, officials believe the meddling went all the way to the very top of Russia's government. It cites two senior officials with direct access to the information as saying new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for US allies, the officials said.
Putin's objectives were multifaceted, a high-level intelligence source told NBC News. What began as a ''vendetta'' against Hillary Clinton morphed into an effort to show corruption in American politics and to ''split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn't depend on the US to be a credible global leader anymore,'' the official said.
CBS News later corroborated the report.
Neither the CIA's public information office nor Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks immediately responded to requests for comment.
Putin has long considered Clinton a foe, and claimed the former secretary of state incited protests in Russia following the country's 2011 elections. (Clinton had sided with protesters and called for ''free, fair, transparent elections'' in the country.)
In contrast, Putin has praised Trump as ''bright and talented'', and the US president-elect has complimented the Russian president's leadership.
Trump dismissed the earlier report on Russia's alleged involvement in the election, telling Fox News on Sunday he thinks it ''ridiculous'' to believe the Russian government wanted to steal the election for him.
''I think it's just another excuse,'' Trump said. ''I don't believe it.''
Other Republicans have taken the report much more seriously. A bipartisan group of senators, including John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina), this week called for further investigation into possible election meddling, and discouraged fellow senators from treating the revelations as a partisan issue.
''The stakes are too high for our country. We are committed to working in this bipartisan manner, and we will seek to unify our colleagues around the goal of investigating and stopping the grave threats that cyberattacks conducted by foreign governments pose to our national security,'' the senators wrote in a statement.
Many top Republicans, however, declined Democratic requests to publicly condemn the hacks as they were taking place.
Meanwhile, Putin's popularity is skyrocketing among Republicans. According to a YouGov/Economist poll released this week, favourability of the Russian president has climbed 56 points since July 2014.