WASHINGTON -- U.S. senators took a deep look into Russia’s alleged meddling during the 2016 presidential election, with outside experts testifying that, without a strong U.S. response, Moscow will do more of the same in the future.
The March 30 open hearing, the first of its kind, was held by the Senate Intelligence Committee. A simultaneous investigation by the FBI, the inquiry by the Senate committee, and other congressional panels have shadowed U.S. President Donald Trump's administration and fueled deep suspicions about possible collusion with Russian agents.
"I will not prejudge the outcome of our investigation," the committee’s lead Democrat, Mark Warner, told the hearing.
"We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but so far there is a great, great deal of smoke,” he said.
"We're all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary, and we must engage in whole-of-government approach to combat Russian 'active measures,'" Republican Chairman Richard Burr said.
The question of whether Trump aides secretly colluded with Russian officials has dogged the White House since before he took office in January.
His national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign in February after it was revealed he had misled the administration about his contacts with Russian officials.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions later recused himself from investigations into alleged Russian activity after he was less than forthright about his interactions with Russian diplomats.
In a report released in January, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at undermining faith in the U.S. election system.
It also said the campaign eventually sought to denigrate Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and favor Trump.
The Trump White House has strenuously denied any suggestions of collusion between current and former aides, and Russian officials. However, Trump himself has also suggested that any communication that may have occurred during the campaign was legitimate and acceptable.
Experts told the panel that the use of computer hacking, fake news sites, stolen emails, and "bots" -- networks of computers that have been taken over by malware and used to amplify propaganda -- and other tools were techniques that Russian officials call "active measures."
Roy Godson, author of a book examining Russian and Soviet propaganda tools, said that Moscow was emboldened by the fallout from last year's election and would likely use such tools again if there is no decisive U.S. response.
"If we don’t cauterize it and limit its effectiveness, they will have an incentive to continue," said Godson, now a Georgetown University professor.
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security, said it was likely that Russia started to build up the tools it used during the election campaign as early as 2009.
Watts also said that Russian disinformation campaigns targeted both Democratic and Russian lawmakers, an effort he said was continuing.
Several senators picked up on recent comments by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who likened the reported Russian interference to an act of war.
"It seems to me, gentlemen, that we are engaged in a new form of aggression, if not war. It strikes me that Vladimir Putin is playing a weak hand, very well," Democratic Senator Angus King said.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the conclusions that Russian intelligence officers or Russian-backed hackers interfered in the election campaign, or sought to influence it.
Putin himself pushed back on the allegations at a forum in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk on March 30, as he dismissed what he said were "endless and groundless" accusations against Moscow.
Pressed by the moderator of the forum about whether Russia had interfered, Putin answered by quoting a famous line from former President George H.W. Bush, spoken nearly 30 years ago in response to a pledge about raising taxes.
"Read my lips," Putin said. "No." Putin emphasized his point by saying the word "no" in English.
"This anti-Russian card is being played in the interests of some political forces inside the United States with the aim of strengthening and consolidating their positions," Putin said.