White House suggests Vladimir Putin was involved in US hacking
The White House has suggested that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally authorised the hacking of Democratic officials' email accounts in the run-up to the presidential election.
It added that it was a "fact" that hacking had helped President-elect Donald Trump's campaign - and levelled an astounding attack on Mr Trump himself, saying he must have known of Russia's interference.
No proof was offered for any of the accusations, the latest to unsettle America's uneasy transition from eight years under Democratic President Barack Obama to a new Republican administration led by Mr Trump.
The claims of Russian meddling in the election have also heightened already debilitating tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria, Ukraine and a host of other disagreements.
After an NBC News report quoted US intelligence officials pointing the finger specifically at Mr Putin, White House press secretary Josh Earnest pointed to an October assessment of the US intelligence community that said "only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorised these activities".
Mr Earnest said the reference to "senior-most officials" was not supposed to be subtle. "It's pretty obvious," he told reporters.
The explosive accusation paints the leader of perhaps the nation's greatest geopolitical foe as having directly undermined US democracy.
No US officials have claimed, however, that Mr Trump would have been defeated by Hillary Clinton on November 8 if not for Russia's assistance. Nor has there has been any indication of tampering with the vote-counting.
The Kremlin flatly rejected the claim of Mr Putin's involvement, with Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing it as "laughable nonsense" on Thursday.
The White House was also harshly critical of Mr Trump, who has dismissed the allegations of Russian interference as the partisan anger of Democrats over losing the election.
Mr Trump's criticism has opened up a deep rift between the intelligence community and its incoming commander in chief.
It is "obvious" that Mr Trump knew of Russia's behaviour during the campaign, Mr Earnest said, also disputing Mr Trump's claim that he was joking when he encouraged Russia to find emails that Mrs Clinton had deleted from her private email server.
No one in the White House, Congress or the intelligence community found it "funny" that a US adversary was trying to "destabilise our democracy", he said.
US intelligence officials have linked the hacking to Russia's intelligence agency and its military intelligence division.
Moscow has denied all accusations that it orchestrated the hacking of email accounts of Democratic Party officials and Mrs Clinton's campaign chief, John Podesta, and then leaked them to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
Democrats pounced on the latest suggestions of Mr Putin being connected to the daily drip of emails during the presidential race from some of Mrs Clinton's closest advisers.
Mr Putin was "clearly involved", said outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
"Having been the former head of the KGB, does that surprise you?" he said. "And does it surprise anybody today when he denied it?"
On Wednesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said it is hard to think that Mr Putin did not know about the operation.
She called suggestions that he was aware of the hacking "very credible".
There has been no specific, persuasive evidence shared publicly about the extent of Mr Putin's role or knowledge of the hackings.
That lack of proof undercuts Democrats' strategy to portray Mr Putin's involvement as irrefutable evidence of a directed Russian government plot to undermine America's democratic system.
But Democrats theorise that no such wide-scale espionage operation could have been launched without Mr Putin's approval.
The NBC report said that the evidence is "nearly incontrovertible", and that the intelligence comes from "diplomatic sources and spies working for US allies".
It did not identify the countries involved or how they might have such sensitive information from Mr Putin's inner sanctum.