WASHINGTON — Russian hacking allegations will take center stage in the US Senate this week, and in the coming weeks, as Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence committee leaders meet to set an agenda for a series of cybersecurity hearings.

Already, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is set to lead his committee's hearing Thursday. Set to testify are the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre, and the chief of US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, Adm. Mike Rogers.

"We will obviously be talking about the [Russian] hacking," McCain told reporters Tuesday. "In fact, the main thing is the whole issue — right now we have no policy and no strategy to counter cyberattacks, there is none, from this administration. One has to be developed."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has announced a closed top secret hearing for Thursday on Russian hacking and harassment of US diplomats. Set to testify are Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau Of European And Eurasian Affairs; Gentry Smith, the director of the Office Of Foreign Missions, and Danny Toler, with the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity directorate.

McCain said he is working with the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin, to co-sponsor legislation authorizing more sanctions against Russia over its alleged interference in the 2016 US election as well as its actions in Ukraine and Syria. 

Cardin, of Maryland, plans to introduce that legislation this week and a bill forming an independent commission to investigate the hacking allegation.

"I think this is similar to 9/11, when we were attacked, we wanted to have the credibility of an independent commission to take steps to protect our country and hold those responsible accountable," Cardin said. "I think we should have the same type of commission."

There have been some tensions within the GOP over how to deal with Russia and how much of a threat the US faces in Russian President Vladimir Putin.

McCain and Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have called for stiffer sanctions and a tough stance against Russia. Graham, who visited Ukraine and the Baltic states last week with McCain and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told CNN that new sanctions should "hit Putin and his inner circle for interfering in our election."

The US on Dec. 29 fired back at Moscow over its alleged meddling in the presidential election, announcing a series of tough sanctions against intelligence agencies, expulsions of agents and the shutting down of Russian compounds on US soil.

The White House and congressional actions are at odds with President-elect Donald Trump, who has dismissed the US intelligence community's conclusion that Russia meddled in the election. Trump allies and surrogates have said the accusations are meant to delegitimize Trump's victory.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said his committee will have classified and open hearings on Russian hacking before regrouping to decide further action. The committee subsequently announced the classified hearing for Thursday.

Corker declined to comment on Trump's stance on Russia, but expressed concern himself, saying Russia "is not only doing things here, they're doing things overseas to undermine other democracies."

Trump is reportedly set to receive a briefing this week from intelligence officials on links between Russia and cyberattacks aimed at the US election.

Concerns over Russia are bleeding into the confirmation process for Trump's secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, and casting a shadow over his prospects. Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil for 43 years, reportedly has had deep business ties to Russia and received of Russia's Order of Friendship award.

Asked if he was concerned Tillerson would be too soft on Russia, Corker said a long phone conversation with the nominee a few weeks ago "made me feel a whole lot better as far as his views on Russia in general." Corker was set to meet with Tillerson on Tuesday.

Confirmation hearings for Tillerson are tentatively set to begin Jan. 11, with a follow-up hearing on the afternoon of Jan. 12, Corker told reporters.

Maine Independent Sen. Angus King, a member of the Senate's Armed Services and Intelligence committees, has beat the drum over the need for a national cybersecurity strategy with an offensive component as a deterrent.

He said Thursday's SASC hearing will be an important platform for the American public "to hear from the same people we've been hearing from that this is an important issue."

Asked if Trump and his aides were taking the Russian cyberthreat seriously enough, King said: "It doesn't appear that they are. It's surprising to me that anyone, anyone with any knowledge of the situation would be saying maybe the Russians didn't do it."

"He should listen," King said, "and hopefully he'll come to the same conclusion that virtually everyone else in the intelligence community and those knowledgeable about the situation has come to."

Email:  jgould@defensenews.com    

Twitter:  @ReporterJoe

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