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Sources To CBS News: Putin Had To Know About Russian Attempts To Sway U.S. Election

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) -- U.S. intelligence sources said Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about his country's attempts to sway the American presidential election.

Putin has denied any involvement in hack attacks. But intelligence sources told CBS News the hacking could not have happened without his blessing.

Sources said the initial assessment was that the senior levels of the Kremlin were somehow involved.

A source told CBS News "the orders to do it would have had to come from the highest level."

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The CIA recently concluded with "high confidence'' that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election on behalf of Trump, raising red flags among lawmakers concerned about the sanctity of the U.S. voting system and potentially straining relations at the start of Trump's administration.

U.S. intelligence is working against a deadline of Jan. 20, the day President Barack Obama leaves office and President-elect Donald Trump takes over – to complete the investigation Obama ordered into the alleged hacking.

One focus is the Russian break-in at the Democratic National Committee.

Investigators believe the attack began in July of 2015 -- more than a year before the presidential election. Thousands of emails were sent to hundreds of organizations.

Ultimately the hackers -- known as Cozy Bear and tied to Russian intelligence -- burrowed into the computers of the DNC. And for more than a year they stole documents and emails that would later come back to haunt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"This is unprecedented..." said Adam Hodge, communications director with the DNC. "A foreign government attacked the entire Democratic Party... with one goal, and that was to help Donald Trump."

The U.S. intelligence community is split on whether the hacks were specifically intended to help Trump, but since at least 2010 U.S. intelligence analysts have been warning of Russian cyber intrusions and information warfare.

A 2013 threat assessment concluded Russia is among three countries focusing on "using internet content" that might contribute to "political instability and regime change."

With the DNC hack, an FBI agent first noticed the suspicious activity earlier this year. He called the DNC and was transferred to a help desk. His calls went ignored.

It took several months before the DNC realized that it had been contacted by the FBI.

"To verify the authenticity of the FBI agent who said that he said who he said he was," Hodge said. "It's hard to believe, but that's the reality," Hodge said.

Trump has brushed off allegations that the Russian's were trying to boost his candidacy. He recently tweeted that unless you catch hackers in the act, it is hard to determine who's doing it, and he wondered why the issue was not brought up before the election.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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