WASHINGTON — The US Senate Armed Services Committee will focus on beefing up the nation's cyber security after alleged Russian meddling in US elections, which chairman John McCain at a committee hearing Thursday called "an unprecedented attack on our democracy."

The hearing, Congress' first on the allegations, came amid GOP divisions over how tough to get with Russian President Vladimir Putin and as President-elect Donald Trump has harshly downplayed the US intelligence community's assessment — which netted criticism from Democrats and outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at the hearing.

"Every American should be alarmed by Russia's attacks on our nation," said McCain, R-Ariz. "There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference. That is why Congress must set partisanship aside, follow the facts, and work together to devise comprehensive solutions to deter, defend against, and, when necessary, respond to foreign cyberattacks."

While Russia was the elephant in the room, McCain signaled the bipartisan committee will more broadly target the nation's policy gap on cyber warfare. The policy, he said, must answer basic questions, such as what constitutes an act of war or aggression in cyberspace, what would merit a military response, what the nation's theory of cyber deterrence is and whether the executive and legislative branches need to be reorganized to better manage cyber.

When McCain asked Clapper whether hacking the American election would constitute an attack on the US itself, Clapper demurred.

"Whether or not that constitutes an act of war is a very heavy policy call I don't think the intelligence community should make," Clapper said.

Clapper also resisted comparisons with nuclear deterrence, saying the ephemeral nature of cyber makes the substance and psychology of deterrence difficult to pin down.

McCain ripped the Obama administration for leaving the national security apparatus as "bystanders and observers" for failing to draft a specific policy of deterrence and retaliation for cyber attacks. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who recently traveled with McCain to Eastern Europe to hear from jittery Baltic leaders, suggested the Obama's response to Russian aggression — which has included new sanctions in recent days — had been too meek. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is time now not to throw pebbles [at Moscow], but to throw rocks," he said.

McCain said the SASC will spawn a cyber subcommittee within days, and Graham will chair it, vacating the chairmanship of the Personnel subcommittee to do so. Cyber will be removed from the jurisdiction of the Emerging Threats subcommittee, as "it's just too big an issue, there are so many different facets of it, and its going to go on forever," McCain told reporters after the hearing.

The committee will draft legislation mandating the incoming administration craft a cyber policy and strategy. "They've never had one," McCain said of the Obama White House. "They've never had one, and they've reacted to every attack in a different way. I mean it's just crazy."

McCain has also said he is working with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, of Maryland, to authorize stiffer sanctions against Russia--and that "quite a few" Republicans will break with the president-elect to co-sponsor such a bill. However, whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will bring it to the floor remains an open question.

"That hearing today gave a great boost to sanctions," McCain said.

The SASC's ranking member, Jack Reed, D-R.I., repeated his call for a special select committee to investigate the allegations. In the meantime, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee are holding their own hearings. McCain, too said he is for it, but McConnell has effectively blocked it.

"Despite the indifference of some to this matter, our nation needs to know in detail what the intelligence community has concluded was an assault by senior officials of a foreign government on our electoral process," Reed said during the hearing. "Our electoral process is the bedrock of our system of government. An effort to manipulate it, especially by a regime with values and interests so antithetical to our own, is a challenge to the nation's security which must be met with bipartisan and universal condemnation, consequences and correction."

In October, US intelligence agencies concluded unanimously that Moscow directed the hacking of e-mails from US individuals and political organizations, leaked to interfere with the US election process. Clapper said Thursday the intelligence community now "stands more resolutely on that statement" and told lawmakers Moscow did not change any vote tallies.

Trump's response has antagonized the Obama administration, some Democrats, and influential Republicans like McCain and Graham who have called for a stronger response against Putin.

Ahead of his joint CIA-FBI briefing on the Russian campaign, Trump on Wednesday picked up on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's claims the Democratic National Committee's carelessness led to its emails being hacked and, embarrassingly, leaked. He has since backtracked.

At Thursday's hearing, Clapper — who leaves office Jan. 20 — threw a jab at Trump, saying there was a difference between expressing "skepticism" of intelligence reports and "disparagement" of the intelligence community. The disparagement, he added, has alarmed ally nations who rely on US intelligence.

Clapper told lawmakers the US intelligence community's unclassified report on Moscow's efforts to undermine US elections is due out early next week and that he would be briefing lawmakers in detail then. 

Clapper declined to discuss the White House-directed report in detail, but said it will ascribe multiple motives to the alleged hacking, part of what he called a multifaceted campaign that included propaganda, fake news and disinformation, which altogether, he called, "of grave concern." The fake news effort, he said, was ongoing.

Clapper repeatedly defended the intelligence assessment, at one point affirming he was highly confident Russian tampering was ordered at Russia's "highest levels," presumably Putin himself.

Democrats, and Graham, seized on Trump's rebuke of the intelligence community as damaging to national security. Several praised the intelligence workforce to witnesses Clapper, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre and Adm. Mike Rogers, who heads US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.

"So let's talk about who benefits from a president-elect trashing the intelligence community," asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., saying the "biggest benefactors" are Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and the Islamic State group.

McCaskill said there would be "howls from the Republican side of the aisle" if a Democrat had spoken about intelligence officials as Trump had.

"Thank you for that nonpartisan comment," McCain joked.

In his own oblique jab at Trump earlier in the hearing, McCain asked Clapper and Rogers whether Assange had "any credibility." "Not in my view," Clapper replied, with agreement from Rogers: "I'd like to second those comments." 

Email:   jgould@defensenews.com     

Twitter:   @ReporterJoe

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

More In Congress