WASHINGTON — When some of the nation's top spies joined each other on stage at a conference Thursday, the question of whether Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and state elections systems soon came up.
The spies carefully skirted the question.
We're working with our partners on it, CIA director John Brennan said. It's really a policy question, NSA director Adm. Michael Rogers said.
"I'm going to continue the streak of not talking about that," FBI director James Comey said. Then he went on to talk about it in a rather backhanded way.
The intelligence officials' comments Thursday mirrored those of other top government leaders this week as the United States tries to figure out what to do about what is widely suspected to be Russian meddling in the upcoming election without saying publicly the Kremlin is behind the attacks.
The result has been some carefully calibrated utterances.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, speaking in Britain on Wednesday, stopped just short of blaming Russia for the breaches. The United States doesn't seek a new Cold War with Russia, he said, but the country "will not ignore attempts to interfere with our democratic processes."
The same day, James Clapper, who runs the organization that coordinates the efforts of the American intelligence agencies, noted that President Barack Obama has said private computer security companies have linked the attacks to Russia.
"So I won't get out ahead of the president on this, particularly while the FBI is still conducting an investigation," Clapper said.
Comey said Thursday he couldn't confirm who is responsible, but the FBI takes the attack on the political process seriously.
"The FBI's job is to work very hard to understand whether that's going on," he said. "I'm not going to comment on the work we're doing except we're working very hard to understand if there is such a thing, what are the dimensions of it and what are the intentions and motivations."
New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt, who was moderating the discussion, tried to get the spy chiefs to open up. The Times has reported that the intelligence community is confident Russia is behind the hacks.
"Help us understand a little bit why there seems to be this tippy-toeing around the Russia issue," Schmitt said.
"We want to make sure that as we're trying to figure out what's going on a nation state doesn't know what we know," Comey said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied last week that his government was responsible. But in a recent interview with Bloomberg News he said the hackers who leaked internal Democratic party emails had done a public service.
"Does it even matter who hacked this data?" Putin told the news agency. "The important thing is the content that was given to the public."
"There's no need to distract the public's attention from the essence of the problem by raising some minor issues connected with the search for who did it."