The Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully to Russian hacking before the presidential election because they didn’t want to appear to be interfering in the election and they thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win and a potential cyber war with Russia wasn’t worth it, multiple high-level government officials told NBC News.
"They thought she was going to win, so they were willing to kick the can down the road," said one U.S official familiar with the level of Russian hacking.
The administration did take action in response to the hack prior to the election. In September, President Obama privately confronted Vladimir Putin about the hacks at the G-20 summit in China. He warned the Russian President of unspecified consequences if the hacks continued.
On Oct. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an unprecedented joint statement pointing the finger at Russia, saying hacks of U.S. political groups and individual politicians could only have been done with the authorization of "Russia’s senior most" officials and that its intent was to undermine the integrity of the election.
Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized the Obama administration for not being more forceful.
"I think it is a legitimate question and I think given the stakes at the national level the question deserves an answer," said retired Adm. James Stavridis when asked by NBC News about the level of the administration’s response. "In retrospect it certainly seems as though it was a mistake not to call the Russians sooner and respond to them in a very forceful way."
An administration official, in turn, criticized the news media for focusing more on the leaked documents than on the Russian covert operation that hacked into political entities to steal the documents.
Administration officials pointed out that the day the intelligence assessment was made public was the same day a tape was leaked revealing Trump’s lewd conversation with Billy Bush. Eleven days later, at an October press conference, Obama was not asked a single question about the Russian hacks.
"We used the same playbook we did with Sony," an administration official said, referring to the North Korean cyber attack on the Hollywood studio. The difference, he said, was that the media and the public was focused elsewhere.
A Shift in Position?
On Thursday morning, President-elect Trump joined in the criticism of the Obama administration, writing, "If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking , why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?"
Trump was no longer disputing, as he has for months, that Russia was involved. And his top transition aide, Anthony Scaramucci, went even further Wednesday night in an interview with MSNBC's Brian Williams.
"I don¹t think anybody thinks that you¹re wrong," he said of the NBC News report. "Our position right now is that we¹re waiting for more information. We reject the notion that people would cyber attack our institutions. We are very upset about it."
Scaramucci went on to suggest that Trump needed time to digest the intelligence.
"I wonder whether the tweet the president-elect sent out today is the beginning of his pivot, the beginning of his acknowledgement of the intelligence that Russia has been hacking our institutions," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Putin Did It
In an exclusive report Wednesday, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News they now believe with "a high level of confidence" that Putin became personally involved in the covert Russian campaign in October.
Two senior officials with direct access to the information say new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies, the officials said.
Putin's objectives were multifaceted, a high-level intelligence source told NBC News. What began as a "vendetta" against Hillary Clinton morphed into an effort to show corruption in American politics and to "split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn't depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore," the official said.
Ultimately, the CIA has assessed, the Russian government wanted to elect Donald Trump. The FBI and other agencies don't fully endorse that view, but few officials would dispute that the Russian operation was intended to harm Clinton's candidacy by leaking embarrassing emails about Democrats.
The latest intelligence said to show Putin's involvement goes much further than the information the U.S. was relying on in October, when all 17 intelligence agencies signed onto the joint ODNI/DHS statement attributing the Democratic National Committee hack to Russia.
Intelligence sources emphasize to NBC News that there is no evidence that Donald Trump collaborated behind the scenes with Putin or the Russians. A senior intelligence official also said that the possibility of Trump shifting his position on the hacks "will scare the bejesus out of the Kremlin."